The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Not Archaeology?

In 1998, I participated in Cabrillo College's field school at the Presidio of San Francisco. We were excavating the original Presidio chapel, erected by Spanish missionaries in the late 18th century, and subsequently buried by the development of the Presidio grounds into a modern Army base. Our location was next to a large parking lot, near a very pleasant grassy area, and very close to many offices and recreation trails. San Francisco tour buses routinely passed by us, as did motorists and many joggers, office workers on their lunch breaks, and people just out for walks. Because of this volume of traffic, and curious onlookers, the head of the field school, Rob Edwards, assigned a different person each day to be responsible for talking with members of the public who passed by.

On one of my days, a man came by, read our sign, and asked "so, you've got archaeologists out here? What other kind of scientists do you have?" I explained that it was just archaeologists, and that this was a field school aimed at training young archaeologists in the discipline. He then proceeded to explain to me that if we didn't have geneticists on-hand, we wouldn't be able to do anything with any bones we found*. He then asked what, specifically, we were finding. I explained that we were digging up the original Spanish Chapel, and that the materials found in the remains of the chapel were telling us more about the people who lived here than had been recorded in the historical record. The guy shook his head, gave me a pitying "you poor, ignorant bastard" kind of look, and said "well, that's not really archaeology. That's cultural anthropology."**

It was the beginning of a thread that has run through my career ever since. I will describe what I am doing or what my research questions are to somebody, and they will, in all seriousness, attempt to inform me that it's not archaeology because it doesn't conform to some weird-ass notion that they have about what archaeology is***.

Sometimes the reason for the person denying that something is archaeology makes a certain degree of contextual sense - clients of mine will often claim that materials on land that they wish to develop is not archaeological in nature, even though it clearly is. This includes everything from historic trash to old contaminated soils to (bizarrely) rock art in one case. Some may have honestly convinced themselves of this position through sheer force of will, while others are simply trying to push me away. Underlying the denial, whether the person honestly believes it or not, is a simple desire to not want to have to deal with whatever mitigation measures may be required. But, in each case, the materials, however much they may fail to meet the general public vision of archaeology, were certainly archaeological in nature.

Stranger are the cases where someone not involved in a project attempts to inform me of "what archaeologists do" because my actual job doesn't match their fantasies. I have been told that historic-era materials are not archaeological. I have been told that performing survey (walking the land and looking for sites) is not archaeology because it doesn't involve digging (at least on the west coast). I have been told that there are no archaeological sites in North American because the people up here didn't build temples or palaces (there are so many things wrong with that particular claim that I didn't even know where to start). And I have been told that I am not an archaeologist because I am not trying to prove either the Bible or the Book of Mormon true.

What I want to know is whether other professionals get this sort of treatment. Are lawyers who specialize in creating contracts told that they aren't practicing law because they aren't involved in the criminal courts? Do podiatrists get told that they aren't practicing medicine because they aren't performing heart surgery? Yeah, they probably do, but that doesn't help me, so screw it.

*An odd assertion, as archaeologists were making sense of bone long before the structure of DNA was discovered. Genetic work has led to some great discoveries in modern archaeology, but you need to have a research question requiring genetic information in order to actually be able to make use of it. Most archaeological research questions simply don't require genetic information.

**As obnoxious as this guy proved himself to be - he stuck around and kept making ignorant statements in line with those described above - at least someone else had "public information" duty on the day that a fellow came by and began going on about how the sphinx were built to scare the dinosaurs away from the lake that used to be near the pyramids. I'm not joking.

***This is not to be confused with friends of mine who describe me as an "un-archaeologist" because I often serve a function of making sure that places are clear of archaeological sites, rather than going to places in order to study sites. I like this title enough that I have occasionally introduced myself as such.


Suzan Harden said...

*sigh* And people wonder why I pulled my kid out of public school.

And yes, you're not the only one with lay people telling you what your profession is. I knew a retired homicide detective who couldn't comprehend that I did not know criminal law when I was a probate attorney.

Anonymous said...

I am (or was... I'm now retired) a psychologist. While I never got the "you're not really a psychologist because you don't do X," I frequently got:

"Oh, its just all common sense anyway" or "They just need someone to talk to" or "People see you when they need some hand-holding?"

And, my favorite: "I don't believe in any of that" accompanied by a jump backwards of at least 2 feet.

Anthroslug said...

After they jumped back, did you lunge at them and shout "Boogedy!" I so totally would have.

I have never understood the antipathy that many people have towards psychologists.

Anonymous said...

LOL! No, I generally just raised one eyebrow (one learns that skill in grad school) and said "Really."

I thought about the boogedy response, though, I really did.

At least I finally came up with a response for the inevitable, "Are you analyzing me" questions... "Only if you pay me huge sums of money."

Anthroslug said...

Good answer.