archaeological field work

Like Snow for Eskimos: The Zen of Archaeology

There’s this funny thing about archaeology.

Like astronaut or first female/gay/deaf/alien (fill in the underrepresented blank as you wish) American President, archaeology seems to attract more than its share of would-be practioners.

Even people you’d never expect. Famous people.


Ben Stiller, Daniel Radcliffe, and Megan Fox are just some of the Hollywood A-Listers who’ve gone public with childhood dreams (or future hopes) of becoming an archaeologist.

And they don’t mean onscreen. Fox reportedly passed on the chance to play the “new’’ Lara Croft in a 2010 Tomb Raider revival.

It’s ironic, really.  Because Hollywood aside, field archaeology is < 1% adrenaline rush.  Golden idols are tough to come by, and the closest thing to a weapon most of us bring onsite  is a sturdy pickaxe, wielded – if at all – against bone-jarring earth and rock.

Apologies for all the bubbles I just burst, but truth must be told.

Unless you’re reading from a script next to Harrison Ford or Angelina Jolie, should you find yourself on an archaeological site someday, take it from me:  It will be some of the hardest work you’ll ever do. It’s a unique mind-body balance, where physical and intellectual efforts oddly align.

And it will be boring.

But it’s a one-off, switched-on, slow-burn kind of boring.  Baking patiently in the sun, bent over a shovel or on your knees, scraping soil in noisy but even layers. Watching and waiting for minute color shifts to hold against your Munsell Chart (the archaeologist’s version of Pantone color chips – just heavier on the browns).

You’d be amazed at the hairsplitting distinctions to be made between shades of dirt.  And textures.

Like snow for Eskimos.

Sipping from a water bottle gone melty hot.  Soporific. But sustained by all kinds of unexpected thoughts about what we do in life, and why we do it.  Sharpened by the mix of hard graft, mental focus, heat, and glare.

Methodical and mindful attention to the little patch of earth in front of you is the baseline requirement for good, responsible archaeology.

‘Responsible’ because archaeology is always destructive, no matter how carefully you do it.  You take something out of the ground and you can’t ever put it back as it was.  So you’d darn well better take careful notes and good photographs.  Make maps, collect soil samples, create cryptograms – whatever you need – to document what you find as you go, along with the context in which you found it:  What else was there? Above or below it? Was it placed deliberately, or carelessly dropped, on its own or with a whole heap of other trash?

Because once you take it out, that context is gone.  Forever.  And you’ve got just a pile of stuff in bags and boxes to be washed and labelled.  Mostly broken, mainly ugly.

Other people’s trash. But precious clues to the people who used them in daily lives we would glimpse through them.

And so the stakes only grow from there, in the phase where we fit together the bits and pieces we’ve taken from earthen patches we’ve so painstakingly disarticulated.

We’ve collected artifacts, but mostly, we’ve gathered reams of data to be crunched and compared to what others have found. To be pored over alongside library and museum collections, seeking clues in discoveries others have made, to help us weave it all into a coherent and compelling – however tiny – chapter in our shared human history.

And this is where the good part kicks in. Sadly, it takes place long after Hollywood’s cameras would have stopped rolling.  It’s a shame, really, because let’s be honest: knowing where we’ve been is the only way to chart a mindful course for our future. This applies in the collective sense to the cultures that archaeologists study, but also to our individual journeys through this thing called life.

So on this Day of Archaeology, as you think about what interests you most about those who’ve gone before in this journey, think about what you’dlike to be remembered for.

It’s all there in the record of human life: the one already made, and the one we create a bit more each day, just by going about our daily lives.

No Hollywood spin needed.