By Katherine Hodge, Public Education Coordinator
From the outside, it may seem like archaeology is straightforward, with one linear path. You go to school, choose a specialty, get a PhD, and then become a professor. It can even seem this way to students who are just starting out, but archaeology is a type of profession that allows for a huge range of paths, careers, and interests.
Today, we are featuring Dr. Mel Zabecki, the Arkansas State Archaeologist. Dr. Zabecki found out about archaeology in the same way many of us do: becoming
obsessed with Ancient Egypt as a young child. Though she was interested in archaeology, it wasn’t until college that she realized that being an archaeologist was a real job she could pursue. From that point, there was no turning back. Dr. Zabecki decided to earn a Ph.D. in her childhood passion of Egyptology, focusing on human osteology and bioarchaeology. For the next 10 years, she worked in Egypt until deciding to take a step back from academics and pivot to focusing on North America. After starting as a park interpreter in Arkansas, she is now the Arkansas state archaeologist! Read below to learn more about Dr. Zabecki’s work, life, and advice for those interested in pursuing a career in archaeology.
When did you decide to become an archaeologist?
I was enamoured with Ancient Egypt at young age, but I didn’t know you could do it (archaeology) as a career until my 1st semester in college. I declared geology at first, but after realizing archaeology was possible, I changed over. I took ALL the classes I could and then realized I was interested in skeletons. Then,
I decided during my junior year to spend it abroad in Egypt. I went to the American University in Cairo since they had an Egyptology program, and I studied everything! Hieroglyphics, art, mummification, Arabic, even participated in an underwater excavation during the summer of 1995.
How did you pursue it?
After getting my BA and spending a year interning back in Egypt, I went to graduate school and returned to Egypt every year for 10 years for field seasons at various cemetery sites. It was lots of fun, but not sustainable, and I didn’t want to spend my life in academia. I finished my Ph.D. but didn’t like the “publish-or-perish” lifestyle. After adjuncting for a few years at a couple of universities, I took a job at Parkin Archaeological State Park as a park interpreter. I didn’t know anything in my new career—I had collegiate teaching experience and stuff—but public interpretation is completely different. That’s how I got into education and Project Archaeology!
I can’t remember how exactly I found out about Project Archaeology. I knew different network members from different states, but I talked to Gwynn Henderson, a network member from Kentucky who I’d crossed paths with when I was a lab director at the UK Program for Archaeological Research, and she totally blew my mind. I didn’t realize there was a whole curriculum about archaeology, so I went to the 2014 Leadership Academy in Bozeman and that’s how I got into education and Project Archaeology!
Project Archaeology totally set me straight and helped me figure out interpretation through the lens of archaeology. Project Archaeology got me where I am.
What made you decide to be an archaeologist?
National Geographic was definitely a big inspiration! But also, just because I liked to be outside, I like dirt.
Do you have an archaeologist you look up to?
During my year abroad in Egypt, Professor Salima Ikram was my first mentor. She is the face of Egyptology and focused on animal mummies. There is also my graduate school advisor, Dr. Jerry Rose (now retired from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville), who taught me many important things. He taught me to have a strong work ethic, share my data, and not be territorial. Basically, he gave me a moral and ethical compass in archaeology. Salima taught me humor and the fun, Rose taught me how to be a scientist.
Was there any point you almost decided to do something else other than archaeology?
Yes, part way through my dissertation work. I avoided it by taking up a serious hobby of beekeeping. There were statistics in dissertations that made me feel
like I couldn’t do it, and I ended up pretty much giving it up in 2005 when I was three years into writing it. I did finish it, and I am glad that I did.
What do you plan to do with archaeology in the future?
Staying right here as State Archaeologist, trying to get as many people in Arkansas to understand 2 things: 1) Archaeology is not a treasure hunt, it’s a science and 2) Arkansas has amazing history and you don’t have to go to Egypt to learn awesome stuff in the past (and trust me, I’ve been there-done that!).
Do you have any advice for anyone interested in archaeology?
- Don’t let any opportunities go, you don’t know what doors it will open and who you will meet!
- If you can, financially and socially, navigate every possibility that comes your way.
- Figure out what your values are.
- If you don’t know what you want to do, then just do it all until you find what you love.
- Don’t take life so seriously! It’s not as fun when you’re serious all the time. Do what makes you happy.
How do you persevere?