Here’s a story about how archaeology ruined me as an Englishman.
Archaeology ruins many things. It often ruins ruins, for starters (by destroying them completely in the name of Knowing Stuff). It ruins knees. It ruins mugs. No, really. Take a tin mug, fill it full of paintstrippingly-strong tea three times a day and then clean it in a perfunctory, “that’ll do” sort of way for around 8 weeks, and you get this:
In my many years of almost-but-not-quite being an archaeologist, I ate and drank a lot of truly dreadful things. Although I’ve blotted a lot of it out, some things were just so colossally vile that now they rise, Golden-Gate-like, out the mists of my mind.
There was the time of the Baked Pancakes, where A., a man so Gollum-like that the memory of him almost ruined Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings for me, attempted to prove his mastery of pancake-making in the following fashion: apply a low heat to a pan, slop in too much batter, cook each side for 20 minutes until your wrist aches with the weight of holding the pan up, then attempt to extricate the thick, blubbery lens of semi-firmed mixture from the previously non-stick surface, flop it wobblily onto a plate (although not from too high up, in fear of cracking said crockery), and then, while you spend the next hour or so cooking a couple more, keep the finished “pancake” warm by placing it in the oven on a low heat. The result is a kind of rubbery plate-mail substance, as if chicken skin had been blended with kevlar – the kind of thing you’d expect to read about over at Wired.
There was the diet based almost entirely on potatoes while I was on an excavation in Wales. Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes. Potato curry, for example, was potatoes with curry powder. (I’d entirely forgotten that until I forced my mind to recall it). I still flinch when I see a potato. Something in me still screams, deep down, rocking back and forth with its thumb in its mouth and a blanket clutched around it.
But that’s nothing compared with how I feel when I see an English breakfast.
Cut to an excavation in Orkney, in 2002. I’m bragging.
“What? You’ve never had a fried breakfast? Are you kidding me?”
I stared incredulously at E. (You can see her in the above photo, second from left). She appeared to be telling me that she’d never had a fried breakfast. I kept staring at her, my brain struggling to comprehend. I knew what the words meant – but I couldn’t understand the sentence. Not ever having had a fried breakfast, as in ever? She was Foreign, so obviously certain allowances had to be made.
More than that, she was Swedish.
But for pity’s sake – she’d never had a fry-up? Really? Well. There was only one thing to be done. And I was the man to do it.
“Tomorrow you’re going to have the best breakfast of your life, love.”
Here’s what I did:
- I picked the least worst frying pan available to us (something that looked like it had been lifted straight from Gears Of War), drizzled a little vegetable oil into it and rubbed it firmly into the scratched steel surface. Then I cooked the oil on a low heat in an attempt to season the pan with a non-stick (or at least less-stick) surface.
- I went shopping. This being Westray, one of the remoter islands in the relatively remote island archipelago of Orkney, there wasn’t an enormous amount of variety on offer. I managed to forage a package of sausages (“may contain meat”), a few strips of off-white bacon, a dented tin of tomatoes and a dozen eggs that looked like they’d been laid as a kind of protest against inadequate feeding methods. I also had some mushrooms. It wasn’t clear where these mushrooms had come from, nobody really seemed to know, but – there they were.
The next morning, all was set. The pan had been seasoning for hours and hours and was as ready as it would ever be. The audience was assembled. With everyone agog with anticipation, I turned to Swedish E. and told her she was about to learn something new about food – all too accurately, as it turned out.
I turned up the heat and broke an egg into the pan – and it instantly became one with the stainless steel surface at a molecular level, forming a new material that I like to call “eggpan“. For anyone looking for a suitable topic for their PhD in Molecular Science, here are the properties of eggpan: it’s incredibly strong; it’s water-resistant; it’s wooden spoon resistant; it cannot be removed with a brillo pad; shouting at it wildly actually makes it bond harder to a surface; and it’s utterly inedible.
For the next ten minutes, the entrepreneurial physicist in me blossomed, bringing a host of new substances to light including eggspoon, baconpan, eggbrillo and the formidably durable supermaterial baconeggtomatobrillo which would, I believe, have played a major role in the construction of the Large Hadron Collider if my e-mails to CERN hadn’t been replied to by narrow-minded fools.
While all this was going on, of course, everyone else was lying on the ground, unable to stand, unable to breathe – partly from laughter, partly because of the clouds of acrid black smoke billowing past me. They’re still laughing, 9 years on. When we meet up, they still laugh at me, in my face, punishing me for daring to dream harder than they did, for attempting the impossible with inadequate tools and a misplaced belief in my own cooking skills…
But worst of all, I can’t enjoy fry-ups anymore.
That magic is gone. I killed it, that day – turning it to ash (baconeggtomatobrillo ash) in my frying pan, watching it vaporise and fill the room, pouring out the open doors and windows, smoke-signalling into the Orkney sky – trying ineffectually to scrape it into the sink for an hour afterwards.
That was the day I drove a wedge between myself and England – and maybe the day I decided to see the world. I psychologically deported myself with a failed attempt at breakfast. Clearly the excavation had addled my mind. Clearly I was at a low ebb, ripe for social disaster. And all it took was a bemused Swede and a frying pan for me to ruin myself forever as an Englishman.
That’s what archaeology does to you.
Images: Martin Cathrae and Mike Sowden.