November 10, 2010

The Realities of Archaeology

Every now and then, McSweeney's runs an essay that I find funny. This is perhaps the best one yet - although its hilarity arises from the fact that it is so spot-on. So all the 10-year-olds out there who want to be archaeologists should take heed!

So You Wanted to Be an Archaeologist...
BY
Scott C. Reynolds

In the winter of your tenth year, your letter to Santa Claus consisted of the following items:

• Bull Whip
• Fedora
• Leather Jacket
• Globe
Wheelock's Latin
• Optimus Prime

You had recently seen Raiders of the Lost Ark and were obsessed with becoming an archaeologist, just like your new hero, Indiana Jones. You were sure that with all the accouterments of the profession in hand you'd be jetting off to discover fortune and glory in exotic lands in no time. Optimus Prime was on the list because you were ten and trucks that turn into robots were awesome. Plus you'd need a modern relic of appropriate weight to swap out for some treasure, should it come to that.

You skated through high school with grades just high enough to be respectable and test scores that ensured your entry into the college of your choice. It's not that you were lazy per se; you just chose to study ancient cultures on your own at the expense of doing your biology homework. You figured the general curriculum of public school was fine for most kids, but when you already know what you want out of life, it's up to you to pursue it on your own terms.

College was another story. You had a hard time dealing with the idea that your undergraduate degree required so many credits in things that meant so little to the study of ancient peoples. You were paying your way; you were supposed to be laying the foundation for your future. Who were they to tell you what classes you needed to take? You should have been in Paleolithic Symbology 2102 studying religious iconography of early man, not European Literature 1101 reading and dissecting the works of Thomas Mann.

Even the practical coursework in your field was a chore. You had envisioned study abroad programs at Giza or Angkor Wat. What you ended up with was a summer in the swamps of central Florida, uncovering arrowheads numbers 15,234 through 15,416 left abandoned by yet another well-studied and well-documented pre-Columbian native tribe. Every day was an exercise in being hot, getting bitten by mosquitoes, and carefully sifting and cataloguing two cubic centimeters of soil. Every time you found an arrowhead, which was about once per hour, you tried to envision historically appropriate ways of driving it into your skull. The bow and arrow was a bit unwieldy for the task, and you concluded that modern man's greatest technological achievement was the creation of weaponry compact enough to be easily used on oneself.

You slogged your way through a master's degree...

----

... and that's where the essay stops paralleling my life. Read the rest here at McSweeney's.

All of this essay rings true, although I've excerpted the part that's true for me, that is, through the field experience. Rather than the swamps of central Florida, however, I toiled away in red clay and 99% humidity at the site of a slave house in central Virginia. And rather than finding arrowheads (which we would have been thrilled by), we found a rusted nail perhaps twice a week and lots and lots of rusted SPAM cans. Beyond that, the description diverges from my experience. I really like writing up articles and seeing my work in print, I stuck with archaeology through a PhD, and I am looking forward to being faculty (although maybe not to discussing the Harris Matrix for 40 years...).

But I may have to give this article to all of my undergraduates who want to be archaeologists.

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