Sunday, May 15, 2011

Alcohol and archaeologists

I have always been curious about how archaeologists talk about alcohol. It seems like every archaeologist has more than a few heroic stories about how much beer or whiskey they or their colleagues drank at such and such a dig or while surveying such and such a valley. Not being much of a drinker myself, I admit being baffled by the exuberance with which archaeologists tell stories about how crew chief X used to clean the profiles of the excavation pit with a bottle of Jack Daniels by the end of the day (no slip twixt trowel and lip!). Or about how field director Y would drink his students under the table (then dance on top of the table) only to harangue them about their lack of pep four hours later at the beginning of the next work day. Many years ago, after overhearing a conference-goer say that he had drank so much the night before that “it was coming out of both ends,” a buddy and I considered embarking on a formal ethnographic study of the drinking habits of the tribe.

I first wondered whether there might be a discrepancy between how much archaeologists say they drink and how much they actually drink. I had always suspected such a discrepancy because I have never seen much drinking on any of the field projects of which I have been a part. Drinking was not absent—one project managed to get a bar (the “Cinnabar”) going in the middle of a Belizean jungle preserve—but even on projects where alcohol was customary—where workmen got shots of liquor each payday, for example—I rarely saw archaeologists have more than a couple drinks. Of course, the projects I have been on are not a representative sample of all archaeology projects. My sample of projects is heavily biased toward academic archaeology south of the border. But if we do restrict our discussion to academic archaeologists, could all the talk of heavy drinking really be anything more than talk? Let’s be honest: academic archaeologists rarely measure up to the stereotype of the heroic drinker. Like most people in academia, we’re an egg-headed bunch. Though many of us may be more outdoorsy than the average bench scientist or comp. lit. professor, does the competency, the assiduousness, and the work-through-the-weekend drive needed to succeed jive with the kind of personality that can sustain the epic benders with which archaeologists regularly regale each other? Some people can balance heavy drinking with heavy publishing, but I sure can’t.

At the same time, there is good reason to think that archaeologists may indeed drink a bit more than other academics. The only thing that anyone remembers about the SAAs in Vancouver was the high price of beer. The keystone case study of Shanks and Tilley’s Re-Constructing Archaeology was about beer cans. The same venues that host archaeology conferences often host meetings of political scientists, mathematicians, etc., but the venues’ experiences with these other breeds of geek have not always prepared them for the archaeologists, who often drink the hotel bars dry.

Fortunately, there is enough literature on the archaeology of alcohol to suggest several fruitful interpretations of archaeology with alcohol. The recent popularity of research on feasting in prehistory (Dietler and Hayden 2001; Bray 2003) has brought alcohol to the forefront of archaeological discussions of power and politics. I sometimes wonder if the fascination with feasting reflects the popularity of alcohol among archaeologists. Beyond feasting, archaeologists have investigated a wide range of topics concerning alcohol in the past. I mention just a few to bear witness to this breadth. Paul Shackel (2000) reports that brewery workers in 19th century Harpers Ferry drank the owner’s profits by abusing the free beer system (and raising the level of workplace injuries in the process). Beaudry et al. (1991) interpret hidden caches of bottles as a form of resistance to capitalist ideals of sobriety among factory workers in Lowell, MA. Among 19th century Asian migrants to North America, drinking helped maintain ethnic identity (Ross 2010). In Southwest Asia in the 2nd and 3rd millennia BC, drinking beer as opposed to wine accorded with low versus high status (Joffe 1998). In the Classical world, alcohol played a primary role in the colonial encounter between Romans and Gauls (Dietler 2006). There are ethnoarchaeologies of alcohol, ranging from studies of the style of pots in which beer is served (Bowser 2000) to studies of how it might have been brewed (Hayashida 2008). Ancient breweries have been excavated, including the remarkable locale in Hierakonpolis, Egypt, from the 4th millennium BC (Geller 1993). Scientific techniques for detecting alcohol as a residue on pottery are constantly advancing (e.g. Isaakson 2010) and pushing alcohol further back in time, with the earliest data coming from China in the 7th millennium B.C. (McGovern et al. 2004).

How can this broad literature illuminate all the drinking that archaeologists supposedly do? By the 1980s, scholarly opinion on drinking had shifted from alcohol as a destructive social and personal pathology to a constructive good that integrates social groups (e.g. Douglas 1987). But this line of thinking does not explain why drinking might be a diacritical marker of archaeologists specifically. It should come quickly to mind that drinking is an embodied practice, and the embodied experience of fieldwork involves not just working together but living together with other project members in variable conditions of deprivation, driving diggers to drink. Consumption at conferences becomes a ritualized reenactment of the field moment.

Yet I think we can go further, keying off Dietler’s (2006:232) point that alcohol as embodied material culture “has an unusually close relationship to the person and to both the inculcation and the symbolization of concepts of identity and difference in the construction of the self.” What one drinks, where they drink, when they drink, how they behave when drinking, who they drink with, what paraphernalia they drink with, how much they drink, how they handle themselves when drunk (“styles of inebriation”; Dietler, ibid), and how they discursively construct their drinking all play a role in the formation of identity. Though identity is multifaceted, I limit myself to professional identity. Getting and holding a job requires both technical competence and social competence: ethnographic research has documented that drinking can be a very important aspect of social competence, so much so that it is sometimes considered part of the job (Mars 1987:93). This finding makes sense of all the times people told me, when I began to do archaeology, that “you can’t be an archaeologist without drinking!?!” Of course, for archaeology, unlike the case of the longshoremen studied by Mars (1987), the statement that one can’t succeed in the profession without drink is patently false. Thus, for all the alcohol that archeologists do drink, there is still a symbolic supplement. I suspect this discursive supplement is a kind of garb that archaeologists boastfully (shamelessly?) use to conceal or mitigate an uncomfortable truth at our ontological core: that most of us in the academy are nerds at heart.

Yet this line of thought does not explain why alcohol may play a more important symbolic role for archaeologists than for other academy brats. Though this essay has never been on firm empirical ground, I will now stake even less firm ground. Indiana Jones was a rebel, and as much as archaeologists fret over inaccuracies in the portrayal of archaeology in his films, archaeologists alone are entitled to the social capital clinging to Indy’s coattails. Despite this unique entitlement, cashing in on the stereotype still requires a convincing performance. Ever since the temperance movement, drinking alcohol has had a diffuse touch of rebelliousness. Does the hype about archaeologists as drinkers tap into this rebelliousness, thus making a more convincing case for archaeology’s association with a hunk the likes of Harrison Ford? I suspect that this kind of construction of identity and difference occurs among archaeologists as opposed to just between archaeologists and outsiders. One can imagine archaeologists competing with each other for prestige and social positioning within the field, one-upping each other with statements of alcoholic grit.

In the end, I have no conclusions, just speculation and questions. After all, this post doesn’t really begin to get at the kinds of information about drinking (when, with whom, how, where, with what props and with what bodily comportment etc.) necessary to get deeper into the construction of the drinking self. I hope someone else will commit to the ethnographic gumshoeing required to say something more substantive.

Scott R. Hutson


Beaudry, M., L. J. Cook and S. A. Mrozowski
1991  Artifacts and Active Voices: Material Culture as Social Discourse. In The Archaeology of Inequality, edited by R. H. McGuire, and Robert Paynter. Blackwell, Oxford.

Bowser, B. J.
2000  From Pottery to Politics: An Ethnoarcaheological Study of Political Factionalism, Ethnicity, and Domestic Pottery Style in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 7(3):219-248.

Bray, T. (editor)
2003  The Archaeology and Politics of Food and Feasting in Early States and Empires. Kluwer, New York.

Diehl, M.
1990  Driven by drink: the role of drinking in the political economy and the case of Early Iron Age France. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 9:352-406.

Dietler, M.
2006  Alcohol: Anthropological/Archaeological Perspectives. Annual Reviews of Anthropology 35:229-249.

Dietler, M. and B. Hayden (editors)
2001  Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D. C.

Douglas, M. (editor)
1987  Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Geller, J.
1993  Bread and beer in fourth-millennium Egypt. Food and Foodways 5(3):255-67.

Hayashida, F. M.
2008  Ancient beer and modern brewers : ethnoarchaeological observations of chicha production in two regions of the north coast of Peru. Journal of anthropological archaeology 27(2):161-174.

Isaksson, S., C. Karlsson and T. Eriksson
2010  Ergosterol (5, 7, 22-ergostatrien-3b-ol) as a potential biomarker for alcohol fermentation in lipid residues from prehistoric pottery. Journal of Archaeological Science 37:3263-3268.

Joffe, A. H.
1998  Alcohol and Social Complexity in Ancient Western Asia. Current Anthropology 39(3):297-322.

Mars, G.
1987  Longshore drinking, economic security and union politics in Newfoundland. In Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology, edited by M. Douglas, pp. 91-101. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

McGovern, P. E., J. Zhang, J. Tang, Z. Zhang, G. R. Hall, R. A. Moreau, A. Nuñez, E. D. Butrym, M. P. Richards, C.-s. Wang, G. Cheng, Z. Zhao and C. Wang.
2004  Fermented beverages of pre- and proto-historic China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101(51):17593-98.

Ross, D. E.
2010  Comparing the material lives of Asian transmigrants through the lens of alcohol consumption. Journal of Social Archaeology 10(230-254).

Shackel, P. A.
2000  Craft to Wage Labor: Agency and Resistance in American Historical Archaeology. In Agency in Archaeology,, edited by M.-A. Dobres, and John Robb, pp. 232-246. Routledge, London.


Colleen said...

Hey Scott,

I might write a longer response to this at some point, but you should check out Ben Porter's "dry dig" piece in the Archaeological Record. This infographic may also help:

Amy said...

Very interesting.

WashCycle said...

What about women? I mean, from what I understand, the field is now at least half if not more women. Do women in the field also participate in this kind of drinking culture? How are their experiences different than men? Do they play into this Indiana Jones-like rebelliousness?

drug rehab new york said...

To be fair, plenty of success stories do come with alcohol. However, that's somewhere around 1 in a million. Alcoholism is not worth it, for the most part.

Geoff Irivn said...

In my experience, archaeologists try to get each other drunk, so as to gather a hopefully embarrassing story or anecdote, so they can use it as leverage to get a grant, position or just to stick the boot in... so most archaeologists, wary of this factor, pretend to drink heaps, in the hopes of coaxing a rival into making a mistake.... and end up pissed and own- goaling every time.... yes they are drunks, but ones with whom it is possible to have an interesting conversation with right until they chuck....

Anonymous said...

I have been on two digs so far in Southern France and the archaeology drinking culture is strong there. The only time I drink at all is to try and navigate the social minefield that is the dig (which I refuse to do anymore.) Drinking certainly gave my prof the excuse he needed to say the most misogynistic/sexually-themed inappropriate things to me I have ever had the pleasure to hear from someone (and I am in my 40s). He liked to comment to me regularly that while on a dig, I need to lower my expectations in terms of his behaviour.