Leaving the Armchair: an Historian in the Field*

By Sarah Toye

*Please Note: no historians were harmed in the making of this field school.

As the sole historian in Saint Mary’s University’s 2016 field school, I was the butt of many a good-natured joke:

  • “This is what dirt looks like.”
  • “Have you ever used sunscreen?”
  • “It’s a good thing you’re finally getting some vitamin D.”

I didn’t mind the jokes, even when I suspected the archaeologists would intentionally get dirt on me. The main reason I didn’t mind – aside from my excellent sense of humour – was because they were essentially right; I was completely out of my element. But I find myself leaving the field school and returning to my historical work with a lot of experience and new skills under my belt, as well as a newfound love and respect for the discipline and the people who dedicate their lives to it.

toye 1

My first artifact find.

I confess that I harboured a reductive and stereotypical image of archaeologists before the field school. I was under the impression that they used historians’ work to pinpoint a place to dig then handed over the information to historians from which they could make their conclusions. I have now realised not only the colossal amount of work and insight that goes into finding a site and the scholarly work that follows, but also the sheer physical demand of the digging itself. The dedication that is required for someone to condemn themselves to a life of road trips, constant visits to Tim Horton’s, back pain, blisters, sun burns, bruises, dirt, ticks (I doubt I will ever be completely okay with needing tick-checks), long hours and good old fashioned physical exhaustion is stunning.

toye 2

Getting down and dirty cleaning up the profiles of one of the sites.

Archaeologists, or “adventure historians” as I have taken to calling them, are some of the most passionate academics I have ever encountered. It requires true devotion to commit one’s self to a field that requires work in a literal field, always with the possibility of doing all that work and not finding anything. While pouring over books and computer screens for hours, days, weeks (months..years…) can be disagreeable, it does not quite compare. There’s certainly that feeling of excitement and euphoria as an historian when one finds the perfect quote or source, just the thing to tie all one’s work together; but it does not have the same poignancy as the feeling of physically revealing the artifact, of releasing it from the darkness with one’s own hands. Of being the first person to hold it, to see it, since its original use. Looking around that wide open field and taking a moment to marvel at the miracle that of all the test pits in all the fields in all the world, that ceramic sherd walked into mine. Three inches over, it would have remained buried in the bowels of the seemingly endless amount of clay and slate under Nova Scotia.

I have been lucky in my historical experience: academically, professionally and personally.  I spent a considerable portion of my youth at my grandmother’s house in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which was built in 1860 and has been in my family for over a century. I grew up hearing stories of Laura Secord as we drove past the river, past the statue of Alfred (Isaac Brock’s horse), Laura’s own house and as we arrived at our Victorian farm cottage where the shelves were stocked with cannon balls, musket balls, arrowheads and flints that the plough had turned up in the early 20th century. This upbringing may have something to do with my later work as a military interpreter at the Halifax Citadel, where I was a walking, talking, rifle-firing history exhibit. It is only since I started dabbling in archaeology that I was truly struck by how much history has informed my entire life, and how that history has been inseparable from the tangible experience of objects, places and actions. The field school allowed me to indulge in what I now recognise as an intrinsic appreciation for material culture.

toye 3

One of these is not like the others. (Hint: it’s me, the historian)

I joined the field school because it had never seriously occurred to me to pursue archaeology. It had always been that unrealistic dream job that everyone secretly wants but knows can never happen. In this regard, I come away with two things: first, I love archaeology. Second, my heart truly lies with history. In the many things we did over the course of the month, my favourite was pouring over old maps and journals, battling with 18th-century vocabulary, cross-referencing and, of course, the lightning bolt. I think all scholars have experienced this lightning bolt at least once. It’s that feeling when your mind is awash with questions, images and ideas, and suddenly the almighty lightning bolt shoots through you and everything immediately melds into one, perfect idea. It’s as if the puzzle pieces were there the whole time and finally you can see the complete image instead of bits and pieces that don’t make any sense separately. In history this often arrives in the form of a thesis statement. In archaeology it sometimes arrives as an object that actually has to be physically reassembled like a puzzle.

Essentially what I just said is that I prefer to be in the armchair. While that is true, in fact truer than when I began, I now appreciate the sense of wholeness that comes with archaeology. For a single project we began with the standard historian work (the journals and maps) to establish our location based on the historical record, actually went there, dug a few trenches, found some artefacts, and then analyzed them in the lab. As an historian I would have ended at step one. Some dedicated historians make their way to the place or object that they’re studying, but that is usually as far as it goes. I should have realised, based on my personal background, the value of ground-truthing and handling the artefacts.

toye 4

Repairing a shell-edged pearlware plate rim in the lab.

Objective history does not exist; everything we see is through a lens: the lens of our own perspective, of the perspective of historical figures who compiled our now-primary sources, of past historians. Therefore, what we are truly studying is the history of the human experience. That is what archaeology offers to an historian; inserting one’s self into that historical experience. Standing in that field by the river, suddenly that odd point on the map is a ruined wharf. That slight incline that didn’t show up on the map would be a perfect place for a house. Old-timey people were still people, and having the opportunity to study them by sharing an experience across time is priceless, and perhaps the greatest lesson and insight that I received in my archaeological venture.  Archaeology has reaffirmed my love of history while simultaneously expanding my understanding of it.

One thing that is vastly different from my work as an historian, and one thing that I certainly could do without, is the sisyphean nature of excavation. After dedicating days or weeks of effort into meticulously excavating a site with a tiny trowel, almost always the archaeologist must then do the cursed backfilling. It is thuggish, back-breaking work that seems to go against every pillar of archaeology, yet is a fundamental aspect of it. There is no equivalent in history. Books that have been returned to libraries and colleagues can be retrieved, writing can be saved and backed up repeatedly and notes can be safely stored for future reference. There is the occasional tragedy of a lost file or notebook, but never intentionally. There is no moment when an historian has to undo their work. While I personally am quite content to avoid that aspect of archaeology, its existence magnified my already growing respect for archaeologists – bearing the emotional (and physical) pain that comes along with backfilling, especially when one has not reached sterile soil and the potential for discovery remains – it feels like lighting my thesis on fire.

As troubled as I was by the horrors of backfilling, I am immensely thankful for all of the experiences I had during the field school. I’m grateful for the archaeologists who accepted me as an outsider and welcomed my perspective as an historian. In that, I think, is another reward that I reaped this month: interdisciplinary perspective. Whether I end up pursuing archaeology or not, I cannot overstate the value of a fresh perspective – especially in a field such as history. With these opportunities to expand my knowledge of things like GIS and other software, material culture, spatial thinking and ground-truthing, I am excited to approach my Master’s thesis with a new mindset and a new set of tools. I believe what I have glimpsed here is the future of historical study. I am unwilling to give up my armchair entirely, but perhaps I will consider exchanging my slippers for a pair of boots every now and then.

Sarah Toye recently completed her MA in history, titled “Beware the Women: the Depiction of Anglo-American Female Pirates in Popular Culture, 1721-1995,” at Dalhousie University.


About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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1 Response to Leaving the Armchair: an Historian in the Field*

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of August 20, August 27, and September 3, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

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