In this episode, we explore the study of human remains with an emphasis on treating every individual with respect and care. Two bioarchaeologists share their experiences of working with human remains and how to best treat the individuals. Three archaeologists share their collective experiences of excavating a cemetery in New Jersey. Please note that all of the stories recorded were shared by professionals in the field who work within CRM law; this podcast does not endorse the disturbance of burials/human remains without thorough consultation, working within CRM law, and extreme care.
I love a good pun. An exhausted core is a piece of rock that has had so many flakes knocked off of it during the process of flint knapping, that it can’t be used for anything else. So, it gets thrown out. And falls asleep (har har).
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.
I think we did a great job going into the pros and cons of potentially going back to school. Give it a listen!
Episode Summary: Today the panel discusses getting back into the grove of grad-school, especially after taking a break. They discuss reasons to delay going into grad-school, how to pay for it when you do go back, how to survive school/life balance, and what to do with your degree once you get out.
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!
I actually had this conversation at a party–okay, it’s a little exaggerated, but this person really had skull fragments and artifacts from a site he visited back in the 1970s. He said the site had been badly looted, so what did it matter if he took stuff, too? Everyone else was doing it. I kept hinting at repatriation and how wrong it is to steal artifacts, but it fell on deaf ears. People need to understand that it’s both unethical and illegal to remove artifacts from archaeological sites. It doesn’t matter if ‘everyone is doing it.’
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.
In a nutshell, sexual harassment is surprisingly pervasive throughout archaeology. It can be found in academia to fieldwork. It is being committed by supervisors to entry level field techs–and it needs to stop. I am very proud to have been part of this discussion.
Episode Summary: Today the panel discusses the way women archaeologists are represented in a variety of media including TV, Movies, and Video Games. We talk about what there is out there for us, and what kinds of role models we’d like to see going forward. We’re also joined by special guests Chelsea Rose of Time Team America fame and Meghan Dennis aka @GingeryGamer.
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.