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.

The Dangers of Survey

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You wouldn’t think simply walking across the landscape looking for tiny flakes, bits of pottery, and the occasional structure, would be dangerous–well, you’d be wrong.  It is surprisingly dangerous.  Trees just appear out of NOWHERE!

Artifacts: What Keeps the Archaeology World Spinning

What is an artifact? Literally anything made by human hands: an arrowhead to a rusted out tin can. Without artifacts, there really wouldn’t be much for archaeologists to do. No beautiful projectile points to drool over, nothing to painstakingly record. And, perhaps most frightening, no Indiana Jones to steal golden statues from temples and wrench dangerous artifacts away from Nazis. And what would archaeology be without Indiana Jones, eh? When I’ve described the actual definition of an artifact to the public, I get completely different reactions depending on whether my audience consists of children or adults.

Kids really get a kick out of being told that anything made by human hands is an artifact—a pencil, a table, a plate! I had one young boy ask me, seriously, if his poop was an artifact, since he made it; after trying really hard not to laugh, I told him, that since his hands didn’t make it, that no, poop isn’t an artifact. Aren’t kids great? Adults, on the other hand, focus more on the necessary age something has to be to be considered an artifact. In the U.S., something—a tin can or pottery fragment—has to be at least 50 years old. That gets a few guffaws about how some of them could be considered an ‘artifact’ (although, not technically). I did send my dad the application National Register for Historic Places when he turned 50, quite the gag gift for a history buff.

*Please note: it is ILLEGAL to take artifacts from archaeological sites located on public lands (i.e. NPS, BLM, State Park, etc.). So, let’s say you’re walking along a lovely trail at a National Park and you see the coolest arrowhead or the most beautiful piece of ancient pottery. Is it okay to look at? Yes. Is it okay to take a picture of it? Yes. Is it okay to put it in your pocket and weasel away with that artifact? NO! Always—ALWAYS—put artifacts back where you found them.

Women in Archaeology Podcast: WHAT’S IN YOUR PACK, WOMEN’S EDITION – EPISODE 8 (August 21, 2016)

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I love being part of the Women in Archaeology Podcast group!  This was a fun one to record!  There’s some good advice, too, if you’re interested in becoming a field archaeologist.

Episode Summary: Today the panel discusses their essential field gear, How to Go in the field, what to do about Flo, and basic first-aid training and essentials.

Women in Archaeology Podcast-Episode 4, Part 1: PELISKA’S SURVEY RESULTS, PART 1 – EPISODE 4 (June 26, 2016)

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I really enjoyed being on this discussion panel.  This episode is about:

Today we begin talking about the Results of a Survey for Field Archaeologists / Culural Resource Managers by Charles J. Peliska. We look over education, gender, and the pay gap and try to figure out some reasons behind the differences. This is part one of a two part discussion.