indiana jones

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.

Who is a “Real Archaeologist”?

“Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library. Research. Reading.”

Which eminent scholar confidently states that statistic? Certainly someone from the last half-century, right? Perhaps an archaeologist who is concerned with the inherently destructive nature of our field.

Nope. Indiana Jones.

He utters these words in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It rings ironic not only just for the general practices of this fictional character, but also because he has just told his students that archaeology is not “about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world,” yet he is about to hand the speciously-acquired Cross of Coronado to Marcus Brody. (more…)

Indiana Jones was Right.

I’m not sure how many of us would admit this, but I decided to become an archaeologist because of Indiana Jones. He had it all: action, adventure, the whip and fedora. And the theme song. Man, that theme song! When I was a kid, I used to spend my summers on the boat at Elephant Butte Lake in southern New Mexico, begging my dad to take me to Hospital Canyon so that I could see the building that were lurking just below the surface of the water. Each time we went, I would look down into the water, see the wooden buildings and tell myself that one day, I would go down there. Afterall, Indy would want me to.
Fast forward twenty years. I no longer live in southern New Mexico but in Northern Michigan. I never did get to go and check out the buildings of Hospital Canyon, but I did decide to follow in Indiana Jones’s footsteps. Kind of. I am a student of archeology, you see- nautical archaeology. Not something I would have expected from myself having grown up in the deserts of New Mexico, but there you are. I am not a diver, which some might think would hinder my ability to participate in field work. When I started studying the subject, I honestly thought the same thing. As it turns out, Lake Michigan is the place to be this summer.
I teamed up with a couple of NASII students this summer to do a project at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire, Michigan. We were lucky enough to have this amazing speciman wash ashore this past fall after what amounted to an inland hurricane. The structure was magnificent! We worked with an amazing archaeologist who helped guide us in our work, encouraging us in every way. I can’t speak for the rest of the team, but it was my Indiana Jones “moment” and the coolest day of my life. When the survey was over, we divided up the what needed to be done to get the monograph complete and went home.
Which brings me to today. Today, I am reminded of something that Dr. Jones told his students before he went off to find action and glory. He said that “Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library; research, reading.” That is what I am doing today: research and reading. It’s nothing glamorous, or sexy. And I am certainly not getting dirty digging in the dirt, or in this case knocked around by waves. But there is certainly a lot of work that goes into historical research of an unidentified vessel, the region it was found in, the circumstances under which it was found, and how it might possibly fit into the grand scheme of things. Thankfully, I spent most of my time in the library when the project plan was developed so today is dedicated to internet research: images mostly- period maps, lighthouse logs, meterological reports. This is something I can do comfortably in my pajamas at my kitchen table.
Today isn’t the most glamorous day of my archaeological career, and I’m sure it won’t be the last day like it. But I know that I can say that with each bit of research I uncover, I am that much closer to uncovering the mystery identity of this unknown shipwreck. And as I sit here at the kitchen table, coffee in hand, I know that the fictional archaeologist was right. Archaeology is a lot of research. But the day that I go back out into the field, I will most definitely be humming my own theme song.

Gaming in Archaeology

Today for me is probably not what you would call a typical archaeologist’s day; although it has become quite typical for me. I’m the head video game designer on the project Red Land Black Land. The game we are designing is a modification of Sid Meier’s Civilization V and is going to serve as an educational game about the development of Ancient Egypt. The game has an archaeological spin to it, in that we are modifying the advisors to be archaeologists instead of economists, diplomats or scientists.

Today I’m primarily working on the development of dialogue and content to the game. Instead of making witty remarks and pithy banter, the characters will have historically and archaeologically accurate facts to teach the players. Every word that comes from the advisors is based on archaeological, historical, or textual evidence. The work itself is actual quite similar to trying to prepare to do any fieldwork or analysis of Ancient Egypt, except instead of applying this knowledge to create questions for fieldwork I am developing questions that players can explore in the game.

Archaeology has had a bumpy relationship with video games. Characters like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft play on stereotypes that we as archaeologists have worked so hard to dispel. Through mainstream video games, the archaeologist is akin to an imperial looter, stealing from ‘primitive’ cultures and disregarding any from of academic or scientific process. Its not like Dr. Jones took the time to take careful notes on the provenience of the golden idol before having to make a mad dash out of the tomb. By creating accessible and most importantly fun video games that accurately represent archaeology and the process of interpreting the past we can help to create a better public understanding of what we do.

But the digital archaeologist/video game designer is only a third of who I am. For my mortuary archaeology, check out my site Bones Don’t Lie, and for public archaeology check out MSU Campus Archaeology


[Image from Flikr user Marta Manso and used under Creative Commons License]