Home > 2011 Posts > Graduate Student Slave Labor

Graduate Student Slave Labor

I like old stuff. Think: Roman Empire and before.

Etruscann City Gate in Volterra

A hunt for signs of the ancient Etruscans was my first official work in archaeology. As you may know, the Romans were launched on their way by the Etruscans, and Tuscany is what we now call the heart of ancient Etruria. Our job was to scour the area south of Sienna.

The formal name for this type of effort is Surface Survey. In the right place, at the right time, it’s one of the most enjoyable tasks in archaeology. Late-May near Siena counts as very enjoyable.

In a Surface Survey, a group of grad students and volunteers like me walk in a pattern across a patch of land, looking for anything that might be ancient debris. Newly plowed fields are best. Doing this with the owner’s permission is even better. But more about that in another post

Part of Our Surface Survey

On these long walks, you can find a lot of broken pottery pieces, called sherds. Sometimes you may also find a few pieces of glass and metal. You find more in a place where people once lived. Where they didn’t live, you find less. Mostly, you find lots of less.

Eventually though, you put the survey miles behind you. Then, when your team catalogs and analyzes its finds, you can draw a map that shows were people lived at different times in the past. The map helps the next team figure out where to look for a bunch of other ancient things that weren’t obvious before. Like irrigation and drainage works, roads, bridges, burial sites and other structures.

My 2,600 Year Old Find

For two reasons, I enjoyed my time on that survey much more than I thought I might. First, I found part of a 2,600 year old Etruscan vase in the garden of a huge villa. And, second, it was my initial exposure to the interesting sub-culture of archaeology graduate student slave labor.

As you may know, university professors can sometimes be a nasty lot. With iron-clad tenure, a deep, narrow area of expertise and an unshakable belief in their own omniscience, some professors’ skills with people can come up a bit short. This is especially true with regard to anyone they see as a lesser being. On the bottom two rungs in the Archaeological Hierarchy of Lower Life Forms are: paying volunteers and graduate students.

Professors heading an archaeology field team much prefer graduate students over paying volunteers This is because the students must always show obeisance and be sycophantic ego strokers to have any hope of survival. First-time volunteers on the other hand may labor under the wild delusion that they have paid for at least a modicum of respect and also for effective use of their time. In the students’ otherwise bleak servitude, watching this delusion ruthlessly exorcised from the volunteers offers the dark satisfaction of shared misery.

Team Mates Doing Serious Science

For this survey, our lead archaeologist was Her Imperial Highness, High Priestess of The Etruscan Gaia, Smiter of the Ignorant and Defender of the Progressive Faith, Ann. She was amazingly competent at the technical aspects of her subject, but treated all us lesser beings as simple, and usually defective, tools – in at least two senses of the word. Ann also viewed planning and team communication as annoying, unrealistic and pointless flights of fancy.

All that said, I look back on this first experience with archaeological field work as a very positive memory. My team mates were hard-working, conscientious and hilariously funny. The subject was fascinating and exciting. The locale and weather were beautiful. And, I expanded my understanding of human diversity into a realm I had never before known existed: the sub-culture of gradate student slave labor.

  1. TheBlackTwig
    March 18, 2011 at 8:05 am

    I’m a frustrated archaeologist. 😦
    And I love this post. 🙂

    • March 18, 2011 at 10:52 am

      What has been frustrating you?

      • TheBlackTwig
        March 18, 2011 at 5:31 pm

        Frustrated Archaeologist=meaning, it is one of my childhood dreams. And not being one is a frustration. 😀

      • March 19, 2011 at 9:14 am

        You and I feel very much the same, then. Since my faux ‘slave labor’ experience, I’ve chosen to dance along the satisfying peaks of different archaeology field team efforts but stay away from grinding in the dirt. It takes so many hours to turn up a Wow! moment, that I just can’t see spending them that way at this point in my life. There are too many other archaeological goodies out there to discover and devour! Archaeological photography has become the type of field work that most satisfies me. May you soon no longer be a frustrated archaeologist, but a delighted one!

  1. July 10, 2011 at 8:25 am
  2. January 13, 2012 at 8:50 am
  3. January 26, 2012 at 8:53 am

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