The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, February 22, 2010

That Eerie Feeling That Keeps Me Going

One of the things that keeps me going in archaeology is that occasional shiver down the spine, the feeling that "hey, there's something weird, and a bit creepy here."

I get this feeling whenever I know that I am seeing a piece of the truth of the past, but not being allowed to view the whole thing. It's as if there is something that is being kept from me, that I'm not meant to know, and that makes me want to know it all the more.

The first time I can remember getting this feeling, it was discovering the rising sea levels throughout the Holocene (so, basically, since the end of the last Ice Age). During the early and middle Holocene, sea level rise radically changed the outline of the coasts that we know by submerging large portions of the coastal plains. Many of our bays and lagoons were either river valley or depressions until the encroaching sea covered them in water. The idea that land that was once quite hospitable to our ancestors is now a drowned place visible to humans only with great effort (not to mention equipment)...I can't explain what, precisely, but there is something very eerie to me about this, and something very compelling. Driving on the bridges over the San Francisco Bay, one of these drowned river valleys, still kinda' wigs me out.

I have had these "chill down the spine" moments routinely throughout my career. I have had them numerous times while digging a deep excavation unit within a site and realizing that I am the first person in centuries to see the things that I am seeing.

I have also had the feeling when looking at data and trying to figure out what it means. Recently, I wrote a report on a site where the raw materials were all wrong. Good, local materials were not really used, but imported ones were abundant. There was no practical reason for this that I could determine, so I began to wonder what the social reasons were. Was it just a random occurrence, for whatever reason, the people who occupied this site had a large amount of imported stone and just decided to use it? Were the residents of this site elites, using more valuable materials as a show of conspicuous consumption? Were they outsiders, ostracized by the community and reliant on imported materials (and if so, why didn't they just leave)? What was going on here?

Chill down the spine.

Don't get me wrong. I don't do my analysis by emotion. I can gather data and work out statistics perfectly well, and I rely on solid methodology when I work.

But, still, it's that occasional eerie feeling that I'm finding out something that otherwise would remain hidden from the rest of humanity that keeps me going.


Brian J. said...

I know exactly what you mean; I figured, "it's either this, or join the CIA."

Jonathan Dresner said...

Issac Asimov said that the beginnings of science do not come with a "Eureka!" but with "Hmm. That's odd."

Anthroslug said...

Jonathan: I'd not heard that before, but that is pretty much the truth of the matter.

I had not seen the carnival of bad history before, but now that I have, I am looking forward to looking through what you have up.

Jonathan Dresner said...

Unfortunately, the Bad History Carnival has been on hiatus for a couple of years. Some of what we did was quite good, though. I keep thinking that it might be worth bringing back, but I don't know that I have the time and energy at this point.