I’m an archaeologist in my day job.
Now, I get that most people are fascinated by this.
I also suspect that most non-archaeologists think Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Mummy are accurate depictions of what we do.
(HINT: they are not).
And, I also suspect that certain parts of the world missed out on watching 20 seasons of Time Team (hello, USA), which at least had real archaeologists doing real archaeology – albeit sexied-up for tv.
Let me tell you something.
When it comes to writing fiction, 90% of writers get archaeology WRONG.
I’m not talking a little bit wrong, I’m talking Doberman-ripped-up-the-sofa wrong.
So, I’ve written the top 9 mistakes I see writers making about archaeology, with tips for how you can EASILY fix this with a few simple clicks.
1. Pass me a Sexy Pyramid
In books, archaeology is all about temples and pyramids.
One moment, the archaeologist is in the Honduran jungles checking out a dig at a Mayan pyramid, NEK MINUTE they’re in the Valley of the Kings or in Greece, digging up lost temples.
And worse, they’re experts on it all.
Experts on writing systems, clothing styles, architectural styles, skeletal remains, broken pots, weapons, heck even the random Tudor-period brass button that’s fallen into someone’s soup.
That sexy babe in the book KNOWS IT ALL.
There are actually two mistakes here, but for the sake of not taxing my braincells, I’m cramming them into one place.
First. It’s NOT ALL ABOUT THE FREAKING PYRAMIDS or LOST MAYAN TEMPLES.
Archaeology is about humanity’s past.
It’s about everything from the burnt remains of a Neolithic feast (including the charcoal – ESPECIALLY THE CHARCOAL!), through to evidence of the first domestication of dogs in Turkey or on the Siberian tundras.
If people lived, worked or played there and left some kind of evidence behind archaeology is the discipline that studies that evidence.
Enough with the bloody temples and pyramids.
The places that archaeologists learn most about the past are often cesspits (yes, we have dug up ancient poo), drains and rubbish dumps.
Indiana Jones and the Radish King’s Bogger.
Secondly, we are SPECIALISTS. I’ll say a little more about this below, but here’s the shizz:
I specialise in human remains and Aboriginal archaeology.
I can tell you whether the bone you dug up is from a roast dinner or it’s someone’s humerus.
I can (usually) tell you whether those human remains are a traditional Aboriginal burial, or we need to call in the police forensics team.
And, I can tell you the difference between a rock and a stone knife, whether a scar on a tree is from wood rot or is the result of Aboriginal people making a canoe.
I know fuck all about pyramids, Roman mosaics, or Indus Valley iconography.
I did not study it at university. In fact, classical archaeology wasn’t even offered where I did my MA.
Most archaeologists are like this.
We write our PhDs or Master’s theses on a VERY. SPECIFIC. TOPIC.
We are employed in VERY. SPECIFIC. KINDS. OF. JOBS.
Writers be like: ARCHAEOLOGIST! I’ve watched Raiders. I’ve watched The Mummy.
Let me write a Sexy Female Archaeologist character who’s an expert on Mayan Pyramids, ancient Greek vases and Bronze Age swords. And, in Book 3, she’s into Navaho rock art.
GIVE. ME. A BREAK.
Please, stop this.
Archaeology is not just massive ancient monuments and archaeologists are not experts on everything.
2. Digging shit up
In books, archaeology is all about digging shit up.
There are trenches and holes. Occasionally, the author had a little think about safety and ‘roped the holes off’.
What we rarely see is any acknowledgement that digging shit up is essentially destroying the site.
Archaeologist finds partially uncovered marble forearm of Zeus flipping Hera the bird and a dig starts.
The soil and the whole area in which the statue is buried are part of the site.
In other words, you start digging up shit, you are essentially destroying the site.
Now, a real archaeologist knows this.
This is why you’ll see us taking photos with scales, drawing site plans and sketches, recording every step of the dig.
We are ACCURATE. We set up local datums to take measurements, we take GPS readings, we measure height and depth using total stations and dumpy levels.
We have photo logs, context logs, and an arcane, occult system called the Harris Matrix which drives non-histo archaeologists like me MAD.
We flag, tag and bag artefacts and know exactly where they were found.
But in fiction…an archaeologist digs a hole. Or supervises a ton of local workers digging holes.
There is no accuracy. No taking of photographs or measuring. Hell, there’s not even a bloody string line to make sure you dig your frigging pit straight.
So writers, lesson here.
If you want to write BELIEVABLE digs, let’s have some grad students taking photos, using a dumpy level, drawing a site plan in passing detail.
And for the love of god, use some fucking string lines to keep your fictional pits and trenches straight.
3. Huh? No Sieves?
It’s not just the accurate recording of a dig that writers forget.
There’s one critical part of a dig that 98% of writers seem completely unaware of.
In fact if this detail appears in a novel, it’s usually because the writer is, umm, actually an archaeologist (Beverly Connor, for example).
What is this magical missing link?
If you dig shit up, the spoil that comes out of the ground needs to be sieved.
If you’re finding artefacts as you dig, chances are that the dirt that comes out of the holes will contain artefacts, too.
No sieves. No thought to the dirt coming out of the hole at all.
C’mon guys. The missing MAGIC STONE OF MIGHTY GREEN FARTS is in Test Pit 3, Spit 4’s spoil.
You need to sieve or you ain’t never gonna find it.
4. Do Your Own Research
In books, magically, archaeologists just find shit.
You know, like that time I was just casually hacking my way through the jungle with my machete that never gets blunt and yep!
One-hundred and ten million square kilometres of Honduran rainforest and I just happened to find an undiscovered Mayan Pyramid, first time lucky.
In fact, I DO IT EVERY TIME!
Drop a pin on a map and in a book an archaeologist will find an ancient monolith.
Here is me slamming my head into a desk:
Writers: We just don’t rock up somewhere and start digging.
We do research before we go into the field.
We look at any other archaeological investigations in the area, we look at landforms (hills, valleys, creeks etc), we look at soils, we look at geology, and most of us also look at aerial photographs.
In other words, we get an idea of the places where sites are likely to occur before we go into the field.
We also get an idea of what archaeology is commonly found in an area, so when we find, say, a giant iron broadsword and a Viking funeral ship in the Simpson Desert, we know it’s going to re-write Australia’s prehistory entirely.
Either that, or one of the research assistants is into Medieval reenactment and got tired of lugging their fave sword about. Oh, and they just got bored and built a ship, too.
Writers: Stop presenting digs/archaeological sites as if they just pop into the landscape via the time-space continuum or some friendly Dungeon Master’s hand.
Include a nod at research, please. It’s actually how we know where to dig.
Which brings me to the OTHER missing part of EVERY. FREAKING. FICTIONAL. ARCHAEOLOGICAL. DIG.
5. Where The Fuck is Your Survey?
Why do writers NOT know about archaeological surveys?
That’s where we go out and WALK AROUND, looking at the landscape and asking the questions: Do I need to dig here? and if so, Where should I dig?
Oh, see that sand dune next to a creekline surrounded by River Red Gums and Black Box Trees?
In certain parts of Australia, I can almost guarantee there will be Aboriginal burials there.
In fact, when I WALK OVER THERE, I will find that rabbits have dug up some poor bugger’s radius and mandible.
Before ANY digging takes place, we do an archaeological survey. In fact, 70% of the archaeology done in Australia is foot surveys.
No ifs, no buts. We survey.
Writers: let’s murder this darling – archaeology is NOT JUST DIGGING.
PLEASE: Can we see more Sexy Female Archaeologists doing field surveys?
Now, whist I’m still riled up, let me have HARSH words with you about another pet hate:
6. Archaeologists are NOT Linguists
Why is it that nearly every fictional archaeologist and certainly every movie archaeologist speaks EVERY SINGLE ancient and not-so-ancient language? All 1573 of them?
HEAR. ME. NOW: Archaeologists are not linguists.
Most of us do not learn ancient Greek, Latin, hieroglyphics, Mayan, Toltec, Ming Dynasty Mandarin, or Aramaic.
And if we do learn one, we do not know fifty dead languages.
We can’t just waltz into the British Museum, pull out a random parchment and start translating.
Linguists do language. Classics scholars also do language.
Archaeologists generally do not.
STOP DOING THIS: If you have Mayan temples and then Ancient Greek villas, chances are you need to write another scholar into your story.
Dan Brown does this really, really well. So does Matthew Reilly.
They sell LOTS OF BOOKS.
Learn from them.
7. The Illuminati or Who’s Paying My Wages
Now get cosy, because we need to talk.
In books, archaeologists are employed by two kinds of organisation:
- Universities (good)
- A super-secret government antiquities department/private artefact hunters/occult secret society (bad).
In REAL LIFE, archaeologists are employed by (in this order):
- Archaeological consulting firms (most of us in Australia and the UK)
- Government heritage regulators
- Museums (like about 2% of us).
Read that second list again.
Neither the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group nor the Australian intelligence service’s TOO-SECRET-TO-FOR-YOU-PLEBS special branch have ever called me or any of my colleagues up, offering us a job.
Fact is, most of the work we do is part of a government development approvals process.
BEFORE Mr Gucci Suit Developer can get his tick of approval to subdivide YET ANOTHER five acres into 300 matchbox-sized housing lots, the law says he must have Aboriginal or historical heritage assessment report.
And archaeologists write those reports.
I am one of those archaeologists
In fact, this is what 80% of archaeologists in places like Australia and the UK do. We work for private heritage consulting companies.
So maybe the Woop Woop Shire Council wants to lay bitumen on 70 kilometres of dirt road next to the Darling River. There will be Aboriginal archaeological sites.
Lots of them.
Woop Woop Council needs a heritage assessment done to tell them how to avoid those sites, or to come up with a way to find them, map them and then have them moved by local Aboriginal people.
Notice in the two examples above, there was no mention of the Illuminati recruiting archaeologists? Or that the Too-Secret-For-You-Plebs special branch of ASIO were not involved?
As sexy as this might be for you, dear writer, to have the Illuminati employing your archaeologist, it’s not how we work.
In other words, STOP WITH THE CLICHES!
No more Illuminati. They do not pay our wages.
8. Gunfight With a Trowel
In books, apparently, the only tools archaeologists use are trowels and the occasional brush.
Range pole? Nope.
Tape measure? Nope.
Shovel? Do not make me laugh.
I have news for you.
We use all the tools.
Crow-bars, shovels, coal-shovels, mallets, picks, augers and in some cases, we have excavators to help us dig.
Archaeology is a tech-heavy discipline.
Please dear writer, learn about the tools we use and include them in your books.
Which brings me to the next mistake.
The HOLY FREAKING GRAIL of mistakes.
I hope your editor or at least your own Googling hurls this back at you and smacks you in the head.
For the love of all that is unholy, ARCHAEOLOGISTS DO NOT DIG UP DINOSAURS.
In case you missed it the first time: archaeologists do not dig up or study dinosaurs.
Palaeontologists dig up dinosaurs.
How to NOT Make These Mistakes in Your Book
Easy. ASK an archaeologist.
Go to Twitter or Instagram. Search for the hashtags #archaeology and #archaeologylife.
Find an archaeologist, tell them you’re a writer and you want to get this right.