Why become an Archaeologist?

You’re at a posh frock gathering. Polite social ‘chit-chat’ is going on around you. Before long you know that someone’s going to ask you what you do for a living.

Is it time to fib and give a glib “nothing much, I’m an office worker” as your reply or is it time to take a deep breath before truthfully answering “I’m an Archaeologist”… (or in my case, a “lapsed archaeologist”!)

Your honest response may well be greeted with a slightly disappointed “oh…” followed by an awkward silence so painfully long and drawn out that you feel compelled (even as the wronged party) to do the correct British thing and start talking about the perfectly dreadful weather we’re having or some sporting fixture England have recently been defeated in, before politely parting ways and avoiding eye contact for the rest of the evening.

The comedians will respond with bog-standard Indiana Jones jokes. Accordingly my bog-standard answers are: “No, I don’t have a whip”, “even if I had, I won’t whip you with it” and “no, I don’t have the hat either”. Time for another hasty exit, using vines to jump over collapsing floors, outrunning massive rolling stone balls and agilely avoiding spiked dungeons.

Sometimes you’ll get “Wow, excellent! Have you designed any local buildings?”  At this point my glass is suddenly empty, or I start waving manically at a bemused stranger in the distance before making my excuses and disappearing into the crowd.

Then you get the class of ‘Elderly Explorers’. With these lovely people any conversation you start is drowned out by long winded tales of their exploits in whatever war, desert, wilderness, mountain, rainforest or hell hole they were last in, as they insist on telling you in varying degrees of graphic detail, everything to do with a most memorable trek they took part in back in some dim distant era before giving you their politically incorrect opinion about some remote region of western South America you’ve never heard of.

They do this without letting you get a word in edgeways and you wonder, as your neck starts to cramp from all the polite nodding you’re doing, how they manage to breathe, as their well-meaning but very tedious diatribe drones on and on.

You have to give others credit for even trying to continue the conversation. Some ask how much money you’ve made from the gold coins you’ve found with your metal detector and whether eBay is a good place to buy ‘genuine old stuff’. They also tend to ask whether you have your detector in the boot of your car and whether they could have a go with it as they want to throw their handful of coins in the undergrowth to see if they can find them again.

Erm, no, no, no and no.

Others ask the well meaning “what’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever dug up” question; a harmless enquiry to delight all archaeologists! They then expect you to dutifully come up with some incredibly intricate story about the bounty of rare ancient and mystical treasures you’ve located in the midst of some remote desert cave and the plethora of articles you’ve had published.

Those are the ones who look sadly crestfallen when you say, “oh, just a few bits of bone and teeth”…

‘Were they human?’ will always be their interrupting comeback, as you continue describing fragments of gnawed wood, bits of broken pottery, lumps of rusty metal and other bits and pieces thrown away as rubbish by our ancestors. All artefacts of wonder and interest to you, but another kiss of death to conversation!

You long for the day when you meet a kindred spirit – not even another archaeologist – just someone who has an equally strange profession. A profession like a Pathologist or Undertaker, as I’ve been told that they have similar conversation stopping moments! Perhaps it could be a chance encounter with someone who knows that the likelihood of excavating something truly astonishing is actually quite rare and nods with interest at what you have to say.

Yes, I’ve found the normal bits and pieces you would expect to find in generic sites in the UK. Evidence of habitation, bones – human and otherwise – lots of glazed and unglazed pottery and ceramics, worked flint scatters, some coins, lumpy pieces of misshapen metal, tile and general building materials, gnawed wood (no beaver jokes please) and the obligatory catch all for everything else, the very technical category of ‘stuff’.

Yes, I’ve processed finds for days and days, scrubbing away with a toothbrush until my hands are numb from the cold water. Yes, I’ve nearly broken my back pick-axing for hours and lugging endless wheel-barrows of heavy earth. Yes, I’ve been bitten and stung by insects. Yes, I’ve burnt the back of my neck so badly I could hardly bear to move my head. Yes, I’ve slept for weeks in an old, musty, leaky Army tent. Yes, I’ve woken up surrounded by an infestation of literally thousands of earwigs. Yes, I’ve slept in my car when the thunder storms were directly above us. Yes, I’ve slept in a barn when the rain got too much and the site was nearly swept away. Yes, I’ve ‘washed’ with baby-wipes in the absence of anything else. Yes, I’ve been stared and pointed at in Sainsbury’s when I’ve gone directly from site to do the camp shopping trip.

So why be an Archaeologist? Well, why not!?

I’m not an expert in any sense of the word; I haven’t had enough time or experience to become a specialist, but really I enjoy the endless questions relating to the unknown. How did an ancient community survive? What did they make? What did they eat? How did they live? Why did they..? When did they..? Who were they..? For what reason did..? How did they..? What was this..? Where did they go..? How old is it? How does it relate to…?

Layers of deposition, stratigraphy, contexts. Phases and periods of occupation. How did the site form and build up over time? Interpretations, hypothesis, debates, discussions. Endless questions and vivid imaginations… Open minded but yet precise. Determined and flexible.

Sounds like a damn fine career choice to me!

“TrowelPS” by Przemysław Sakrajda – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A Nevada CRM Archaeologist

This is my first post for the Day of Archaeology event.  I’d like to begin by thanking the organizers, advisors, and sponsors for conceiving of and making this event happen.  It’s important that we discuss archaeology across the world and get our work out to a broad audience.  All most people know about archaeology is what they see on the Discovery Channel or from Indiana Jones.

The road I took to get to a career in archaeology involved several u-turns and a few speed bumps.  Here is a quick history.  When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut, an airline pilot, or an archaeologist.  Since my family didn’t have the money for me to realize any of those goals I did what I thought was the next best thing and joined the Navy right out of high school.  I spent the next four and a half years working on EA-6B Prowlers as an aviation electronics technician.  During that time I went on a cruise on the USS Enterprise for six months in the Mediterranean and in the Persian Gulf.  We saw some great cities with great archaeology and history.  At this time, archaeology was something you saw on TV and included crusty old PhDs working in universities.  I never considered it as a career.

Near the end of my time in the Navy a random phone call landed me in commercial flight training at the Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  While there I received my private pilot’s license and finished the training for a few other licenses.  After a year and a half I transferred to the University of North Dakota to continue my flight training at the nations largest and most advanced collegiate flight training school.  UND Aerospace has an amazing program with state of the art aircraft and flight simulators.  It was a great experience.

While I was taking aviation classes I filled up my general education requirements with anthropology classes.  I still loved the science of archaeology, in particular paleoanthropology, but still didn’t see it as a career option.  I’m not sure why.  I think it was still just one of those fantasy fields that you never think you are capable of performing.

After a couple of years I started to lose my desire to fly commercially.  I just didn’t think I would get any satisfaction from shuttling people around the country for the rest of my life.  Sure the pay is good but there are a lot of things you can do that involve less stress if all you want is money.  I need a job that makes me feel good at the end of the day and that I look forward to going to everyday.  Since I still didn’t see archaeology as an option, even though I had taken most of the classes offered, I spent the next couple of years taking photography and math classes just for fun.  I know, I like math.  I’m probably the only CRM archaeologist that has used SOHCAHTOA to determine the exact angle for a transect.

During my penultimate year in college my professor, Dr. Melinda Leach, told me that I could graduate in one year with a degree in anthropology.  I just had to take all of the upper level classes and that would be it.  With no other direction I decided to go for it.  I had to take 18 credits during the fall and 15 credits during the spring and write, I think, five or six research papers during the year but in the end I graduated.  After graduation I went back to Seattle and worked with my brother’s father in law’s home remodeling company.  I hated it.

In the fall I went back to North Dakota to help with the big event that the department had planned the previous year.  We had Jane Goodall coming to speak to a packed house.  One day, while sitting in the student lounge, a former student, and friend, came up to me and said hi.  He was visiting because hurricane Katrina had destroyed his apartment in New Orleans and his company laid everyone off for a little while.  He asked what I was doing.  At the time I was getting ready to go on an Earthwatch expedition to dig in Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.  After that I had no plans.  He asked if I had checked Shovelbums.  Shovel what?

I educated myself on, prepared my CV, and started on a job in Minnesota a week after I returned from Africa.  That was in October of 2005 and I’ve been in CRM ever since.  I’ve worked at all times of the year, on all phases of field archaeology and in 13 states.

In August of 2009 I began a one year MS program at the University of Georgia.  The program was intense but I received my Master of Science in Archaeological Recourse Management in July of 2010.  I’m currently working in the Great Basin of Nevada and love every minute of it!

So, I guess that wasn’t too brief.  My fiancé will tell you that brevity is not a trait that I possess.  Hopefully someone will get out of this that it’s never too late and you are never too old to get into the dynamic field of anthropology.   There are many paths that you can take to get to anthropology and there are just as many that you can take along your career.

My Chief in the Navy once told me how he decides whether a job or a position is right for him.  He said to look around at the people that have been doing your job and are at the ends of their careers.  Are they happy?  Are they doing what you would want to do?  My favorite thing about archaeology is that you can’t really tell what the future will bring.  You could be running a company, teaching at a university, or hosting your own show on the Discovery Channel, if they ever get back to science and history shows and away from reality shows.  The possibilities are nearly endless.

In my next post I’ll talk about the project I’m on right now and the wonders of monitoring.


Written northeast of Winnemucca, NV.