What follows is a bit personal and not the sort of thing that I had envisioned posting here, but if I continue using this space, the content of my contributions is going to shift substantially and I want to be open about the process.
I began writing this blog as a way of giving myself a creative outlet and a place to work through exciting potential research ideas–something to occupy my mind whilst RSI and often severe, undiagnosed pain “in the category of endometrial disorders” wreaked havoc on my mental health and confidence.
“It’s a loss to the discipline.” my former line manager had said, a little more flippantly than I was prepared for. “Sorry?” I fumbled for words to respond and feigned confusion to hide my discomfort. “Well, it’s a loss to you personally as well, of course.” I adjusted my glasses and blinked, stage business whilst I tried to come up with a justification, an excuse, a joke, anything. “I’m sorry.” I repeated, and then added: “Maybe it’s time to do something else.” He was silent, distracted by text messages on his phone. I mumbled a farewell and left my former line manager’s office. I was unemployed, and had reached the end of an 18-month effort to obtain funding through a well-known UK medical history charity. I had fallen at the final hurdle: the interview. My chances of success, in the words of my handler, were supposed to be fairly good. I prepared extensively, making use of networks of helpful colleagues and investing a large amount of time in solidifying my knowledge of anything I thought would be relevant. I had a large interdisciplinary committee of academics at the University where I intended to undertake the research who were prepared to support me. Colleagues in more secure positions warned me against over-preparing.
The room had been bone-chillingly cold, the massive courtroom-like panels on three sides full of historians (and a single archaeologist) trying to look friendly. I knew the archaeologist. He asked me questions about my equipment. I responded, a little surprised at the simplicity of the query. I answered questions from others about different aspects of the research and felt reasonably confident in my responses–after all, I had successfully tested the research concept in practice. One reviewer at an earlier stage of the process had embarassingly described me as an “exemplary candidate.” I had full permission to collect all the necessary data. Every bridge had been built, I just needed to pay my rent for the time it would take for me to cross them. One of the historians asked me if I read Latin. My shock must have been evident. As a palaeopathologist, I use Latin terms and nomenclature, I have used translations and reception studies, I have asked experts to do translations for specific pieces of work, but no, I do not read Latin. I said (truthfully), that I did not but that someone on my committee at my intended institution did and that there would be training courses available to me. The interviewer raised their eyebrows in an almost comically unimpressed fashion. After months of kindness and personal handling by representatives of this funding body, I received a formal e-mail rejection to the effect of: “Good luck with your proposal elsewhere! We’ll send your comments through by (date).” Elsewhere? This proposal had been shaped over a year and a half by the requirements of a funder with very specific expectations and a clear remit. It was laughable. The promised critique of my performance came three weeks late and consisted of: You weren’t critical enough of archaeology; And: We don’t think you can do the historical side of the research. In my mind I heard: You don’t read Latin.
I normally bounce back from rejections fairly quickly. I sometimes take a day or two to be grumpy or upset, but, like with reviewer’s comments on a journal article, I will at least partly come around to their perspective and try again.
I didn’t bounce.
So. It’s good news, bad news time.
The good news is that I have work. The bad news is that I, personally and professionally, must change–a lot–to do it.
The good news is that I am doing something productive, engaging, and challenging, with the potential to shape a project with truly enormous capacity for social good. The bad news is that it means an end to my career as an archaeologist of any traditionally-recognised subdiscipline.
The good news is that I am paid fairly, treated with respect, get to research incredibly interesting ideas, am stared at in complete bewilderment at least weekly (ah, satisfaction), and can contribute something useful to most situations I encounter. The bad news is that I don’t get to teach or mentor any students or colleagues, have very little to do with any form of public engagement or speaking, and there’s no chance of fieldwork, which is a pity. I miss it.
I have been “doing archaeology” for fifteen years–not so long, compared to many. Once, a team I was working on invited the Director to examine a spectacular, complete, painted hand-built pot we found in situ. Overlooking the vessel, the Director spotted a tiny sherd of Roman pottery some distance away and moved past the complete pot to an adjacent unit. “Is that ARS?!?” they exclaimed with uncontained excitement, failing to note the disappointment on my unit leader’s face. Another team member leaned over and whispered: “You can take the man out of the former empire, but you can’t take the former empire out of the man.”
Archaeology is my “former empire” now, in countless ways that inform my work. My ability to think, both concretely and in abstraction, about timescales, humans and non-humans, perceptions, context upon context, communities, and relationships between ideas appears to be a bit of a rarity amongst those I regularly interact with in my new line of work. I may not read Latin, and I may have let down my original discipline, but I am now valued for other capabilities. If nothing else, I will see where this goes.
Perhaps I can write more about it here in the future.