What is archaeology? The Elevator Scenario

In what seemed a cruel exercise in futility at the time, at the beginning of my first semester of graduate school my professor gave all of the students the following scenario: imagine you’re in an elevator with a lawyer who has no clue what an archaeologist does and they don’t really care either; in 150 words, describe ‘what is’ archaeology without using any jargon. My professor called it a ‘thought experiment;’ I called it torture. No jargon? We couldn’t use words like ‘artifact’ or ‘culture.’ Since I couldn’t just write ‘we study dead people’s stuff,’ it took a couple of tries.

Here’s what I came up with (ugh, reading anything from graduate school makes me shudder):

“Archaeologists explore the past through artifacts, which include the art, buildings, and any other items made and left behind by humans. As a processual-plus archaeologist, I study past societies though various artifacts, like Egyptian mummies, and ask scientific questions to understand a society. Popular archaeological areas, such as Mesa Verde or Angkor Wat, offer a spectacular window into the lives of people from thousands of years ago. A physical reminder of the past allows the public to engage history and archaeology firsthand, sometimes without even realizing. Opportunities then rise for archaeologists to draw on already popular archaeological and recreational areas and further connect the public with the past. Educational programs created and implemented by archaeologists aid the public in understanding why preserving history matters. Allowing the public, particularly children, to look at and touch artifacts through educational programs, enable people to fully engage archaeology.”

Hardly a masterpiece. My professor absolutely hated it and I had to re-write the darn thing several times. But I now better understand what my professor was trying to do. He was trying to get each of us out of our own little box in order to relate archaeology to more than just other archaeologists. It’s easy to say, ‘I recently recorded a polychrome sherd and projectile point dating to the Pueblo III period.’ It’s far harder to break that down into laymen’s terms without inadvertently dumbing down the information. Beyond explaining what sherds and projectile points are, you’ll need to get into why you were recording those artifacts (what’s an artifact?!) in the first place, leading into a discussion of cultural resource management, law, and the necessity of protecting and preserving the past. Phew.

Discussing archaeology with a larger audience is difficult but absolutely necessary. The public isn’t going to learn about archaeology through osmosis. It takes practice. I know we’re busy. There are always courses to teach, places to survey, sites to dig, and reports to write, but we also have an obligation to educate the public in some way. Going into classrooms to give presentations, blogging, videos, lectures—there are many ways to engage the public. I love teaching kids using sandboxes full of artifacts and giving presentations to the public. My elevator scenario has changed over the years, but I hope it’s improved.

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