I used to read Cracked all the time. I went away from it a bit as I 1) was finishing the dissertation and didn’t have the time and 2) found power sources other than snark. The interwebs graced us with a Cracked article today that, well, contains some slightly inaccurate information, at least from the standpoint of American archaeology. Titled “6 Things Movies Don’t Show You About Being an Archaeologist,” and is co-authored by Robert Evans and Hadas Levine. Of these, Evans appears to be a writer in Dallas, and Ms. Levine, an Israeli archaeologist, provided the real meat behind the article.
The Stuff They Get Mostly Right (In terms of American archaeology)
They have a point (Point #6) that most of the time is spent in the lab, and that archaeology is a destructive science (Point #4), though destructive in a careful, dis-assembling kind of way, not throwing-a-metaphorical-stick-of-dynamite-in-the-hole kind of way. Also, I could not agree more with their point (Point #3) that context is incredibly important. As a guy who works on a lot of Civil War sites, I deal with relic hunters a lot, and am continually trying to make this point.
The thing that is sort of right (again, compared to American archaeology)
Evans and Levine state that most of the sites worked on in Israel rely on American college students (“the Jagermeister demographic”) to do the work (Point #2). People fly in, pay to sweat themselves to death digging under the direction of a few “real scientists and professional diggers,” and spend the evenings drinking beer and not-fighting Nazis.
Stateside, this might apply to an archaeological field school, dozens of which are hosted around the country each summer by various universities, and training digs hosted by various state societies. Here in Arkansas, we have the Arkansas Archeological Society’s annual Training Program dig, which is two weeks of digging every June in which 1) your pores learn their limits in the term of sweat production, 2) you find out how hilariously rich Arkansas is in terms of flora and fauna whose sole purpose seems to be the infestation and degradation of the human body, and 3) you learn to dig in company with many dozens of friends and colleagues. Sounds kind of like the Israeli situation.
The big difference between “over there” and “over here,” however, is that 80% of the work that takes place in American archaeology is done by fully professional staffs working under contract for state or federal government. Eighty percent. It’s a fast-paced, businesslike environment (well, mostly) that is a far cry from the student-oriented field schools and training programs that people generally cut their teeth on before moving into the world of contract archaeology. It’s not always easy or laid back, particularly if you’re working on a tight deadline, and some of your coworkers can be, well, let’s go with “colorful.”
Lamentably, since the early 2000s, Nazi-fighting has been largely outsourced to private contractors, meaning those extra classes I took in grad school are now useless. Crud.
The Gem of the Document
Their item #1, “Priceless Artifacts Get Destroyed for Strange Reasons” is both a stark and fascinating look at the intersection of religion, politics, and archaeology. We in the United States are very familiar with (or, at least, should be very familiar with) the national political debate over Native American remains that took place WAAAAY back [sarcasm] in the 1990s. Evans and Levine provide another look at how human remains in archaeological research get handled in Israel, based on a separate but contemporary development in heritage preservation laws. For the record, in the United States, we handle things much differently; through a process of negotiation and repatriation with Federally-recognized tribes which does not generally involve “toss[ing] the remains we were already studying in a hole.”
The Not-So-Gem of the Document (in terms of American archaeology)
So, this is the part that is sticking in my craw.
We, like Israel, have space concerns when we go out and dig things. That which we dig up has to go to some kind of curatorial facility at the end of the project, and curation costs are usually worked out and budgeted for at the start of a project.
Still, we keep the broken bits… all the thousands of pieces of broken stuff. Heck, I saw a project once where the principal investigator brought back every “manuport,” basically meaning every rock that looked like it wasn’t from there, so that we could learn something about how people traded or procured stone resources in the past. Boxes of rock… lots of fun to shift around the curatorial facility.
My office currently has about 3,000 boxes-worth of collections housed in it. Mostly, that’s broken pieces of pottery and stone tools. Why keep such a large volume of stuff?
Because… science! sciencE! scienCE! scieNCE! sciENCE! scIENCE! sCIENCE! SCIENCE!
We can learn an immense amount of stuff about the past by looking at these things in the aggregate. To do that, though, we bring it back to the lab, clean it, and analyze it. It’s laborious and tedious (see Evans and Levine’s Point #6), but it’s how we roll… and have rolled here for generations. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t facing challenges in curating collections, and that some aren’t exploring “de-accessioning” policies, but in the whole, we keep most of the stuff that is, apparently, discarded elsewhere.