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. I thought it was an interesting post. I don’t like explaining things much so I can see the irritation in explaining your profession continually. And Indy was the greatest archeologist ever. Except when he was in that nightmare hiding from radiation fallout in a closet. Or was it a refrigerator. He needs to focus on his rivalry with dead Belloq. Maybe he can do an excavation of Nazi graves, too.

  2. First Santa Clause and Now Indiana? What is the world coming to? BTW, awesome post….hope you find lots of hidden treasures (only kidding!)

  3. I quite enjoyed and can relate to this! 🙂

    I used to work in graphic design; a field which, like yours, as a fair few myths and misconceptions surrounding it and most people who don’t work in it have no clue how utterly pedestrian and unremarkable it can be in the main.

    For every one interesting project that comes along that you can really sink your teeth into, there’s hundreds of small boring ones that you have to slog through.

    For every renowned graphic designer who has hit pay dirt by creating a corporate identity package that is recognized in every nook and cranny of the world, there are many, many more slogging away at less glamorous but more plentiful, relatively anonymous projects.

    Then, especially when you’re freelance, there’s all the paperwork, negotiations and other aspects of the business end of things you must tend to before the creative process can even begin. Most folks have no idea how much taking care of the business end can drain your creative energies.

    Some folks truly have no idea how to talk to you once you tell them what you do or, in my case, used to do.

    My advice to anyone who meets a graphic designer in a bar is the same as your advice for meeting an archaeologist: The best thing to say is “Can I buy you a drink?”

  4. Thank you for sharing this story/experience. I would probably be the one to ask what is the coolest thing you found. Or coolest place you have been too. Overall these are the stories I like reading. “What its like to be me” pieces

  5. “Archaeological biogeochemist” sounds like the coolest profession I’ve ever heard of! Just the order, profundity and detail with which you must understand the incremental growth of civilization, makes me jealous. Happy excavating!

  6. Yeah, people often prefer fiction to reality. Or they’re just uninformed. I’m sure that you’re making more of an impact than Indiana Jones ever did (I’m curious if Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon bred together too).

    And I love Orinoco Flow! I wish more hold songs were that one.

  7. I can relate to this. I did two years of CRM or cultural resource management mainly doing phase II environmental assessments (survey ) I hated the work. Briar hopping and playing billy goat on a side of a ridge was no fun. I enjoyed working in the lab much more than being in the field

  8. I can relate to this. I did two years of CRM or cultural resource management mainly doing phase II environmental assessments (survey ) I hated the work. Briar hopping and playing billy goat on a side of a ridge was no fun. I enjoyed working in the lab much more than being in the field

  9. I need to write up one of these …I work M-F at an out-patient Psychiatric Clinic. The Nurse Ratchett comments are endless. … and only one time was accurate… maybe twice. …

  10. Pingback: This week in anthropology, bioarchaeology, and archaeology | New Life in Buried Bones·

  11. To be honest, I think that people are generally very bad at having conversations with each other nowadays. I say this because I am a chiropractor and a teacher, and when people meet me in social situations their frag response is “so you break necks?” or “I’m too freaked out by chiropractors” or “I had this really bad experience once…”. All really rude things to say to a person that you just met. Obviously, I assume positive intent, that perhaps they were just trying to make conversation but lacked the ability to form an intelligent response.

  12. Reblogged this on Reflections and commented:
    As a cultural anthropologist who has dabbled in a bit of archaeology in the hot and hot and dusty four corners area, I spent a week sifting through white silky sand to find coprolites (if you don’t know what this is, just google it…) … and you’ll understand why archaeologists are required to have a good sense of humor! For the record, I loved every minute of it – unearthing woven fibers of fabric made hundreds of years ago by human hands, dusting off the corners of an ancient stone hearth…

  13. I would ask a variant on #4, I would ask what’s the most interesting thing you have found and then listen raptly while you described the context. And make sure you don’t get thirsty while you tell it.

  14. Wonderful post. I’m Studying Archaeology and Mediaeval History at University, and while I do enjoy every minute of it I do find that I can emphasise with some of your points. I used to work at a Castle in Scotland, and would follow the archaeologists around like a lap-dog whenever they came on site. They never found anything more interesting than a victorian tobacco pipe though!

  15. Very intresing story, I beleive you lead an interesting life even if it is physically hard work. The travel would be wonderful initially, then I imagine the thrill must wear off to a degree. I would miss family and am guessing you do too when away for long periods. I was always interested in archeology as a child and still find hearing about new finds very interesting although I admit knwing next to nothing about the reallity of it all. Thank you for your story Dianne

  16. Can I ask a question please? If I always way interested in this area of study, Where should I start? I am single, my family is grown, I have a degree so I am ready to dig in the dirt, and I am a DAV and have my passport.

  17. Sweet, so well said. I’m also an archaeologist, and people don’t really understand what that is, in fact I often get the question, “So you dig up dinosaurs?” Ugg. And who doesn’t want Indiana Jones in thier bedroom? So sexy, but it’s just a movie…

  18. Your “straightening bent wires into straight wires so we can properly tag artifacts” made me laugh. It reminded me of a moment in time when I was crouched in a giant, empty fish tank, scrubbing it with cleanser and a brush to prepare it for the next experiment, and thought, “I went to University for this?” Of course, it was only the first of many tanks to be scrubbed.

  19. Personally, I either just said my life is in ruins…or regaled them with fun stories of being stuck for an hour in a Soviet elevator the size of a phone booth with nine other archeologists or about surviving the summer of the Coup that brought down the Soviet Union while in Ukraine, or about the five- spiced woodchuck I had on my birthday one field season… really the gross, wacky, scare the tourist white, type of field stories are endless. After a few minutes they slink quietly away muttering vaguely they had no idea archeology was that weird, dangerous, banal, yucky etc. Occasionally, you get the one reverent hanger-on that then worships you from afar until you can escape. The problem is that Anthropology in all of its facets is inherently zenopheliac, and all field work is, therefore, conducted outside of our regular social setting and without significant others, forcing us into all kinds of strange behaviors, with alcoholism and adultery being the most common self destructive behaviors. But you get to see amazing off the grid travel spots, meet all kinds of wild people, eat weird foods, and play in the dirt. Ok flattening out a profile wall and sketching it isn’t the most exciting way to spend an hour of your afternoon, but it is cool one nonetheless.

  20. Your post is awesome! 🙂 It made me laugh and really, good job for having a career in archaeology! I took a few courses in archaeology and I was bored out of my mind. Also, I got quite frustrated when we were asked to dig in a trench for simulation (professor and a group of students buried the ‘artefacts’ years ago and we had to apply all the methodologies related to archaeology from getting water out when it rained, measure depth every now and then, drawing the site, bag, tag and wash). Everyone, except me, found something by the end of the first dig! Urgh… I was too impatient except I was rewarded with a giant piece of pottery on the second or third dig. So, I totally agree on the “don’t ask me what is the coolest thing you found”… it can get really frustrating..

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