About two weeks ago, Robert Chapple made a somewhat unusual archaeology post. He contacted a number of colleagues from around the world and asked them to send him a photo of their desk, right then and there, no tidying allowed.
I loved the idea, but I was sitting in Starbucks at the time (not at my desk), and I was about to leave for a few days to go to a conference, so I vowed to photograph my desk when I got back and write a post about it.
Here’s the problem: I don’t actually have my own desk.
We have a room in the archaeology department for all the MLitt and MSc postgraduates to work. There are about eleven desks in there, but they don’t belong to anyone. Not really.
Granted, it’s a hot-desking situation, but many of us have our ‘preferred’ desk and tend to sit there. Others tend to let us have our preferred desk, because they have their own preferred desk, and those don’t generally coincide. But I can’t really leave my stuff on a desk, and I certainly wouldn’t leave any of my stuff inside one.
And once that dawned on me, I realised that my ‘desk’ is really anywhere I have my laptop, since that’s where the majority of my work is. Some days that might be in the PGT room at Glasgow Uni, other days it might be in the collections of the National Museum of Scotland in Leith, and other days it might be sitting at a table in Starbucks.
I’ll be honest – my favourite desk is the table in Starbucks. The one on Byers Road, next to the Hillhead subway station. This is partly because of the easy access to fancy coffee, but it’s also probably to do with the fact that I somehow work really, really well sitting in noisy cafes with my laptop and a tasty beverage.
One of the first posts I wrote for this blog happened at a Starbucks in the Barnes and Noble on the corner of State and Rush in Chicago. I talked about my friend Chuck, who I met in the Barnes and Noble, and how he told me there were infinite shades of turquoise.
Over two years later, I still think about that day, that conversation, and about Chuck.
I’ve also written some of my best academic papers sitting in a Starbucks. My piece in here about the intersection of people and objects in Indonesia was written in the same set of couches Chuck and I frequented. I think Chuck was even there, quietly reading as I toiled away. He often asked about my essays and cheered me on as I wrote them.
That fall, I drafted lecture notes and syllabi for two graduate-level courses while sitting in the Starbucks connected to Barnes and Noble in The Crossings in Scituate, Rhode Island. I delved into concepts of memory and the act of remembrance while sipping iced tea and staring out the window.
When I went to Indonesia on a Fulbright that later failed to pan out due to various snags and logistical issues, I wrote a fantasy novel in a Starbucks during NaNoWriMo 2012. I also spent many hours in that Starbucks (in Ambarrukmo Plaza, or Amplaz, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia) adapting a script from Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. I became such a regular that the usual staff knew my name, my order, and my usual arrival time, and I was so sad that none of them were working my last day visiting that store.
When the Fulbright could no longer continue and I ended up back in Rhode Island far sooner than I was expecting, I returned to the Starbucks at The Crossings in Scituate and figured out what I was going to do with my life over the next few years.
Most of my blog posts from Scotland have been written while sitting in the Starbucks on Byers Road in Glasgow, next to the Hillhead subway station. I usually sit in the upper level, but they’ve just renovated and aren’t quite finished, so I’m sitting downstairs instead as I write this.
Now that I lay it all out, my Starbucks table has been my most consistent desk over the last two years, starting with Chuck and infinite shades of turquoise. I can’t leave my stuff in Starbucks, and the exact table and exact Starbucks has changed over the years, but it’s still a table, still a Starbucks.
I hadn’t noticed it, but I’ve basically taken my desk with me wherever I go – finding a new Starbucks with a new crew that will eventually learn my usual order and ask me if I’ve got a lot of work to do that day (the answer is always, “yes”). For someone who travels a lot for work/school, having a constant like Starbucks is quite nice. In a strange way, it’s a piece of ‘home’, somewhere familiar where I can just sit and work for hours and hours and hours. And the great thing about Starbucks is that they just let me do it.
Which highlights a huge point about archaeology – we simply cannot know everything, no matter how much we might want to or how hard we try. I can’t think of any archaeological evidence that would lead someone to conclude that I spend much of my time writing at a table in Starbucks. There certainly isn’t anything that would tell you my usual drink or which table I like to sit at. Without me writing this post, the only evidence for my frequenting Starbucks would be my Starbucks card, and I only acquired that about two months ago. Something that has been such a constant in my life over the past two years probably won’t show up in the archaeological record.
Archaeologists know this. We know that we can’t know everything, simply because so little is preserved, so little of what’s preserved is actually excavated, and so little of what’s excavated is actually identifiable and understood. It’s like having an enormous 3D puzzle, but you don’t have any border or end pieces, you don’t know how many pieces there are (but you know it’s billions), you don’t know what the puzzle is supposed to look like, finding any of the pieces takes an intense amount of hard labour, the pieces look incredibly similar to things that aren’t part of the puzzle (like rocks), you can only find 1/10th of what you think might be the actual pieces, and not that many people are helping you put it together. Oh, and you have no idea how each piece is supposed to connect to the ones next to it, because the joins are often invisible.
Yet we still do it, because finding even one connection – even if we later discover that it’s wrong – tells us more about humanity than we could ever imagine. We do it because we’re curious about people – past, present, and future – and because we want to connect to those who came before.
And who knows? Maybe there’s something I haven’t seen, some small shred of material evidence that will link me back to my ‘desk’ in Starbucks that some archaeologist or historian will find in several hundred years. And maybe in finding that piece of evidence, they’ll feel a little more connected to me, sitting here at my table, sipping my coffee and thinking of a fellow archaeologist who won’t exist for another several hundred years while seeking the same connection to people who passed away a millennia and a half before I myself came into existence.
Who knew a table in Starbucks could hold that much significance?