My journey into archaeology.
Since the CIfA Conference 2016, there have been some interesting and exciting developments following on from our session ‘Equality in an Archaeological Context’. One of these is the formation of a Facebook group called Enabled, which aims to provide advice and a community for those who are, or who wish to become, enabled within archaeology. The group is a closed group but is easy to join for all members of the archaeological community, whether you are in interested amateur, a student budding with potential, or an experience professional with heaps of advice to offer. If you would like to join, please get in touch with the groups organisers through Facebook or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What follows is the personal account of a career in archaeology and shows that archaeology can and should be open to all whatever your situation. We hope that this will inspire you all to join the new Enabled group and add your voice to the call for change. We would also like to thank Erik for sharing his story with the Equality and Diversity Group and hope you will share your stories too through either Twitter or Facebook.
My career as an enabled Archaeologist.
Description of the image: The image shows Indiana Jones as shown on the movie poster for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
When Raiders of the Lost Ark came to cinemas in 1981, I knew right then that I wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up. I was only seven, but I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. Well fast-forward another ten years and I was advised to stay well clear of that ‘terrible’ career choice. What I did not realise is that would start a chain of events that would ultimately lead me to my chosen profession.
The following years saw me try my hand at university, military service (which left me with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) that thankfully counselling helped sort out) and eventually IT (Information Technology), which brought me to the UK. Then in 2002, I suffered a terrible accident that saw my left leg shattered and left me with a lot of time on my hands to re-evaluate my life and the direction I was taking it. I knew it was time for a change. I tried my hand at various voluntary projects before deciding it was time to return to University and get a degree in archaeology; and in 2009, I started at the University of York, studying a degree in Historical Archaeology.
My time at York was fantastic, I can’t say enough positive things about the university, and how accommodating they were with me and my condition. Unfortunately that wasn’t to last. In November 2011, while in the midst of my third year, I took gravely ill and everything stopped. It was not until the following January that I was diagnosed as having a rare neurological condition (Arnold Chiari Malformation – type 1). That was when life essentially threw me under the bus. I had to leave York behind and with it my prospects of completing my third year. Eventually, after much consultation (!), I started on a new undergraduate degree at University College London. Everything was looking on the positive again, and then my funding ran out.
Image found at www.evanslangford.comsurvey-thames-foreshore-surroundings
Description of the Image: The image shows a person carrying out survey, with a total station, on the Thames Foreshore in central London.
Not one to be put off by setbacks, (after all if I had, I wouldn’t have gotten this far) I started sending out speculative CVs and covering letters to commercial units. I knew I had a place in archaeology and I would be damned if I’d let anything stand in my way of making that happen. It took a few months, but finally a commercial unit, PCA (Pre-Construct Archaeology), took a chance on me, hiring me on as a trainee archaeologist. It was plainly obvious at first that I was more of an exception than the norm, being a disabled field excavator, but I was able to prove myself and get a change in my contract thanks to a great supervisor who believed in me and my abilities. It was hard work, but it felt great to be doing it. I’ve worked in everything from nice stable sandy rural sites where the worst I had to worry about was how exposed the site was in a thunderstorm, to the Thames foreshore (with MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology)), where I was in knee deep mud and water with very unstable ground to work on. Due to the issues with my left leg, as soon as I get into muddy conditions I’m suffering. I have to fight my way through the pain and medicate as necessary, just to finish the day. In the case of the Thames foreshore work, I was virtually crippled by it.
MOLA Sugar Key. Copyright Erik De’Scathebury.
Description of the image: The image shows a deep urban excavation area and shows a shored area and muddy conditions. This image illustrates the working conditions, which can be encountered on some archaeological excavations. The site is a Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) excavation.
Most employers will try to put you on sites suitable to your disability, but that is not always possible. And things get far more complicated when you start dealing with the changeable environment of a deeply stratified city excavation. When you’re having to climb down multiple ladders to reach a ground surface that could be meters below street level, it instantly rules out some people from being able to do the job. When working on these sites, you can have intense air pollution, noise pollution and rapidly fluctuating pathways around site. I’ve been in situations where access to and from a section I was working in changed four times in one day. Each time getting more difficult to exit and navigate, only to come in the next day to find stairs had been put in. They were subsequently removed a few days later and we were left with ladders.
PCA Fenchurch Street. Copyright Erik De’Scathebury.
Description of the image: The image shows a large urban excavation area with large piles of rubble and construction debris across the area. The excavation it’s self is accessed via plank and scaffolding walkways and ladders, with some ramps for additional access. This image illustrates the access issues, which can be faced by enabled archaeologists whilst working on excavations.
Often it seems to be the construction firm that is more of an issue or worry than the archaeological unit. There are certain prejudices to overcome and there are times you will be seen as a liability or an inconvenience, such as when your project manager asks for changes to the site to make it easier for you to navigate. However, I would never try to discourage someone with a disability from trying to break into the commercial sector, as you do not have to be an excavator. There are roles across the whole breadth of the archaeological discipline. You just have to be vigilant, as they don’t come up very often. I personally do best when I have a variety of work to do, and the first company I worked for saw how best to utilise me. I did a combination of pre and post-excavation work, field excavation, machine watching briefs and even worked with trainees.
Unfortunately, I do get the impression from speaking to friends and colleagues, that I am more the exception than the rule. I only came across one other person who was contending with an “invisible disability” and we shared similar experiences in the workplace.
The Enabled group.
There needs to be a greater understanding of people with disabilities and the contribution they can make within archaeology. There is no one size fits all approach, nor should there be, as everyone is affected differently by their various health or medical conditions and can be enabled to do a number of jobs with little or no impact on the role they are providing. As a profession, we need to see past the perceived stigma of being disabled and simply see those colleagues as no more than a fellow archaeologist who may or may not have to use a few extra tools or implements to get the job done. This is why I think it is so vital that Theresa O’Mahony is recognised for what she is doing with her Archaeology For All page and Enabled group on Facebook. Knowing you are not alone and that others are going through similar things always makes it easier to cope, but more importantly, it helps raise awareness and understanding.
Description of the image: The Image shows three people holding hands while standing on puzzle pieces. A fourth person is reaching to join with the other three people. The image denotes support and unity, and is the logo of the Enabled Facebook Group.
I first met Theresa when I was studying at UCL, and it was clear she was driven by a desire to challenge the status quo and make a real difference in the profession. I know it wasn’t an easy road for her, and I’m glad she has stuck with it. After all, we need more people like her leading us down the path. While it is only early days with the Facebook page and group, it has been easy to see the positive effect it has had on the members, and their eagerness to contribute. I hope that in time, Enabled will bring together the entire profession, and its representing bodies, in such a way that it provokes thoughtful and constructive debates that eventually lead to barriers being withdrawn and an all-inclusive profession being developed.
What makes archaeology so great and fascinating is the people within it, and all their various quirks, interpretations and theories. Why should we limit that potential at the exclusion of a group that can provide equally valuable insight and contributions to the archaeological record? I would go so far as to say that our need to live life thinking outside the box to work around our disabilities gives us a unique and fresh perspective when it comes to archaeological issues and our participation can only make the profession that much more rich by our involvement.
This is what I hope for most, when I think about what Archaeology For All and Enabled can achieve – to be accepted as equals, and to be judged on our merits, not our supposed limitations. It is why I will continue to fight and will find my way back to my studies and finish what I started. I will add my voice to the challenge and my presence to the charge, and see it through to the very end.
PCA Team at Shornecliffe Garrison Folkeston. Copyright Erik De’Scathebury.
Description of the image: The image shows a group of 15 Archaeologists standing in font of a site cabin.
It is time for us to come in from the cold and join the community once and for all, and I look forward to the bright future we all have together.
Erik from Enabled
(The Equality and Diversity Group have endeavoured to cite all images used in this article but if we have not done so correctly please let us know and we will amend appropriately)