Where are you working? A Reply to Cracked’s “6 Things Movies Don’t Show You About Being an Archaeologist”

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.

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3 thoughts on “Where are you working? A Reply to Cracked’s “6 Things Movies Don’t Show You About Being an Archaeologist”

  1. Christa Torres says:

    I did not read through your entire response, nor the entire Evans/Levine Cracked article. But thank you for breaking it down for people to get another perspective esp if they are new to archaeology. Your tone was fair, but I disagreed with a bit more. So for your readers I would like to add a bit more. I have worked in the private and government sectors, state and Fed, and we dont throw most of the artifacts away. They are saved for a long period of time so future researchers can study them. If the project is on private property, who over owns it can through it away. They own the artifacts so they deal with it here on the west coast and in the Pacific. I have spend 80% of my time, over 13 yrs in the field–not in the lab. Archaeology can be amazing. But it will bring you to your knees in more way than one. So many lifestyle hurdles and sacrifices. And the people and crew come in all packages. Volunteers are great too but they need to be closely supervised and trained. The downside is that the laws here in the U.S. support protection, but there just is not enough money to pay for a good archaeologist to do a great job. They need to pay them based on experience not start at the bottom as a new employee to a new company. They are temporary employees, seasonal during the heavier times of the year when companies keep full time staff, with benefits who work all yr but must hire contractors to fill the field positions. We typically start at the lowest wage. Unless you have worked with them before. And thank goodness for per diem, otherwise your going to struggle or be a couch surfer. People with MA are overqualified and miss out on what I do. The long hours, pushing your physical limits, blood, sweat and tears, yes all the time. Expect it. It toughens you up and keeps you in shape while the rest of the world sits inside a closed off room. lots of ladies on the crews too. We do have the best jobs, any scientist who is lucky enough to work outdoors has the American Dream. Forget owning your own home, you love your job. In fact your home is where ever you travel to. Typically leaving friends and family behind not knowing when you will see them next. Planning only 1 month, sometimes a week or day to change gears and hit the road to a new project location. So many hardships financially, and the stress of moving around, but benefits is rewarding enough. I think being an archaeologist takes a lot of bravery, independence, patience, and the ability to get dirty.

  2. SuccinctBill (@SuccinctBill) says:

    I’m sorry, but I hated that article. The authors need to do a better job trying to relate to the “public” without using every cliche in the book. And, throwing away ALL the artifacts?? How is that any better than American Diggers?

  3. HadasL says:

    Hey,

    I’m the author :) Thank you for your review!

    I’d like to stress a few points:
    1) I was writing from the vantage point of academic archaeology. The Israel Antiquities Authority uses both trained archaeologists and paid workers, and doesn’t rely on volunteers.
    2) I’m afraid this wasn’t so clear from the article, but we don’t just throw relics in the trash. We do our best to preserve all artefacts. Prehistoric digs keep each find. Dirt buckets are sifted and floated as well to locate organic remains later sent for analysis. Later larger-scale excavations (some spread over 200 acres) count and document all shards, but not all can be kept at our facilities, so part of the finds need to remain at the site.

    I hope this clears things up!

    Sincerely,
    Hadas Levine

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