By Katherine Hodge, Public Education Coordinator
- Oh so you’re, like, Indiana Jones?
- Nice, how many dinosaur bones have you dug up?
- What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever found?
These are the most common questions I get after telling people I am an archaeologist. However, I think the most interesting question I’ve ever gotten is:
Is it worth it?
I was asked this during a flight layover one summer. I had been in Israel on a dig and left early to make it to another project I had scheduled in Peru. Exhausted and jet-lagged, I had scheduled an 18-hour layover in a city where I could commandeer a washer and dryer from a friend. To an outsider, this schedule probably seemed insane, which was when my friend asked out of the blue, “Is it worth it?” They were probably referencing the shocking amount of dirt on my clothes, the lack of sleep, or the fact I was chowing down on malaria and altitude pills in preparation for my next dig, but I took it as a question about my chosen profession.
The thing that may unite all archaeologists regardless of age, degree, specialty, or focus would be the answer “yes.”
The common theme amongst archaeologists is that it is not “just a job.” The passion for the profession makes all the challenges and inconveniences worth it. We may not get air conditioning, showers, or safe drinking water. We may not get health insurance sometimes or a huge pay check. We might be covered in dirt most of the time. However, despite all of that, it’s worth it.
Everyone has a unique reason for being an archaeologist and distinctive motivations. In this series, we will talk about how to be an archaeologist and what being one means. There are many, many different ways to become an archaeologist based on what you are interested in and what you want to do professionally. If you only get one thing from these posts, it should be that there is not a set series of steps to become an archaeologist. It is a profession with lots of different paths you can take. The people we’ve chosen to highlight in this series are at different stages in their careers with different specialties, but all are united by an intense love and dedication to their work.
This week, we start with the people in this office: the Interim Director for Project Archaeology, Erika Malo, and our office intern, Tristan Huxtable.
To start off, how did you decide become an archaeologist? What about archaeology interested you?
Erika: I originally wanted to be a wildlife biologist and wanted to specialize in wild cats, but within my first year of college I switched to Anthropology. I wanted to be a Cultural Anthropologist. I knew I loved to travel and loved to figure out what made people tick—why they believed certain things. I entered undergrad with multiple learning disabilities that affected my reading and writing, and anthropology is heavy in all of those aspects. It didn’t play to my strength of visual thinking, but archaeology does. I had this knack in my brain of being able to 3D assemble an archaeological site, particularly a dig, in my brain. I could visualize where all the artifacts were from a day of excavation, and that was really beneficial.
Tristan: When I was 13 I worked for my dad’s excavation company. One of the jobs he took that summer happened to be a homesite on top of a Late Prehistoric bison kill area in southwestern Montana. The landowner knew that I was interested in both bones and history so I was given permission to collect artifacts and ecofacts on the private job site. I found a few projectile points here and there and began to recognize the damage that the site had sustained and understood that I had contributed to the degradation of the cultural features. I guess at that point I decided to use my interests for preservation rather than degradation and become an archaeology student.
Was there any point you decided to do something other than archaeology?
Unfortunately, sometimes the reaction to wanting to be an archaeologist can be negative. Some see archaeology as an unsustainable lifestyle with low paychecks and low job numbers. The added challenge of the amount of school required, the time commitment, and other factors can make it difficult to see to the end.
Tristan: I think my parents would have liked me to go into something a bit more secure if not more profitable, but they’ve come around to the idea of an archaeologist in the family at this point. I did get a lot of weird looks through high school just because so few students go into the sciences where I am from. People tend to stick to the stigma of archaeology as an academic only profession, when really there is a pretty healthy job market in the cultural resource management field.
Erika: Yes. I worked in CRM for 10 years Montana, Alaska, and Minnesota. I moved to Minnesota in 2011 and started a family. I had a hard time finding a year-round position that was not purely a field technician. During an exit interview, I found out that I may not have been hired because I was a woman with a young child, even though it didn’t affect my work performance. That made me give up, so I started working at a vet clinic. Then, I went to school to become an ultrasound tech. I went to thinking that a job was just a job, or just for a paycheck. This was extremely hard for me, so I reached out to the director of Project Archaeology to see if she had any open positions or knew any openings in archaeology education. I had worked for Project Archaeology during my undergraduate degree, and it was always the job that all jobs were compared to. It just so happened that someone was leaving Project Archaeology, so I was able to come on board, and it changed my life.
What about archaeology do you think makes it more than a “job?”
Erika: You need passion. Without passion, it is hard to take on the challenges. I think it’s very similar to people in social work or non-profit careers; we deeply believe in what we do and that it is important to people and communities. Without that belief, you’d be miserable!
Tristan: Archaeology, I think, is one of the few professions that is in a constant state of change, whether it’s in the field of CRM, academia, or public outreach. The way archaeologists interpret past cultures is generally dynamic and is always being influenced by an increasingly broader community of diverse backgrounds. This makes archaeology a really special field for me because I’ve met so many gifted individuals all adding a unique perspective on cultures of the past.
Kate: I think there are a few things, but mostly the human connection. It’s such a powerful and moving priviledge to be able to research and excavate at these sites. You get to see things no one else has in thousands of years, and then you get to tell people about all the amazing things humans have done. I love that excitement and connection, as well as getting to see the strength of human conviction through time. Though I’m biased, I am convinced there is no other job like being an archaeologist.
- This is geared more towards practicing archaeologists, but have the ability to have open and honest conversations. Problems within archaeology won’t change until we have these conversations about what needs to change, like discrimination, sexual harassment, and other important topics. We need to have these conversations, come up with a plan, and implement those changes.
- Stay curious, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to ask “outside the box” questions. It’s those questions that can lead to the most important and significant discoveries. My graduate school advisor, Dr. Diane Hanson, was brave enough to ask unheard of questions, and she changed our understanding of how people lived on the central Aleutian landscape. It all starts with a question.
- Understand that archaeology is just as much about the relationships we make as the things that are in the ground. Both are incredibly valuable to our understanding of the past and present.
1. Never be afriad of going for it. There will be a lot of people who will tell you to give up on archaeology, including yourself sometimes, but don’t be afraid of trusting yourself. Go for the opportunities or things that come your way, you never know where it might lead.
1. Create good relations with your teaching staff, peers within your field, and archaeologists either locally or abroad. The archaeological community (at least in my experience), has a very growth-oriented attitutde. Lots of poeple in and out of your community and field would love to see you succeed as an archaeologist. The contacts you build with professional archaeologists can be instrumental in your future.
You can see from these answers that archaeology means things and is different for those working in it. The one thing that is the same for us all, however, is that all of it is worth it. Archaeology, though I am certainly biased, can be one of the best and most amazing professions on the planet. It allows the unique ability to better understand human history while getting the privilege to interact with artifacts, speak with descendants, and preserve some of the most amazing examples of human ingenuity and creativity for future generations. If you ask me, a little jetlag and dirt is worth it.
As we announced last Friday, our book club book for this series is Pathway to a Ph.D. by Dr. Albert Jose Jones. This book is an autobiography by a man who served in the military, earned a Ph.D. in Marine Biology, and created Diving with a Purpose. This amazing organization conducts marine archaeological surveys and excavations of African slave trade shipwrecks around the world. It also trains young, interested people in the art of maritime archaeology. Dr. Jones’s hard work, dedication, and brilliance made his autobiography a perfect choice to illustrate one of the many paths a person can take on their way to becoming an archaeologist.
At the beginning of his book, Dr. Jones speaks to how his experiences with nature as a young child inspired him to focus on it professionally in the future. As we’ve learned from Erika and Tristan, what we enjoy as children can play an important part in choosing a future career. What did you enjoy as a child that you can see playing a role in your career today? Was there something you wanted to do when you were young that you stopped pursuing at some point as an adult?
Additionally, if reading about archaeologists is fun for you, please check out these other sources highlighting amazing archaeologists working to make the world a better and more informed place.