Remember when you saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for the first, or seventh, time and thought that being an archaeologist would be the coolest job in the world?
The phone rings and scares me out of my billing-review concentration. I spill coffee all over my desk. “Fuck. Now what?”
I am a Consulting Archaeologist. And despite wanting to believe, wishing to believe, that being an archaeologist is cool, I’m here to tell you it isn’t.
“Elise Marquette speaking,” I answered as I reached for the box of tissues I kept at my desk.
If you’re a die-hard fan, you’ll remember the part where Indy is teaching, in the classroom; you know the one place he is most uncomfortable. He hates paperwork. Welcome to my world.
“This is Jim from Mountain Oil. You did an assessment for us a couple weeks ago.” I nodded into the phone as I mopped up coffee.
“Yeah, Jim. How can I help you?”
“I just got some paperwork here from the government. It says, or I think it says, that we need to do some more work at the well site.”
I pulled Mountain Oil’s file from under the stack that didn’t get drenched in coffee, and flipped it open. I scanned the fax that I’d thrown in a few days ago. “Yes, you’re right, Jim. The government is requiring additional investigation before you can drill your well.”
“Isn’t there some other way? I’ve got a rig standing by. This is costing me money.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose and breathed. “Actually, you got off easy: I recommended 20 square metres of excavation, while the government is only requiring 10.”
“How much is this going to cost me?” Jim hadn’t died or fainted.
“If you want it done sooner, it’ll cost you more because it’s still winter. It’s cheaper if you wait until spring.” Not like I’d be getting more money, just my company. Jim signed off. I just sighed, popped an Advil into my mouth and went in search of another coffee.
In this respect, Indiana Jones and I have something in common. A dislike of paperwork. However, it may be the only thing we have in common. I don’t own a whip or a gun, I don’t wear a fedora, I don’t have seemingly unlimited funds to travel around the world in search of religious relics that I think are best preserved in a museum somewhere. My preferred weapon of choice is a shovel, my hat is an elephant-can-crap-it-out-and-I-can-still-wear-it-indestructible Tilley, and I almost always don’t have enough money in my pinched budget to do the things I have to do, forget about doing the things I want to do.
Indiana Jones worked for a university. He was paid by the university and was backed by the wonderful Marcus, who worked at a museum. I work for a private consulting company who is paid by oil and gas companies. Why? Because it is the law in Alberta that any oil and gas development that disturbs the ground must be at least screened for potential historic resources. If this was not law, there would be no archaeological consulting companies in Alberta, and probably no historic resources.
Cam grumbled. “No, Cam, it’s okay. Leave the generator in the truck. The cord will reach.” Cam abandoned his efforts at unloading the 50 lbs generator from the back of the truck. We’d driven across the frozen prairie to the area Mountain Oil had staked out for their proposed well pad. There was no snow, but it was cold. And very frozen.
I plugged the jackhammer into the generator. “Turn it on.” Cam, already sweating from exertion even though it was minus 22 degress Celsius today, yanked on the pull-start. The generator fired and my ears went numb.
Very soon, my ears weren’t the only numb part of my body.
Cam started yelling something. I shut off the jackhammer, he shut off the generator. I’d managed to cut a square into the frozen ground. “Let me in with the shovel. I might be able to prise up the top.”
With much kicking and more sweating, Cam was able to flip the lid on our first shovel test of the day. I continued. By 1130, I’d managed to get about 25 centimetres of dirt out of the square hole. Cam was doing his best to pull apart the frozen pieces of dirt to look for stone artifacts. “Want to switch?” I asked. “I can’t feel my hands or arms.”
“Sure. I can’t feel my fingers, but I’m sweating buckets” Cam replied.
We managed to dig four shovel tests that day. The government required a minimum of eight. If this had been spring, we could have done twelve shovel tests in an hour. But, like most clients, they wanted it done NOW.
Did you ever see Indiana Jones actually dig, forget about digging with mosquitoes and ticks crawling into every crack of clothing so that you can scratch yourself bloody and blind in the middle of the night?
That was one other thing Indiana Jones and I don’t have in common. He was doing it for the love of it. Despite being shot at, chased by Amazonian, dart-spewing natives, poisoned by the Kali cult, hitching a ride in a fridge to escape a nuclear blast, Indiana Jones loved what he did and did it for the love of the artifacts he saved.
I, on the other hand, have been shot at, chased by a Hutterite in a tractor, poisoned by greasy oil sands camp food, and narrowly escaped the clutches of a tornado, a sour gas well blow-out, and a couple of delinquent grizzly bears. And I hated what I did. Why? There was no beaming, well-receiving Marcus to say, “Thanks for this Indy. The museum will be very , very grateful.” I never got the guy in the end, because there was no guy to get. There was only ever a cigarette-sucking, greasy-fingernailed, smelly rig pig at the end of my adventure. And there was no fulfillment at the end either, only a “Why are you over-budget?”, “Why did you sound-off at the client?”, and “Why didn’t you find more artifacts?” Finally, there was no interest because, to me, every artifact was just a rock.
A month later, Jim from Mountain Oil called and asked why it was taking so long to get clearance to drill his well. I called the government. They were in the process of requiring Mountain Oil to do more investigation. I called Jim back. “Didn’t you dig enough? Why does there need to be more investigation? I’ve already forked out enough money on this.” For an oil company that made millions, a measly $20k really got their knickers in a knot.
Cam and I went out again in May. The frost had pretty much left and the ground was soft. We dug a couple one metre square excavation pits at the jackhammered shovel tests that were positive for stone artifacts a month ago. We also did some additional testing. The site, as it turns out, was small and our efforts in May provided the Historic Branch with enough of a sample to log the site.
Back at the office, once again, I called Mountain Oil with favourable results. Would they ever understand that if they’d only waited until spring they could have saved a butt-load of money and everyone’s time? Nope. Because the accountants and engineers who sit behind their warm desks only know that the clearances need to be obtained NOW. They don’t understand that fieldwork is performed by people. In the outdoors. Meanwhile, I’m stuck trying to tell these people that I can only effectively work from May through October. Which is another reason why I should be in Europe looking at dead people.
I am a physical anthropologist. My passion is dead people. It may sound morbid, but it’s my truth and instead of denying who I am, I decided back in undergrad to embrace it. Unlike Dr. Jones, I didn’t grow up wanting to be an archaeologist. I didn’t have a father who was obsessed with the Holy Grail. Hell, I didn’t know what I wanted to do except to escape my mother’s suffocating clutches. I liked getting dirty. She hated it. Initially, I wandered around the university taking courses to try to understand my mother. That eventually failed about the time I found anthropology and fell in love with human evolution. And, frankly, the only rocks I was even vaguely interested in were a few million years old and in Africa.
Back at the office, I wrote my report and talked to the folks at the Historic Branch of the government. “What did you find?” they asked.
“Oh, just some more rocks,” I tell them.
So, before I tell you I’m an archaeologist and you exclaim, “Cool!” please remember that movies aren’t real: the truth may be far more real than you could possibly handle.