Archaeology is having a moment on Tiktok with students, academics and eager hobbyists using it to share their latest finds. Here, bioarchaeologist Dr Brenna Hassett explains how you can get digging.
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From verified accounts that share videos about new finds and favourite artefacts, to videos of people metal detecting and a plethora of hilarious archaeology-themed memes, it seems plenty of students, academics and eager hobbyists are finding that #archaeologytiktok is a great space to share their enthusiasm for digging up old stuff and working out what it can tell us about the history of humankind.
It’s something that University College London bioarchaeologist Dr Brenna Hassett is thrilled to hear about, having recently set up a TikTok account of her own. Like many students of the subject, Dr Hassett didn’t discover her love of archaeology until after she’d left compulsory education, while taking a required class on human evolution during her undergraduate studies at UCLA.
Immediately falling in love with the subject, she went on to study for an MA and PhD at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology and now specialises in dental anthropology, travelling the world to conduct digs, excavate human remains and solve 5,000-year-old murder mysteries from Giza to Anatolia.
Alongside all that, Dr Hassett is passionate about making the field of archaeology accessible to new audiences, especially women and girls, and is one of four female academics behind a project called TrowelBlazers. An online platform born from a Twitter conversation, TrowelBlazers celebrate the historical and present-day contributions of women to the ‘digging sciences’ of archaeology, paleontology and geology.
With over 200 amazing female scientists profiled on the website, the team encourages those in the science community to submit their TrowelBlazing role models or take part in Wikipedia edit-a-thons, and have even collaborated with a toy manufacturer, Arklu, on a palaeontologist doll, Fossil Hunter Lottie, to encourage young girls to get out there and explore the world.
To find out how to do exactly that, we caught up with Dr Hassett while she was on a break during fieldwork on the Greek island of Chíos.
You can study archaeology everywhere
For Dr Hassett, one of the great things about archaeology is that “it exists pretty much everywhere you walk,” meaning that anyone and everyone can try it out for themselves. And you don’t have to get digging; there’s a lot you can find out “even if you only have access to the surface of the ground.”
“That’s kind of what I’m doing out in Greece right now,” Dr Hassett explains. “It’s called intensive surveying, so I’m not even digging, I’m just looking at the surface of the ground under my feet to find bits of pottery or little tiny flakes of stone tools.”
“If you happen to have a garden or a big local park, go and turn over the top layers of soil and you will actually find little tiny bits of pottery and glass. Clay pipe stems, for instance, are like the cigarette butts of the Victorian age, and they’re everywhere. You can look at that little Victorian cigarette, work out how thin or fat it is, whether it was an expensive one or a cheap one, and even what year it was probably made.”
That said, you can’t just go digging wherever you like
“You have to be very careful because you will get arrested if you just go out digging on your own,” Dr Hassett warns. But while poking around with a trowel might be frowned upon, if you want some digging experience there are plenty of places where you can get it.
“In the UK there’s a company called DigVentures who run seminars and also offer dig experience for kids and adults, but for most people the easiest way to get involved is to go to your local Archaeological Society. These are groups of dedicated amateurs you can find all around the UK, which tend to have meetings maybe once a month and projects in the summer where you can actually volunteer.”
Dr Hassett recommends checking out the Council for British Archaeology website, where you’ll be able to find details of local groups and volunteering opportunities. And for enthusiasts under the age of 18, there are over 70 branches of the Young Archaeologists’ Club across the UK.
You don’t need a trowel to go digging
“A lot of stuff right now is actually digital,” explains Dr Hassett. “Right now my students can’t come out to Greece because of the pandemic, but they can use the internet. They’re currently taking part in a class where they archive research on women in archaeology. That involves going through records, whether that’s letters or old photographs, and finding all of these secret histories of female archaeologists that nobody has ever heard of, and reconstructing their lives.”
Even without access to internet archives, armchair archaeologists can get involved just by using Google. “Google has satellite images, so there have been recent projects where people have been asked to look at Google Earth to do something we call remote sensing,” says Dr Hassett. “The person leading the project will give an example of what an archaeological site looks like, it might just be traces of a wall or something, and then volunteers can go through Google’s satellite images looking for similar sites. So increasingly, digital skills and tools are actually pretty useful in archaeology.”
The government will buy up any treasure you find
If you do happen to find something extraordinary while poking around in your flower beds, you might in for a windfall. “There’s a really cool thing we have in the UK called the Portable Antiquities Scheme,” Dr Hassett explains. “If you find something, and you just want to know what it is or you think it might be worth money, you can actually go to them and they’ll tell you what it is, and if it’s something valuable like, say, a coin hoard, and you happened to be the person to find it, the government will actually buy your buried treasure off you.”
Run by the British Museum and the National Museum of Wales, the Portable Antiquities Scheme is a popular resource for metal detecting enthusiasts, with over 1.5 million discoveries recorded via its database over the past 23 years, from Anglo Saxon war gear to Roman ceramics.
If you do find the next Stonehenge, make sure you remember where
“For archaeologists, the scariest thing is to not have context for finds.” Dr Hassett explains. “A couple of silver coins found in a field in Wiltshire could actually turn out to be a whole Prince’s burial, but if you forget where it came from and we don’t know the provenance, maybe we’ll never find it. Coins are really fun, but what we really want is to know how people actually lived in the past. That’s the stuff we get really excited about.”
So if you do happen to find an Anglo Saxon horse bridle while scanning around the local park, don’t forget to make an accurate record of exactly where, because it could turn out to be crucial to finding more buried treasures.
And lastly, you probably shouldn’t lick your findings
Over on TikTok, one of the most persistent #archaeologymemes is a joke about putting your findings in your mouth. Why, exactly? “Speaking as a professional bone-digger, bone has a different surface than something like a rock, it’s more porous,” says Dr Hassett. “Your tongue is sensitive enough to feel the difference, so there is a long tradition of licking things to get at ‘bone or stone’!”
But while the practice of having a cheeky little nibble on the artefacts might happen, it should probably go without saying that contemporary archaeologists advise against this particular form of exploration. Not only could you be exposing yourself to microbes and other nasties, but you could also be compromising a precious bit of evidence too.
“These days we don’t do it so much both for sanitary reasons and because you wouldn’t want to contaminate any samples you were planning on sampling for ancient DNA,” Dr Hassett explains. So keep your tongues to yourselves. We’re in a global pandemic, after all.
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Dr Brenna Hassett, bioarchaeologist at University College London
Dr Brenna Hassett is a bioarchaeologist at University College London (UCL), author, public speaker and one of the founders of TrowelBlazers, which celebrates female archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists.
Images: Getty, courtesy Dr Brenna Hassett