The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why I Stay in Archaeology

I have had mixed feelings about my line of work. I have written previously about the annoying schism between resource management archaeologists such as myself and academic archaeologists. I have written about frustrations with a few (thankfully, very few) clients and projects, as well as frustrations with some agencies.

And yet I stay in this profession. I would even go so far as to say that, despite my occasional angst, I enjoy this profession. Why?

Well, a part of it is that it feels good to protect something for the sake of other people. It is a rare thing that I recommend protection of a site and then am able to do research-related work on it myself. Rarer still are the sites that I recommend protection for that I am able to visit for non-research or management purposes later. When I do recommend protection, I usually recommend the least impactful thing possible, which means that I recommend against archaeological investigation if at all possible, so I don't make any additional money off of the site, either. What this means is that the site is preserved for interested parties (Native Americans in the case of prehistoric and some historic sites, descendants or members of the interested public for other historic-era sites) and for research archaeologists, who will be armed with the tools and methodology to do a better job than the constraints of my job sometimes allow. The point is, I don't usually benefit from this, but I feel good knowing that someone else will.

Another significant reason that I stay is, for lack of a better way of putting it, I have been developing a sense of adventure. Now, archaeology is not an Indiana Jones-esque enterprise in which we risk life and limb on a regular basis (in fact, if our safety protocols have been well developed and executed, we should be in considerably less risk of harm than the average construction worker). However, we go places that most people don't, and we see things that most people can't on a regular basis. On any given work day, I am as likely to be in the field as in the office, and while much field work is enjoyable but unexciting, there are many days when I will be walking along a ridgeline looking down into the agricultural valleys of southern California, or I'll be hugging a cliff side in the Sierra Nevadas, or I'll be opening up a 1,000-year-old grave in the Napa Valley. Also, I am the only person I know who is not in the military who, in the course of a single week, has used as transportation all of the following: a helicopter, a 4-wheel drive truck, a boat (mutha'fucka'), and my ol' trusty hiking boots. I have been caught in freak snowstorms (twice), walked through Kern County's oil fields in 110+ degree temperatures (while carrying 30 pounds of equipment strapped to me), hiked for three hours carrying all of my camping and excavation equipment on my back, and stayed in 4-star casino hotels for meetings in which I would be accused of all manner of evil-doing by county planners. I have learned to speak diplomatically to armed ranchers who are worried about trespassers, to chase off packs of dogs using nothing but my voice, and how to deal calmly with the nut-jobs that one sometimes finds in isolated places. My job is often frustrating, sometimes unpleasant, but it is rarely boring. Considering that just a few years ago I considered spending a few days away from home an annoying disruption of my routine, I would say that the fact that I have come to appreciate, and even crave, these sorts of events indicates definite personal growth.

Related to the last point, another reason that I stay in archaeology is that I have the best work-related stories. Seriously. Most of my friends have work stories about what a tool their boss is or what wacky things their co-worker did with the photocopier, or more seriously, what they are doing to work their way through their employer's advancement process. These stories are entertaining, often hysterically so, or interesting, but they are of a different flavor altogether from my experiences. My stories involve hiking down a mountain hoping to escape a snowstorm, or being trailed by large animals in the wilderness, or a county coroner forcing me to use my Ford Escort as a transport for human remains*, or having to walk around with gas detection badges to let me know if death or injury via hydrogen sulfide is imminent. They are not inherently any more interesting than the stories that my friends have, but they are more unusual and therefore telling them once always results in my friends insisting that I tell them again when I am introduced to someone new.

The joy of discovery should also not be ignored. Most of my projects are relatively cut-and-dry. I go out to a place where some sort of construction project is proposed, I look for archaeological sites. If I find them, they are usually of standard types that I see routinely, and I record them. Sometimes I have to engage in small scale excavations to determine if a site is eligible for federal or state historic registers (they usually aren't). I then write a report and send it to the client, and my work is done. But sometimes things are a bit different. I have found weird and unexplained earthworks in the hills of eastern California; I have recorded sites covered in so much spectacular rock art that I spent weeks on end staring in amazement; I have excavated sites that were in the wrong location for the type of sites that they were, and contained the wrong kinds of materials for their region, meaning that something interesting was happening there that defies all of our models of prehistoric human behavior; and I have input data into a spreadsheet, run some statistical tests, and discovered that a set of data requires revision of my assumptions about the way that humans interact with their world. These are great moments, and they are not only intellectually rewarding, but I find myself in a state of physical euphoria when they occur.

There is, of course, a sense of mystery inherent in some of this work (though, it should be said, that this is a rather small portion of the work). Most of the time it is just a job, but every now and again, I get this feeling, like a chill running down the back of my neck. I'll be excavating a pit, and will pick up a spear point, and realize that I am the first human in two thousand years to see or touch it. On other occasions, I'll look at a landscape, and will see it not as it is now, but as it was centuries ago, and realize that even in a large crowd, I am the only person present who is seeing what I see. At times like this, I feel as if I am seeing something that is hidden, that has been locked away from humanity, but of which I now have the privilege of getting just a fleeting glimpse. It is maddening, but also thrilling, and while it doesn't happen very often, I always want more.

And finally I have to admit that a part (though an increasingly small part) of the reason that I stay in is the fact that I have invested so much time and energy into this career path - between time spent on the job and time, energy, and money spent getting the training and the Bachelor's and Master's degrees - that I am loathe to leave it. Several years back, when I had not yet grown accustomed to the crazy lifestyle that archaeology imposes on you, I was unhappy but stayed with the job because I didn't want all of that energy to have been spent for nought. Now, however, I find myself increasingly enjoying the job, and I am glad that I stayed with it.

*Seriously, this happened.


Terry said...

Got here via a link from Jay Lake.

Thanks for this, it's lovely. I'm a biologist, or I was until decades of service in state government turned me into a bureaucrat who sometimes gets to visit the biology I'm supposed to be protecting, and in the early years, my experience was similar.

Anthroslug said...

Thanks for reading.

I have applied for government jobs myself specifically for the job security and higher pay than the private companies in my field provide. But I have been worried that I might get too far removed from the resources that I work with were I to get such a job.

Of course, that doesn't stop me from applying.

NKent805 said...

I know this is an old blog post but I just started reading your blog. I am a Chumash Native and I like reading from an Archeaologist who is working in California. I wish more would blog and spread the importance of preserving California's archaeological sites to prevent looting. These sites our very important for the cultural patrimony for the indigenous people who have lost so much of it thru looting, unregulated construction and building,?and sometimes all out Cultural appropriation of artifacts like Clovis Points and attributing them to the European Solutrean Points done by certain Smithsonian Archeaologists. How can Native People and Nations protect their cultural patrimony from the American public trying to strip it from them?