2016 / Saturday

Digging it: the adventures of an archaeologist

Matthew Abotomey

Adam Ford not afraid of getting his hands dirty

Adam Ford not afraid of getting his hands dirty

Adam Ford Book Cover

Adam Ford Book Cover

There are very few people who can say they have received career advice from a medieval monk. Fewer still who would have listened as carefully as Adam Ford did. He was seven when he visited his first archaeological dig at Lichfield Cathedral in England. Clambering to the top of a pile of dirt, he spied something sticking out of the mound and picked it up. The dig director quickly identified it as the finger bone of a centuries-old cleric while Ford identified what would become a lifelong passion. “I had found something important and gruesome and human. I was ecstatic”, he writes in his book, My Life in Ruins. This was the moment that the past began to beckon to him and he has traipsed across the globe brushing dirt off of it ever since.

British by birth, Adam Ford moved to Australia two decades ago, having already clocked significant hours digging in the Middle East and as a heritage consultant for the British government. He admits to some initial trepidation about the state of Australia’s archaeological industry. “I’d go to barbeques and people would say ‘What are you doing here? We’ve got no history.’ I wasn’t concerned that my skills wouldn’t work here, but I was concerned that there was no interest”.

But since founding his own heritage consultancy, DIG International, and as Tony Robinson’s archaeological potterings with Time Team have slowly become a staple of Australian television, he says the curiosity surrounding the subject has changed considerably. His own program, the popular ABC series Who’s Been Sleeping in My House? ran for three seasons and followed him across Australia as he set out to solve mysteries or debunk rumours that had accrued around historic houses.

Mr Ford’s fieldwork has also contributed to vital chapters in Australian history. The Ann Jones Inn at Glenrowan, the site of the Kelly gang’s last stand, was one of his recent projects. The dig uncovered evidence that helped create a clearer picture of the gang’s movements as they were pinned down and finally overwhelmed by police. His expedition to Dirk Hartog Island involved a search for an early French declaration of sovereignty over Australia; in Victoria he unearthed the austere Panopticon yards at Pentridge prison.

His childhood in England during the 1970s and ’80s was a period dominated by boredom; he amused himself by excavating his own backyard and immersing himself in the history of Greece, Rome and Middle-Earth. Nevertheless, growing up in the industrial midlands during Thatcher’s reforms was “kind of grim”, a time of soaring unemployment when factories closed and towns emptied. “I was observing the hardships of adults as a teenager, but I was thoroughly enjoying the flip side of it, of the music and art and culture of the ’80s as well.” In the early 1990s he graduated from the University College, London and made a beeline for the Middle East. His digging is yet to abate.

Although I dance around it for as long as possible we suddenly find ourselves at the Indiana Jones end of the conversation. I wonder if Harrison Ford’s bullwhip-toting swashbuckler isn’t an albatross to most archaeologists, but Adam Ford takes it in his stride.  “I try not to get too het up about it. People say ‘Indiana Jones isn’t a real depiction of archaeology’. Well, it is and it isn’t. It doesn’t really matter. It’s better than saying archaeology is about sitting in really dry libraries brushing things really slowly with tiny toothbrushes … It is a celebration of the adventure of delving into the past.” And while the differences between fiction and the reality are stark, he says his decision to avoid academia was partly due to the appeal of a career spent gallivanting: “I didn’t want to be in a lab or based wholly in a library because I did want to be adventurous.”

And he was. My Life in Ruins begins with the discovery of an unexpected coffin in Barbados and then drags us at full tilt through a rocket attack in Jordan and a rather nervous walk through Waltham Abbey, a not-so-decommissioned high explosives factory. A few paragraphs plotting the course of human prehistory allow readers to draw breath along the way.

He describes archaeologists as ‘an amiable and harmless bunch”, but for such a painstaking and precise profession, the stories that emerge are anarchic, often bizarre and peopled liberally with eccentrics. From the two Barbadian absurdists arguing whether it was Jesus Christ or Bob Marley being dug up by his crew, to the American dig director who wore full Arabian dress to a colleague’s funeral only to have his camel die upon arrival, archaeology seems to attract more than its fair share of odd bods. Strangely, this only seems to enhance the romance of it all.

Like most professions, archaeology has seen some sizeable technological leaps over the last few decades. The possibilities are exciting him: “Bring them on,” he says. “The more we can recreate without disturbing, the better it is for archaeological conservation and preservation.” When I put to him the possibility of computers making the trowel obsolete, he is unperturbed. “The reason you use a trowel is because it forces you to get on your knees, to be close to the ground, to listen, to smell, to feel the differences in the soil, you’ve got to do that. There’s no substitute for excavation at this stage.”

Still in his 40s, with another book and TV series on the way and a serious ambition to have a crack at the ruins in Pompeii, Adam Ford is adamant that My Life in Ruins is not an autobiography, but a record of his career thus far. Plenty more where that came from, in other words.

Adam Ford spoke about his work – from burials in Barbados to Bronze Age cities on the Euphrates – and how he has dug, dived, abseiled and trekked his way into historical places around the globe, and the business of writing his memoir, at Wharf 2 Theatre on Thursday with historian and archaeologist Richard Miles.