anthropologist

“AST” with Inrap in France

My name is Hervé Guy and I am an AST with Inrap (Institut national de recherches archéologiques préventives – French national institute for preventive archaeological research). Of course, that doesn’t mean anything to someone who doesn’t work with my research institute. And yet, I am always introduced as: “Hervé Guy, AST, Marseille”. I then see the confusion in the eyes of my new acquaintances, asking themselves questions like : “AST, what does that mean?”; “Archéologue Sans Terrain?” (“Archaeologist with no fieldwork ?”); “Archéologue Sous Tranquillisants?” (“Archaeologist on tranquilizers ?”). No, it means : Adjoint Scientifique et Technique (Scientific and Technical Adjunct). Many of my colleagues think that the “A” signifies Assistant, showing just how mysterious this acronym remains. In fact, I am the scientific and technical adjunct to the inter-regional director, in this case, of the Mediterranean inter-region.

Figure 3: My “territories” and operations in progress. © Inrap

My “territories” and operations in progress ©Hervé Guy,  Inrap

I am based in the Provence region, in Marseille to be precise, where I direct the archaeological research center that oversees the Bouches-du-Rhône and Alpes-Maritimes departments. I have many duties, and like a Swiss army knife, depending on the time of day, I am a manager, a scientist (mostly in the evenings), a technicial-logistics coordinator, a salesperson, a confidant… Most of my work consists of organizing diagnostic operations and excavations. I thus visit many field sites, sometimes leading me to dubious places. I also constitute teams (80 people), negotiate excavations, manage the careers of the agents who work for me, and respond to more or less urgent requests from my administration.

My office, the activity control tower. Post-its are my friends. © Inrap

My office, the activity control tower. Post-its are my friends © Hervé Guy, Inrap

So, as you can see, I don’t get bored and there are not enough hours in the day to do all I have to do.

Being a family man, I try to reconcile my professional and private lives. I therefore reserve my morning until 8:15 to take my youngest child to school. Afterward, I don’t know if I will get home before he goes to bed.

So, my typical day begins at 8:15 am. By 8:30, the phone begins to ring. It doesn’t stop until 8:00 pm. I spend 3 or 4 hours a day with the telephone glued to my ear. My colleagues think this is funny and joke that my mobile phone is like an appendage, a prosthesis. The telephone is the emblem of the “AST”, the symbol of his or her function. I carefully avoid reading all of the epidemiological studies on the dangers of mobile phones. If they really do exist, it is too late, I’ve been doing this job for twelve years. I would certainly be an interesting guinea pig for mobile phone providers. I am living proof that telephones don’t kill: probably because I alternate between my left and right ears.

I must say that I dread full days of meetings when I can’t answer my phone or read my emails : I end up with dozens of messages to answer. These are people that I must call or write back, and some of them are not pleasant… I’m thinking here of developers who see archaeologists as building preventers, and think that they are detrimental to economic progress, of which they themselves are the mighty heralds. But let’s forget the grumpy ones. Many developers also tell me how much they appreciate our admirable profession.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My job requires that I be available most of the time, not only to developers, but also to the members of the teams that I lead. My team is amazing. Most of its members are very efficient and motivated, and when I become a bit overwhelmed, someone will spontaneously offer their help (which I don’t refuse). Of course, as in any human organization, there are some rebellious, grouchy or dissatisfied ones. But generally, I must say that the reigning atmosphere is positive in my research center in Marseille, rather studious, but full of good will.

I like this profession, even if it is sometimes tiring (physically) and challenging (psychologically). I like this profession as an AST because we play an essential role in preventive archaeology in France. And what could be more satisfying than seeing all of your efforts rewarded by amazing discoveries?

Being educated as a physical anthropologist, I am sometimes invited to do fieldwork in other countries. Here I am in Yemen where we excavated Bronze Age tombs in association with a pipeline (Mission director: Remy Crassard). © DR

Being educated as a physical anthropologist, I am sometimes invited to do fieldwork in other countries. Here I am in Yemen where we excavated Bronze Age tombs in association with a pipeline (Mission director: Remy Crassard) © DR


Archaeology is Anthropology

As a college student, the question of my major and future career ambition is one of those frequently asked questions that I contend with on a daily basis. Very few seemingly understand what it means to study cultural anthropology- that isn’t necessarily a value judgement, merely an assessment of my personal experiences. The FAQ takes various forms, but amounts to something like “What are you going to do with that?” or “Oh, so you’re going to be a teacher.”

One of the many docks that is part of the inventory of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

I must admit that I often ask myself the same question(s), which prompted me to participate in an internship rather than a field school this summer as part of my undergraduate degree requirements. I knew that I had to find something that interested me both as an anthropologist and as a historian.

I ended up working on a project that satisfies both of those requirements. So far this summer, I have participated in a NAS fieldschool that was held in Traverse City, Michigan and helped other underwater archaeology students with their individual projects. I have attended various organizational events as a representative of my site supervisor/mentor. But for me, one of the coolest things about this internship is my participation in a complete inventory of the historic docks and piers of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Last summer at this time, I was spending the day conducting research on a shipwreck that washed ashore in the same area in late 2010. This summer, I spent the day (once again) doing research. And while the area of historic research is not really in my scope of interest, the information that I found on one of the historic sites is rather fascinating (which for me was rather unexpected). The dock that I am researching is called Aral Dock and is one of many century old docks in the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore that has all but disintegrated into just pilings. The dock itself was rather homogeneous for the area in both build and use. Cargo such as lumber and agricultural items was loaded and unloaded at the dock and was sent on its way to various ports around the Great Lakes. Aral Dock is not interesting (for me) because of it’s construction, or materials, or rate of decay; Aral dock is interesting because of the scandal that surrounds it.

Research through local and regional newspapers as well as oral history from residents shows that there was a double homicide on this particular dock, earning it the nickname “Murder Dock”. The reason was money related- taxes, specifically- and the murder touched the small agricultural port town in a way that was unexpected for that community.  As a student of anthropology and history, this salacious history of an area that is currently considered to be quiet and relaxing for residents and tourists alike is an interesting study in local anthropology.

The area itself was a combination of industrial and agricultural, with the docks acting as a material reminder of how these people once lived and worked. What remains of the historic docks in the area is submerged in varying depths of water, ranging from shoreline depths to fifteen feet. Position fixing has been a chore, especially because of the wave action that is common in this specific bay on Lake Michigan. That is not to say that this experience hasn’t been enlightening or enjoyable. I can now say with confidence that I know what it is that I can do with my degree in Anthropology: I want to take what I have learned and apply it the field of historic archaeology, specifically sites that are underwater. Yes, I will likely spend more time in a library, museum, or historical society than I will in the field. I will likely be spending large amounts of time sifting through innumerable amounts of historic photos and oral histories as I did on the Day of Archaeology. But I have come to realize that there is no better way for me to combine my interests in history and human culture than by studying the physical material remains of the people that once occupied the most beautiful place in America.

Plus, my office will have one heck of a view. So, there’s that, too.

 

So you want to be a Roman bioarchaeologist…

If you’re anything like me, you’ve wanted to dig up the bones of dead Romans for as long as you can remember.  (Well, except for that brief period where I wanted to dig up dinosaurs and the even briefer one where I thought I might become a mathematician.)  But if you live in the southern U.S. like I do, you’re certainly not discovering Roman skeletons in your garden all the time.  What does a Roman bioarchaeologist do every day?  Generally, teach, research, and talk to colleagues and the public about teaching and research.

Osteology Field Lecture

Sometimes I get to teach osteology in the field (Tuscany, Summer 2004)

Teaching.  The great thing about the American incarnation of the discipline of anthropology – something I didn’t honestly learn until graduate school – is that it’s what we call four-field: it combines archaeological, biological, cultural, and linguistic approaches to understanding humankind, past and present.  As a university professor, it means that, in a given semester, I teach undergraduates about genetics, monkeys, and cultural relativism more often than I talk about my own research projects on the ancient Romans.  But the amazingly diverse subject matter of my typical Introduction to Anthropology course also means that I can draw from almost any topic in the week’s news to illustrate my lectures and to foster discussion: How does the hubbub over the “gay caveman” from the Czech Republic reflect our preconceived notions about sexuality?  Why does anyone care if Shakespeare – or any Elizabethan Brit – smoked pot?  Who polices American gender norms, telling us that little boys can’t paint their toenails pink and little girls shouldn’t pretend to nurse their dolls?  In teaching students about anthropology, I try to teach them to question the ideas we take for granted and to critique the categories that we often think of as inherent and immutable, to let them see that every culture has its own rules and is a product of its own time.

Roman Woman with Healed Broken Nose

Roman Woman with Healed Broken Nose

Research.  I’m not going to lie – fieldwork is the best part of my job.  Who wouldn’t like digging up dead Romans by day and eating pizza in the shadow of the Colosseum by night?  While teaching gives me the thrill of watching students who have never been exposed to anthropology realize they love it, holding the bones of someone long-dead and reading their biography from their bodies still gives me chills.  After two millennia, the Romans introduce themselves to me, telling me where they were born, showing me their scars, and complaining about their arthritic knees.  It can be hard to listen to the woman with a fractured nose (a victim of domestic violence?) and especially to the babies who didn’t have a chance to grow up because of a simple lack of antibiotics and multivitamins.  And yet, as the field of bioarchaeology has advanced and incorporated the techniques of chemical analysis, my research on the ancient Romans has gone beyond the wildest dreams of my 12-year-old self.  I’ve gotten to identify immigrants to Rome and to investigate their lives in the largest urban center of its time, a topic the historical sources rarely discuss.  I’ve gotten to find out what the average Roman ate, and to see that their childhood diet was actually quite different from what they ate as adults.  And I’ve gotten to work with an array of amazing international archaeologists and anthropologists along the way.

Outreach.  The final piece of my job is not mandatory but is becoming increasingly common.  In his keynote address at the American Anthropological Association meeting last fall, the archaeologist Jeremy Sabloff pointed out that there are no academics representing the face of anthropology.  We no longer have a Margaret Mead or a Franz Boas. Moving the discipline forward in the digital age, he said, means that it’s going to be “public or perish.”  So why be content with the few dozen people who will read your dissertation?  Being an academic today is about putting yourself out there as an expert, being the face of some topic, the person who can explain the importance of an anthropological concept to students and the public.  I have tried to take up this challenge with my own blog, which I envision as a public form of the informal communication that I have all the time with my colleagues.  Through blogging, I have started discussions with people in my field, in other academic disciplines, and outside of the academy completely.  It’s also been useful as a way for me to work through my plot bunnies (or academic otters), those nagging ideas that may not be fully formed but need to get out so that I can focus on one thing at a time.  Fortunately, other academics are also choosing this route to public engagement, and projects like Day of Archaeology allow us to contribute to a broader discussion of what the discipline means and how best to show others our enthusiasm for it.

It’s certainly not easy being a bioarchaeologist in academia, juggling several facets of our work on a daily basis and multitasking like mad.  But the rewards are fantastic: not just flying around the world to excavate in exotic locales, but watching students have “a-ha” moments after a heated discussion about evolution, and explaining to the public why we anthropologists don’t single out the privileged few who “shaped” society while ignoring the millions of others who actually made that society function.

I may not be a dinosaur-mathematician, but I’ve discovered that my childhood dream of studying the dead could come true with a little hard work.   I will continue to define myself broadly as an anthropologist and narrowly as a Roman bioarchaeologist for as long as I can.


 Kristina Killgrove currently teaches anthropology at Vanderbilt University, researches the Romans at Gabii, and interacts with the public through her blog (Powered by Osteons) and her Twitter feed (@BoneGirlPhD).