Pain and Archaeology

This summer, for any number of reasons (some of which will become more clear later this week, I’ve been thinking about pain and how various forms of physical and mental pain (and various amounts of pain) shape how we think about what we do professionally.

As readers of this blog know, I’m working for the first part of the season on material from the site of Isthmia in Greece. This weekend, though, I took some time away from pots and databases and took a walk to visit a site that I published over 20 years ago: the forts that stood watch over the Corinthian Isthmus from Mt. Oneion.

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It was a lovely day for the walk with mild temperatures and overcast skies. And since some students accompanied us up the hill, we proceeded at a leisurely place visiting first the Venetian Wall and then the Late Classical to Hellenistic walls higher up on the slope.

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Unsurprisingly the wall was largely as we had left it in 2004 or so! There was some evidence for grazing and some evidence for a fire, but otherwise the sites were unmolested. 

I faired reasonably well on my hike up to the top of Mt. Oneion, but, predictably, I was met on the next morning by a swollen knee and some general aches and pains. It made me think a bit about how much archaeological work involves pain or, at best, mild physical discomfort. The perfect storm of the unpleasantness of travel, the need to subsist in uncomfortable (or at least different) surroundings, and the physical pain of walking in unfamiliar and rugged environments make archaeology an unforgiving field for the aging practitioner. Of course, I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t a slight feeling of accomplishment that I managed to walk up the hill and return without falling or without anything more than some mild discomfort. That said, the pain on Sunday morning reminded me that research and work in general is painful.

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For the rest of the weekend, as I nursed my slightly uncomfortable knee, I immersed myself in Isthmia notebooks and publications. This created another experience of discomfort. I’m finding it difficult to muster the mental energy necessary to untangle Isthmian stratigraphy and contexts and connect it consistently with datable material.

The more I reflect on this struggle, the more that I’ve come to realize that the mental (and almost intellectual pain) associated with the work (and I haven’t even started the writing part) is not only what distinguished archaeological “work” from more pleasurable tasks (and tasks less directly correlated with remuneration), but also what sets it apart from many other academic disciplines. While most of my colleagues in academia will attest that thinking, reading, and especially writing create pain (or at very least discomfort), archaeology (and its fellow field sciences: geology, biology and ecology, and so on) combines that with the pain of physical work (including travel, unfamiliar and often substandard working conditions, and so on).

While teaching and the gentle reading and writing that I do every day during the academic year is technically work inasmuch as I receive compensation, I feel like the work that shows physical and mental scars doesn’t start until I get into the field.  

One Comment

  1. Thanks for that. Very true, and rarely said out loud.


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