Meet Annelies Van de Ven, an archaeologist working in the Middle East!

What got you into archaeology?

When asked what my job is, the response I very often get from people is “oh I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was a kid”, very often followed by a story of digging a hole in a relative’s back garden. Weirdly enough, when I was younger I actually wanted to be an astronaut, that is until I realised I had less than a one percent chance of actually going to space even if I did all the training. I only got into archaeology in my final years of secondary schools. I was starting to think about what subjects I wanted to do at university and I was torn between history and travel journalism. I loved learning about the past, but I also liked the idea of going around the world to better understand other cultures.

I am lucky enough to have two parents who left me free to make my own choice in what I wanted to study. My father is a chemist while my mother is a special needs teacher. Both are university educated, so they definitely wanted me move on to higher education, but in terms of my subject or career choice they believed I would be happiest, and most valuable to society, if I was doing something that I was passionate about. With their support I decided to try something that combined my love of history with my desire to travel and encounter new cultures by studying Archaeology, as well as Anthropology and Art History.

What happened after you started studying it?

I went on a number of excavations during the early years of my undergrad, learning about the methods and tools involved in archaeological research. While I enjoyed the classroom subjects, I think these excavations were where I really flourished. I fell in love with the practical sides of archaeology, the fieldwork elements based on a hands-on study of objects and features in situ. I wasn’t reading about what other people had discovered in the past, I was discovering the past for myself through the materials they left behind.

My first major find was a small hand pressed vessel, it was a bit misshapen, and ill equipped to serve food or drink, but it did have one amazing quality, a fingerprint right in the centre where a child had pressed the clay into form before it was fired. Seeing a visible trace of use, being able to record it, and in a sense share the creation of this child, instantly hooked me onto archaeology.

What is the hardest thing about working in archaeology?

The Ur team in front of the Ziggurat – Emal al Hadad

It is not a field that is traditionally considered a science, but the system of inquiry is the same, and a number of the methods used directly fall within a science umbrella. The best projects in terms of data collection, are always those that combine various qualitative and quantitative research methods and bring in cross-faculty skill sets. As such we use a great deal of statistics, chemistry, geography and engineering knowledge in our work. Archaeology is a bit of a chimera really.

I think this is one of the hardest things about studying archaeology, but also the most rewarding. I often feel totally out of my depth when a subject comes up that I don’t feel I have a complete understanding of. I end up doubting my value in the group which is never a fun position to be in, but on the other hand, these kinds of projects mean I get to collaborate with people across numerous disciplines with a great variety of training and interests. On most days this creates a wonderful melting pot of ideas, though on a particularly bad day it can lead to some priority clashes and cause a great deal of friction. The most common problem I have had is with establishing my place as a young female foreign archaeologist often surrounded by local male workmen, establishing a comfortable rapport can be hard, let alone establishing any level of authority or respect. We pull a lot of long days doing manual labour in foreign environments, so stress levels are easily ramped up, but often a bit of manual labour, some alone time and some deep breathing tends to help me get back on track.

What does a day on an excavation look like?

An average day in the field in the Middle East starts with an early alarm, followed by a small breakfast before heading out to the excavation trench(es). Taking only a single break to regain your energy, you dig, record measurements, draw plans and take photos of the site until the early afternoon, when you get to head back for some lunch, a short rest, and some lab work. This can consist of writing up site notes, mapping out measurements taken, cleaning and analysing objects, doing faunal and floral analyses, or digitising the data collected. Work often continues after dinner, and then everyone tried to get an early night so they can feel fresh the next day. It is exhausting, but also exhilarating, and if you have a good group of people around you it can be a blast. On one of the last excavations I did in Iraq, on the last day the local workers and archaeologists from my trench finished the workday by having a singing and dancing procession back to the dig house to store where we were going to store all the tools and finds. Though I understood less than half of the songs they were singing, it was definitely my favourite moment of the whole season.

Excavating a small pit at Ur – Karrar Jamal

What problems do women face in archaeology?

Outside of my fieldwork, I do a lot of outreach, especially in disadvantages schools, talking about pathways to literacy, employable skills and further education through archaeological activities. I have found that most (but certainly not all) of my colleagues on the postgraduate outreach programs have tended to be women, which might say something about how men and women value tasks differently. I personally love outreach, teaching and collaborative projects, I think the results are better when people work together and try to spread their research as widely as possible. However, it seems that some universities value a kind of lone-wolf attitude, avoiding too much collaboration that would lower your own ability to take credit, and spending little time expanding the reach of your research beyond a few choice niche scholarly journals with high pay walls. I have a lot of issues with this kind of behaviour, and find it leads to a spirit of distrust. When asking a fellow female colleague whether she wanted to be a part of a cross-institutional organisation aiming to even out the male-to-female ratio of archaeologists and ancient historians in Australia and promote the work of our female colleagues, her response was that being the only woman in the room actually worked in her favour. Not quite the spirit of sisterhood I was hoping for, but unless we change the way the academic value system works, in many cases this kind of behaviour will be rewarded, providing little incentive to change.

How do you overcome the difficulties that you face within your research?

Luckily not everyone is this callous and I have found a number of friends and mentors who have also helped support me through my research, motivating me to be a better researcher and a more compassionate colleague. They have also helped me through some rough decisions outside of my academic work. Just this year I decided to move across the world to be with my partner who had just gotten a position at a university. This was quite a taxing move for me as I was going from a comfortable academic environment that I could easily maneuver in and find relevant temporary work, to somewhere where I had few networks and a hard time finding employment. This did not do great things for my confidence, and I felt like a failure for being the kind of woman who prioritised being with her partner over her own career. I hated the idea of being dependent on my partner but felt stunted in trying to make my own way and formulate a project. Luckily video-chatting exists and regular conversations with my more experienced colleagues, both women and men, remind me of my past achievements and help me work out possibilities for the future.

At the Baghdad Museum – Karrar Jamal

I love my work, and I would never want to leave it, no matter how hard it is. Though I think in order to be more effective I need to learn to be a bit more flexible, and to be less dramatic when things go wrong. I still feel gutted every time one of my articles is rejected or I am unsuccessful in a job application, but then (after some crying and cake eating) I remind myself that there is something you can learn from every mistake you make, and that with no failures there can be no growth. So I brace myself and move on towards the next hurdle that needs passing.

You can contact Annelies at or via twitter (@archaeoa1)