Posted by: signalhillarchaeology | July 17, 2010

Hot Archaeologists, Or What to do when the Thermometer Rises

This is another student post– not so much about the site this time, but about what the students are learning about being archaeologists. In this case, Megan was inspired to write about dealing with the elements when working outside all day, and how hot sun can make everyone a little crazy

–Amanda [Instructor]

To begin, I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a very silly story that will, at the very least, make you roll your eyes and wonder how old we all really are.

June 14th was yet another hot day. We seem to be getting a lot of those lately and the heat has definitely sunk into our brains by this point. It’s making us a little crazy [a combination of heat and sleep deprivation led me to name my trowel Spartacus. Creative, I know].

The heat makes everyone a little crazy...

Anyway, it was lunchtime at the dig site and Amanda had left, with promises of freezies upon her return.

After the group had eaten lunch, we decided take some photos of the excavated trench.

Well, we ran out of film in the manual camera and, being the bright students we are, couldn’t figure out how to change it. To be fair, we didn’t try very hard as we didn’t want to ruin the film.

Anyway, I took the letter board and removed the words “north profile” and replaced it with “will work for freezies”.  The sign ended up taped to a bucket so people could see it as they walked by and we camped out with our gear to wait for Amanda.

Our sign received a head shake and slight laugh from her when she got back, with popsicles. Apparently St. John’s was suffering a freezie shortage.

Yay! Popsicles! The great thing about doing archaeology in an urban area is the immediate access to frozen treats... which have an immediate positive impact on heat-exhausted archaeologists.

Oh well, they’re both the same anyway. At this time, the sign was changed to read “yay
popsicles” while we stood around eating. Aren’t we all so mature?

Anyway, to get on to the [educational] point of this entry…
The elements are not something to be taken lightly. They can change at a moment’s notice so I think it’s safe to say that clothes make the archaeologist.

You can always wear an old pair of jeans but I find it much more comfortable to wear hiking pants. Jeans tend to restrict movement, trap heat and take a millennia to dry when wet. Hiking pants are designed for this outdoorsy stuff…they dry very quickly, aren’t very heavy and in some cases will zip off at the knees. [Note for the females: I found a pair of inexpensive zip-offs in the men’s section of a local department store… they’re totally worth it]. They also tend to have a dozen pockets which come in handy for storing gear.

Our site offers very little protection from the elements. There are no nearby trees or structures to provide us with shade, and the gusts of wind that come off the ocean can give us windburn (or, on a cold day, can turn us into human popsicles). Dressing appropriately is really important.

For your feet you’ll want hiking shoes or a sturdy pair of sneakers. Going all out and getting steel-toed boots is a good idea; your toes may be protected from a bone-crushing rock, but they do get hot and uncomfortable. I use hiking boots, partly because I don’t have a pair of sneakers suitable for the dig and partly because I just wanted an excuse to wear them again. NEVER wear sandals, flats, HIGH HEELS [yes, it has been done] or anything open-toed. That’s just asking for it.

Half the fun is looking like a dork in clothing you wouldn’t wear every day! No one cares about what an archaeologist looks like..they’re more interested in your work. =)

We use the weather as an excuse for our silly antics, be it ridiculous heat or rain, but it’s actually something that you have to be quite careful about. I’ll
try to make this as concise as possible as this entry is already looking quite large…

The sun:
We’re only in week two of the dig and a number of us have already experienced heat exhaustion, the precursor to heat stroke.  Being one of said people [albeit one who only had a slight case], I can tell you it is NOT fun. At all. This is medically known as hyperthermia and can be just as dangerous as its opposite, hypothermia. When you have hyperthermia, the mechanisms for dealing with heat in your body are not enough to keep you cool. Symptoms include elevated body temperature, dizziness/lightheadedness, headache, nausea and in some cases fainting.

A good way to avoid hyperthermia is drinking LOTS of cold water or non-alcoholic beverages [Amanda notes: As much as we all agreed that an ice-cold beer or margarita would have been a delicious thing to have on that hot day, we knew it would be a bad idea physiologically]. Also, it can help to wet a bandana with cool water and tie it around your neck. If possible, going into an air-conditioned area wouldn’t hurt either. If you’re still unfortunate enough to get it, keep drinking the cold liquids and avoid the sun like the plague!

Next up, sunburn. Sunscreen is a given no matter how long you’re outside for. Higher SPFs are better if you’re out for a particularly long period. SPF, Sun Protection Factor, delays the onset of sunburn. There are a wide range of sunscreens with different SPFs, too. I’m currently using 60. Anyway, regardless of SPF, you should make sure to apply it often! The other day, I had my phone set to go off every hour and a half to remind us reapply the sunscreen.

Popsicles may have incredible restorative powers, but a good field hat is essential.

Besides sunscreen, hats are very important to protect your head. One with a wide brim all around can never go wrong. Sunburn on your scalp is not a pleasant experience. Your eyes can also be affected by the sun so it’s recommended you have sunglasses on while outside. And not some dinky little pair of designer glasses that just look pretty….get something that will actually cut down on the UV rays that reach your eyes! Lastly, it doesn’t hurt to wear long, light clothing. It protects you from burns even if it might make you just a smidgen warmer, though we have yet to learn this despite getting sunburns…[Amanda notes: do you guys think I wear long sleeves and long pants because I think it makes me look amazing? Sunburns get really tiresome after your first few field seasons. Stop it with the tank tops, seriously!] .

Enough about the sun. On to rain! Always. Have. Rain. Gear. This is St. John’s, the weather will not hesitate to change quickly and open the heavens to dump an ocean’s worth of water onto your head. Doing anything while soaked is not fun and usually leads to becoming cold afterward. Inexpensive rain gear can do a pretty good job of keeping you dry. Or you could always opt for ponchos. Who cares how silly you look? You’re an archaeologist. Funny clothing comes with the job. That and you can then laugh at all the people who make fun of you when they’re miserable and wet and you’re all dry. A plus about buying ponchos [clear ones in particular] is that it will come in handy when you must do maps in the rain. Put all the stuff under the poncho and voila!

Hm, I think I’ve already covered enough. Layers, sunscreen, hats, etc…it’s the middle of summer so snow is not an issue [I would hope!] Oh! One more thing. Bring water. A lot of water. [Amanda notes: Yes… this way I won’t have to make an emergency trip to a grocery store to clean them out of cold water… Again]. Anyway, hopefully you’ll hear more of our shenanigans in future blog posts [especially if this heat keeps up]. We do have a great time doing this and despite our numerous grumbles and complaints about the weather, I don’t think anyone would trade it for the world. Stay tuned~

-Megan Willette, student



  1. Yip – all sound advice.
    WRT full length pants – I bought 4 or 5 pairs of Army pants from the Army – Navy Surplus store about 10-15 years ago. I still use them for field work every summer. They have multiple extra sized pockets, draw strings at the ankles, and reinforced patches on the knees and butt. They were worth every cent I paid for them (they were a reasonable price) – only draw back is they are a little warm but are practically indestructible.
    Amanda, do you work on Saturdays?

  2. And there speaks a voice of experience, folks– Another archaeologist chiming in about the importance of good pants. I had a pair of Army pants too for years, and only had to give them up when they became threadbare. Thanks Steve!

    (And no, we don’t dig on Saturdays– Monday to Friday leaves me ready for a day off!) 🙂

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