I’ve said it before, archaeology draws certain types of people, although I don’t think I’ve ever elaborated on that topic. When I say certain types of people, I don’t mean that in a bad way. I just mean that of all the people I have met in my time in the archaeology/anthropology world, there seems to be a quality to all of them that isn’t entirely able to be pin-pointed, but feels familiar, because I feel like I have that quality as well. (Nor am I implying that it is anything that makes us superior to everyone else, because it isn’t. Despite what seems to be a rather popular opinion, we are not all stuck up.) If I were to attempt to describe the quality, it would be pure curiosity. Curiosity about the world, about history, about mankind and how we got to where we are now, how our ancestors lived and died, with a keen interest, specifically, on the day to day life. We’re undeniably curious about humanity and how it connects, both to us and the world at large.
People’s curiosity about humanity and it’s long history comes about in several ways; a problem in their life ( death of a loved one, issues with/from a friend, a number of other things), an inspiration by a teacher, a family tradition, a book/show/movie/essay/article that catches the eye, a curiosity that blossoms out of no where, it can be from anywhere and at any point in a person’s life. I’ve known people who were interested from childhood, high school, any younger year, or in college (like myself), but I’ve also known people who are already deep in another career and decided to switch. Young, middle, older, the archaeology bug can get you at any time. It can be a full career switch or a side curiosity.
One thing is for sure though, if you are in this for the long haul, gearing towards a degree and jobs where you are being paid to use the knowledge you’ve accumulated in school, it isn’t going to be easy. I’ve seen several people come to (and in some cases, many cases, leave) anthropology/archaeology classes thinking it will be easy, that they picked an easy general education filler, no problem. Archaeology? Isn’t what Indiana Jones did? Tomb Raider? Don’t they just like, dig up rocks and wear fedoras? Maybe read a book or two on ancient civilizations? Easy right? Welllll not really. I was always curious, at the beginning of every season at the student dig done by my first college, who of the sometimes 40 odd students that arrived the first day in class (The first few days were always on campus, teaching basics before we went into the field.) would still be with the class come backfill day. It would vary between nearly half to only a third or fourth in some cases, but in the end, the conclusion was always the same: several people add these classes thinking it would be easy As, (No, Emma Stone is nowhere to be seen in this.) and when they find out how much hard work it really is, they feel lied to, or perhaps embarrassed, and leave. This is not to say that all the people who do drop out of these classes aren’t hard workers in other things, it’s just proving a point on how archaeology and anthropology is viewed by the world at large. Sometimes a class , one you don’t need or could swap for something else, isn’t worth the effort, so you leave. It isn’t what you thought it was, and that’s alright. At least these people leave knowing what archaeology/anthropology really can contain. But, for those of us who are in it for the long haul, we’re in for many hours and many classes on more than how to dig up artifacts or observe cultures.
Artifact identification, screening, soil floating, laboratory analysis (Including faunal, ceramics, rock, and soil analysis, typology, and much more.), extensive knowledge of biology in some cases, map reading (Topo map anyone?), compass reading, field survival (Pack biodegradable toilet paper and bring plenty of water and sunscreen if you’re going on a survey folks. But that isn’t the only sort of thing we learn.) knowledge of multiple occupation periods, geography, potential weather and/or political/survival conditions at any time of occupation, environmental/state/historic/archaeology laws (HELLO CRM CLASS, you will stay with me forever.), knowledge of excavation/survey tools, metric system, the list goes on and on and on.
I’m not going to lie here, there are times when archaeology/anthropology can be extremely dull. That’s not to say the dull stuff isn’t important, because it is. In fact, the dull stuff, more often than not, is the most important part of the profession. But, after a time, even the dull stuff can be considered in a loving fashion, good memories and that aforementioned curiosity can have a powerful affect on many things. I know, from my own experience, that while taking my CRM (Cultural Resource Management, for those who are not in archaeology.) class, learning about all the laws, acts, bills, etc, could get extremely dull. Not because of the class or the teacher, but rather, the subject. How many ways did we need to say ‘Don’t touch the thing.’ or ‘Don’t do the thing.’ or ‘Why did you do that, okay you did the thing, now you need to do this.’, among other things? But it was important. It was all important, that’s why it was on the curriculum for the degree. But now, a few years on from that class, I find myself going back to those books, looking up the different acts we learned about, mentioning those things in everyday life, because it is something I care about, something that is a part of something I love. The same thought on dullness, in a way, can be applied to things such as excavation and surveying. We can go through levels and levels of debitage (stone tool remnants that are not flakes, things like that), flakes, cores, and FAR (Fire altered rock), and find nothing that many people would consider interesting. I have admittedly seen several people go to excavations and be disappointed when nothing interesting is found. Except for several of those people, those things that seemed to not be interesting before can become interesting. The more you learn about a culture, a people, the more you learn about history, and, specifically for this case, stone tools and what they can tell you, the more things like rock cores, flakes, and debitage can become delightful finds. It’s all about acquiring a love of things that can appear dull at first but are actually lovely. It’s learning to love the bits and pieces of everyday life. Because that is what archaeologists are doing, learning about the everyday lives of people who are long gone. How did they hunt? What weapons did they use? How did they process their food? What did they eat? How would their homes have looked? What materials did they use for their everyday items?
I think I and many others have jokingly called ourselves glorified/over educated trash collectors, because that is what we are. We are digging into and scouring the Earth for trash. We aren’t looking for the big finds (At least, the big finds aren’t our main focus. Sorry Indy fans, we’re more likely to be interested in the pottery sherds and hearth rings left behind than the golden statues.) , we’re looking for the things that were dropped/thrown out by everyday, ordinary people in their everyday/ordinary lives. Our immense, unending curiosity about humanity and it’s inner workings, it’s history, moves us to spend days upon days excavating and surveying in the sun and rain (But not snow usually, especially for surveying, since, well, if we can’t see the ground than the survey isn’t going to work.) all for the love of our curiosity. We just want to understand, to know why we ended up where we are now. We want to understand our past, and hopefully help others become interested in it as well.
Sometimes, I’ll be cataloging artifacts at the place I volunteer at, ( Keep watch for a resources page, coming soon, I’ll put the place’s site up there.) and for the most part I sort of do it automatically, paying attention to what I’m seeing and writing, but never stopping to consider it in all it’s extents. Then, then occasionally I’ll stop and look at whatever it is I’m cataloging, like a dart point or a mortar bowl fragment, and it’ll hit me. “This was created and used hundreds of years ago. Someone took their time, sat down with a hammerstone or a pestle, and created this or worked it. I’m touching something they have touched. I’ve gotten to feel and see a connection to this person who is long gone but not forgotten.” And that is an extremely powerful feeling. I once got to hold a corn cob at a heritage site that was 900 years old and I was struck utterly dumb by it and what it meant.
In an odd way, you could say it’s love, that I and many others are a bit in love with history and archaeology and what archaeology could tell us, and it wouldn’t be a far off assumption. Sure, an attractive, charming, kind person is nice and all, but I can be just as enthralled and excited (NOT LIKE THAT, get your head out of the gutter.) by obsidian flakes or dart points. Saucer mortar sites? Fantastic. Got a box of historical archaeology artifacts? Is that a vintage soda bottle? HI THERE, time to Google and learn more. It’s passion and curiosity, the mystery of a life lived and their waste dropped, with us finding it years later. It’s learning about humanity and it’s innerworkings.
It’s archaeology and a life long love.