How to Talk to an Archaeologist

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Like many archaeologists I spend 1/4 of my year in a hole in the ground.

This is the kind of thing that happens to me because I’m an archaeologist. I call Visa to put a travel alert on my credit card. I’m on hold. Enya “Sail Away”* is playing. I’m irritated because I’m on hold, but if I must be on hold, yeah, I’ll listen to “Sail Away.” Good choice Visa.

Visa representative: “Hi thank you for holding. My name is Rubin. Could you state your name please?”

Me: “Annelia Alex.”

Rubin: “And how can I help you today Ms. Alex.”

Me: “I need to put a travel alert on my credit card.”

Rubin: “Okay we can do that for you today Ms. Alex. And tell me where and when will you be traveling?”

Me: “Okay I’m already in Israel, but from February 14- 18 I’ll be in Armenia, then back in Israel, and then on March 2- 9 I’ll be in Morocco. I’ll be in Germany mid-April, but I’m not sure the exact dates.”

Rubin: “Oh wow. Quite the traveler!”

Me: “Sure.”

Rubin: “Israel and Armenia—do you mind me asking, is this for pilgrimages?”

Me: “No.”

Rubin: “Oh okay. I thought it might be for pilgrimages because Israel and Armenia are very holy places…”

Me: “Yeah, but no…”

Rubin: “Okay well we can set that travel alert.”

Me: “Great.”

Rubin: “So do you mind me asking, why do you travel to these places?”

Me: “I’m an archaeologist.”

Rubin: “Oh wow! That’s fantastic. It must be really exciting.”

Me (with painfully forced enthusiasm): “Sure is!”

Rubin: “I wish I could do something like that. Hey—can I ask you a question?”

Asking me if he could ask me a question was in fact a question.

Me: “Okay.”

Rubin: “So I have read they found a Noah’s Ark in Turkey and one in Armenia. Which is the real one?”

I missed being on hold: Sail away, sail away, sail away…

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Often when I meet someone new and mention that I’m an archaeologist, they say, “Wow I’ve never met an archaeologist.”

I always respond deadpan, “Really? That’s weird. Most people I know are archaeologists.”

It’s a joke, you see. I actually understand that archaeology is an obscure career, but because I have that career I meet a lot of other archaeologists. So yes, most people I know are archaeologists. Did I explain that joke to death?

It might happen to you someday. You might be in a bar and you might meet a sassy archaeologist like me (because that’s where sassy archaeologists hang out, when they aren’t in a cave in the Altai or a paleoethnobotany lab or something). If you don’t want to blow it, here are some tips on how to talk to an archaeologist:

1) Do not liken the archaeologist to Indiana Jones.

I know you think it’s charming and original, but it is so not. Nearly everyone says that. Scrolling through my first 100 messages on OkCupid reveals the following supporting data: 47% referenced Indiana Jones, 22% did not, and 31% cannot be determined because they were written in Hebrew.

Secondly, yes, we love Indy as an action hero, but he was a terrible archaeologist. He swashbuckled and plundered. He had reckless methodology and demonstrated no knowledge of archaeological theory. He was not advancing the field; he was treasure hunting. Would I make out with him? Obviously. Would I award him tenure at the University of Chicago? No.

(And here is a satirical tenure rejection letter to Indy that every archaeologist posted on fb when it was first written:

http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/back-from-yet-another-globetrotting-adventure-indiana-jones-checks-his-mail-and-discovers-that-his-bid-for-tenure-has-been-denied)

Academic archaeology is tedious and arcane. We devote years to developing narrow specializations, such as charcoal identification, ceramic typology, stone tool production, and sediment analysis, in order to answer obscure Ph.D.-worthy questions like: How was ceramic imagery used to construct or resist gender norms in pre-Formative Olmec society? Did diversification of marine resources in Late Bronze Age Arabia facilitate wider social transformations? Do oxygen isotopes in fossil ungulate teeth record seasonality that exerted an evolutionary pressure on early Homo?

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Real archaeology is less of this, and more of…

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…carrying buckets of dirt,

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…straightening bent wires into straight wires so we can properly tag artifacts,

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…trying to salvage bones that got flooded, moldy, and infested by rats while in storage…

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…and studying dirt at the microscopic level.

Thus when some dude in a bar says to me, “So you’re just like Indiana Jones?”

I’m compelled to explain, “Well actually I’m more of an archaeological biogeochemist. I focus on radiocarbon dating to improve our understanding of where, when, and under what socioenvironmental contexts Neanderthals and our modern human ancestors met and in some cases interbred…”

He looks vacant.

If he’s cute I say, “So yeah, I’m just like Indiana Jones” and he looks satisfied.

If he’s not I say, “No. Nothing like Indiana Jones” and frown until he slinks away.

2) Be aware that archaeologists have nothing to do with dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago. Archaeology begins about 2.5 million years ago with the earliest artifacts, putatively some stone tools found in Ethiopia (Semaw et al 1997: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v385/n6614/abs/385333a0.html).  Just like you, everything I know about dinosaurs I learned between ages 5-8 or from watching Jurassic Park. In other words, I believe that if you don’t move T. Rex can’t see you.

IMG_1546It may look like we’re on a dinosaur safari, but we’re just looking for plain old human bones.

3) Archaeology excavations are not like camp.

Well they are like some kind of camp—something between summer camp and boot camp, but not quite concentration camp. No sane professional archaeologist enjoys excavations. They are physically, intellectually, socially, and emotionally draining. You live and work with 10-50 colleagues for numerous weeks, usually under conditions conducive to nothing but insanity. There is no time for free time and no space for personal space. You’re stranded at work all summer long.

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Does this look like camp to you??

Once upon a time excavations were fun, when we were undergraduates and just required to wake up, tie our shoes, not screw up too much while digging, wash some pottery, get drunk, and repeat. After that, as graduate students or professionals, we care too much about the methodology and results to have fun. We need things done right. Our careers and humanity’s understanding of the past are at stake.

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Now that I’m a supervisor, excavations are no fun!

Yes, there are aspects of the experience that are still enjoyable and certainly rewarding—or we would have quit long ago. We like the travel. We like being off the grid. We like you thinking, based on Facebook pictures and a priori notions, that our summers are exotic and thrilling. I’m a whistle blower for revealing the truth: excavations suck, but we still want you to be jealous of them.

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Okay the off-the-grid travel is great.

4) Don’t ask, “What is the coolest thing you’ve ever found?”

The coolest thing I’ve ever found is nothing. The best thing that can happen in a given day is digging through sterile (meaning no artifacts or bones) sediment (what you would call dirt). When we find something we have to halt our meditative and/or mindless digging and concentrate. We have to carefully document its context with drawings, photographs, labels, and measurements. Fucking graph paper is usually required. When we have recorded every detail of its location, orientation, and essence, we carefully remove it from the ground and put it in proper storage. Then we realize we forgot to do something and we hope no one ever notices.

Ideally someone will find something spectacular that makes the site famous and all of our efforts worthwhile. I just don’t want to be that person. I want to find sterile sediment.

5) And most importantly don’t say, “I always wanted to be an archaeologist when I was a kid, but then I had to get a real job.”

What do you think? That it’s fake job? That we’re paid by fairies with Monopoly money? I’m guessing if you’re a doctor, lawyer, or banker, you had plenty of advantages and opportunities to pursue a path of your choosing. You could have been an archaeologist. It is a real job. But I’m glad that you didn’t because there aren’t that many tenure track professorships, so the fewer aspiring archaeologists, the better my chances.

So what should you say if you meet a sassy archaeologist in a bar?

“Cool. Can I buy you a drink?”

 

*correction: the song is called Orinoco Flow, but I think more people know what I’m talking about if I call it Sail Away.

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135 responses to “How to Talk to an Archaeologist

  1. Could you do a piece on the archaeological community’s riot in response to rumored casting of Robert Pattinson as the new Indiana Jones?

  2. Excellent article. You nailed it! I am a cultural anthropologists, but I spent no less than five summers doing digs and survey. The best day, finding NOTHING! HA LMAO! Isn’t that the truth because when you find something you almost always have to use “fucking graph paper” and that just plain sucks! Too funny.

  3. Reminds me of having once asked an entomologist if his work was researching the City’s butterflies and then classifying them. It was the mental image that came up, like somebody chasing Monarch butterflies with a net. I blame children’s books — haha. He frowned at me and said, actually I’m more into farm pests, like for Bayer and such pesticides.

  4. I did history as a major and archaeology as a minor at uni. I have always wanted to do archaeology in Japan. Trouble is it is such a closed industry, very few foreigners ever have the chance. Enjoy what you do because you can.

  5. I had almost exactly the same run I the my bank rep this summer. I excavatr in Israel and Armenia as well.. nice to know I wasn’t the only one who found their “questions” rather redundant.

    Dig like a champion. 🙂

  6. Whoever wrote this is not an archaeologist.
    They are an academic.
    Archaeologists spend 90% of their time in the field.

  7. Yes! so so true 🙂

    But erm…Beki you are quite wrong. There are all types of archaeologists. From lab rats to diggers. Some of us spend all their time in lab, and some of us work contractually in the field all the time. Some of us do research (academia), some of us work for the heritage/sector. Archaeology is the study of past human activity and material cultural. Hence an archaeologist partakes in that study. There is no requirement for an archaeologist has to ‘spend 90% of their time in the field’.

  8. Ha, ha – I have had that same conversation with my bank rep many times. The worst times were when I was already in the field but they had blocked my debit card even though I HAD put a travel alert on it before leaving – it takes it to a whole new level when you have to do it over Skype through a dial-up connection that keeps cutting out…..

    I have to say though that I disagree with your take on excavations (and no, I am not new at this, as the reference to dial-up should give away) – the lack of privacy is a bit annoying, but the actual digging is still one of my favorite things to do……. But then I’m an osteologist, which doesn’t require quite as much heavy manual labor as digging, say, test pits – it’s more of a “brush brush, air puff” approach, pretty meditative at times 😉

  9. Ahh, don’t I know these! Starting with Indy all the way to the dinosaurs…

    … and as being into geoarchaeology, I loved the “studying dirt at the microscopic level.”!! XD

  10. Well I’m not any of the cool things that all of you are. I’m just a regular worker at a Best Buy in Miami, Fl. I have never traveled to any of these cool places but I must say this article was fun to read!! And the crazy part is…most of the things that annoyed her is probably something I would’ve said or asked trying to be humorous and make conversation. :-/

  11. I’m glad that you mentioned archaeologists working with early tools and people, not dinosaurs. I have been interested in becoming an archaeologist, and I wanted to learn about early peoples. It’s good to know that you often look for artifacts rather than dinosaur bones.

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