Monday, September 16, 2013

Indiana Jones Would Not Approve

Indy being an archaeologist... or something
If someone brings up the subject of archaeology in conversation, the adventurous Indiana Jones is bound to come into play. Indy is well known for his romps around the mid-20th century world in the classic films where the intrepid archaeologist fights against bad guys with clever wits, a revolver, and agile use of a bullwhip to find and save some priceless artifact (and usually a woman, too). Though we only see him actually teaching class for a few minutes in one of his films, Dr. Jones is a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago.

If you tell your friend that you're interested in archaeology, whether he will admit it or not, the first thing that probably pops into his head is an image of you having exciting adventures just like Indiana Jones. Andy Bryan wrote a hilarious piece touching on this subject and Dr. Jones' unusual career in his post, Back from yet another globe trotting adventure, Indiana Jones checks his mail and discovers that his bid for tenure has been denied.

Unfortunately (or perhaps, quite fortunately, as a lot of people got hurt or died while on adventures with the intrepid Indiana Jones), archaeology in the real world is quite different from what we see in the movies. Most of the work in archaeology is actually rather boring, and it is rather hard, physical work, too. Imagine digging in a single, meter-square hole for a month straight, digging ever so slowly with a trowel, and even more painstakingly slow if and when you do find something interesting. And much of archaeology is actually about not finding anything at all. One of the students at my field school this summer said that she'd worked at a site for six weeks once, and they found absolutely nothing, the entire time.

Archaeological work involves a lot of simply trying to figure out what the heck it is that you're digging up. There's a lot of frustration when what you're finding, or not finding, just doesn't fit or make sense. The work can get very mundane and tedious. And if you're thinking about becoming a professional archaeologist, it generally doesn't pay super well.

So, sorry, Indy, if you don't find much adventure in the idea of actually sitting in a square hole and digging it slowly with a trowel, sifting the dirt, cleaning and sorting the things you may or may not actually find, and then doing all of the lab work to prepare your finds to be cataloged, studied, and probably relegated to a museum basement somewhere.

That said, I do still find a certain draw to archaeology. For me, the adventure is in remembering the fact that I'm given the chance to discover and find something that has not been seen, touched, or used by another human being for hundreds or thousands of years. I get to be a part of the process to discover new things about long gone cultures and civilizations. I get to be a part of the active dialogue in which historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists are constantly reshaping our image of the past - in which we're constantly learning more about how the real, historical world related to the written accounts of history (or lack thereof), and how that history still shapes our lives today.

So if you're looking for adventures of the Indiana Jones sort, you might be interested in being a spy or travel writer, or bounty hunter, but if you like the sounds of what you just read about, you just might be made for archaeology, after all. In the end, archaeology is something you've really got to be passionate about if you want to do it. You'll might be a hit at parties when people ask what you do for a living or when your aunt asks what you want to do with your college education, and you'll probably get to see some really great stuff, handle artifacts that 99% of the world only gets to see in museums (or not at all), work in fantastically cool sites, and meet some really awesome people along the way.

Archaeology may include a lot of boring parts and tedious, frustrating work, but it can also be incredibly fascinating and rewarding.

If you'd like to learn more about it from someone much more experienced in archaeology than I am, check out Not the Discovery Channel.

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