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In some disciplines, heavy drinking is part of the culture. That can be a problem

Archaeologists have a saying: “The real conference happens at the hotel bar.” When Barbara Little helped organize meetings of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in the late 1980s, she recalls, the group would issue specific instructions to hotels: “You need way more beer than you think.” The venues would assure organizers that they were prepared. “Hotels think they know,” continues Little, who is now an eminent program manager at the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. “And they don’t! So many meetings have literally run out of beer.”

In some ways, things haven’t changed since that time: Drinking still plays a distinctive role in the culture of archaeology. Holding your own is “a badge of honor,” says Trish Fernandez, who runs a cultural resources management company in Fair Oaks, California. Some archaeologists take home-brewing so seriously that they attempt ancient recipes, and for the past few years an unofficial craft-brew “beer swap” at the SAA annual meeting has brought connoisseurs together to rekindle old friendships and start new ones.

But some archaeologists express ambivalence about the drinking in their profession. The centrality of the bar excludes people—pregnant archaeologists, people whose religious beliefs prohibit alcohol consumption, people in recovery, or people who simply don’t want to be around heavy drinking—as archaeologist Bill White explored in three revealing essays after the 2017 meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology. “[T]hose who do not participate are somewhat alienated,” writes White, who is now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “Many of us believe if you don’t hang, it proves you can’t hang. And, if you can’t hang, you’re not worth knowing.”

Being around alcohol in professional settings is all but inescapable, in archaeology and beyond. Across disciplines, drinks are frequently offered as a social lubricant and to help conference attendees unwind after a long day of lectures. Learning the unwritten guidelines about its use is an important part of professionalization. So is understanding your own needs and limits, acknowledging that what works for you might not be the best option for someone else, and making efforts to ensure that the culture isn’t excluding people or discouraging diversity. 

A level field?

Many field sciences are grappling with ways that their cultures maintain the status quo and limit access and advancement for those who don’t easily fit in the existing mold. Getting to the heart of these intertwined issues means going beyond conferences. These gatherings, archaeologists say, are extensions of the field.

An anonymous post on the Anthropologist Confessions Tumblr sums up the extreme drinking culture that can exist at field sites: After drinking with a professor and vomiting the next morning, “Anonymous” dug valiantly through a hangover. “When I had finished my professor looked at me and said, ‘Now you’re a real archaeologist.’” The attitude that dominates the discipline, says Little, who spent more than 35 years in the field as an archaeologist, “is, like, the macho-cowboy, hard-drinkin’, ‘I’m an academic but really I’m a cowboy’ kind of nonsense.”

Exposure to this culture and its accompanying expectations starts early: Undergraduate archaeology students usually must attend field schools ranging from a few weeks to a semester long, sometimes abroad, where they get hands-on experience excavating and working with professors, postdocs, and grad students. When it comes to the drinking age, field schools are supposed to follow the laws and customs of the country in which they’re situated—which can mean that students not of legal age back home may suddenly find easy, legal access to alcohol. The more remote the site, the more likely it is that someone, perhaps a teaching assistant, will be in charge of keeping the cooler stocked. Some digs are officially “dry,” but people often figure out a way to drink anyway. If the dig is within commuting distance of a local watering hole, there’s nothing to prevent people from leaving the site and drinking on their own time.

Evenings spent sipping a beer while swapping stories under the stars can be valuable bonding opportunities, says Stephen Brighton, an associate professor at the University of Maryland in College Park who runs a field school in rural Ireland. After a day of physically demanding work, a celebratory beer can just feel right—though Brighton adds that no one should feel they have to drink to be included. He likens the dynamic to the role of the pub in the communities he studies. Everyone goes to the pub, even if they don’t drink. A field school, he says, is the same: “It’s always a village. It’s always a community.”

First and foremost, though, Brighton and other experienced field school leaders emphasize, safety is—or at least should be—paramount. “There’s a myriad of different ways of hurting yourself” in the field, Brighton says. That means that he has a “zero tolerance” policy about alcohol and drug use on site during working hours.

Safety also means promoting access to education for all students. “That’s a big change,” Brighton says of the 2 decades he’s been in the field. Archaeology “used to be a very serious sort of masculine old boys’ club.”

Little experienced this when she was an active archaeologist in the ’70s. She didn’t drink in the field; the feminist movement nudged her to go against the grain. But there was “an expectation that women would drink because that’s what archaeologists did, and if that’s what you wanted to be, that’s what you had to do,” she says. “There was definitely this sort of ‘women competing to be men’ kind of thing.”

Even today, female archaeologists achieve seniority in a culture established by men many years ago, and on many digs there’s an unspoken competitiveness—regardless of gender—about both moving dirt and surviving wicked hangovers. Referring to working and drinking alike, Fernandez says that as a woman, “you really have to be able to hold your own, because you never really are one of the guys.”

Nonetheless, the field has moved toward gender parity, and even beyond in some respects. These days, archaeologists observe, many sites are directed and staffed mostly by women, and according to the American Anthropological Association, women have earned about 57% of all archaeology doctorates in the United States since 1987.

Brighton says that has come to mean that “there’s an expectation of respect for everyone,” which includes freedom from harassment. In the age of #MeToo, people often casually connect alcohol consumption to sexual harassment and assault. Heavy drinking may provide the context for some, even many instances of harassment. But saying that harassment is caused by drinking allows us to ignore other factors and even to excuse harassment by saying boundaries become cloudy under the influence, when the reality is that harassment can and does occur when everyone is sober.

Options on the table

Most archaeologists avoid talking about alcoholism, though many say they know individuals who drink too much—they’re the ones tottering at every conference. Yet the standard for “problem drinking” is fairly high. Like many people, archaeologists distinguish levels of addiction, acknowledging that some people might be “functional” but not “raging” alcoholics. A common line of thinking is that as long as you can do the work and don’t violate the law, what you do off-hours is your business.

That sort of informal diagnosis is typical of professionals, says Niki Kiepek, an assistant professor in the School of Occupational Therapy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, who studies substance use. When drinking is the norm, telling someone you’re having trouble controlling your use can seem like a moral failure and a violation of a professional code of conduct, she says. Not only can you feel like a bad person, you might also feel like a bad archaeologist. You might even fear for your job. In other words, the taboo against seeking help can be strong.

Substance use is an individual choice, but it takes place in a specific context, which means that any diagnosis of abuse should also take into account what Kiepek calls systemic factors. Understanding what kind of substance use is taken for granted—whether it’s coffee that fuels conference breakfasts or beer that loosens up receptions—can help professionals think about colleagues who might be “relying on those substances,” she says.

Kiepek suggests that organizations gather anonymized data on substance use and share it with members. For those who fear they have problems with their use, just knowing a certain percentage of fellow professionals also report problems “normalizes it a bit, or it contextualizes it,” she says, “so then that person doesn’t feel alone.”

As White writes, individuals can also contribute to improving a professional culture by simply being sensitive to personal boundaries other archaeologists might have about alcohol consumption. “[W]e don’t all have to drink. Respect the decisions of other people. Don’t be a peer pressuring a**hole.”

When it comes to the field culture, some attribute the heavy drinking to the monotony of the work—sometimes you dig all day and come up with nothing. But Laura Heath-Stout, a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University who went on her first dig when she was all of 15 years old, points out that there are many other ways to bond and have fun, regardless of the setting. When she spent a year in college living in substance-free housing—she had gotten sick of the “constant partying” on campus—“we were not bored,” she says of her housemates. “We watched movies, we played games, we played music, a bunch of us were really into folk dancing, we cooked. We did lots of stuff. It was not like nothing was going on.”

Some archaeologists are choosing to find alternatives to the typical alcohol-fueled networking. Social media has changed the landscape of scientific research—several people I spoke with mentioned that they had found collaborators on Twitter and kept in touch with colleagues on Facebook. Meeting up for coffee instead of beer isn’t unusual, though the hotel Starbucks has yet to replace the bar as the center of face-to-face interaction.

In professional settings, Heath-Stout says, “I do enjoy having a beer with people”—including at the SAA beer swap—but within reasonable limits. Most importantly, she counsels, “Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean that you have to. … It’s just about finding your people.”

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