Sunday, January 16, 2011

On the Road, Again and "Big" Archaeology

Right now, I am about to embark on a journey down to South Carolina, the much mocked neighbor of my home state. I will write more about what I am doing in South Carolina in a later post (I promise). The short story is that it not very "sexy" archaeology.

An example of not "sexy" archaeology.

In this post, I would like to talk about what I do and common perception (misperceptions?) about archaeology and archaeologists. This talk was inspired by the guy at Enterprise who rented a car to me yesterday morning.

As I was telling him that the car rental was going to be on a corporate account, he asked me what my company (and I) did. Now I will reenact the conversation. Picture me as a slightly rushed person with wet hair (blow drying takes so long....) who is really just trying to get away so she can go grocery shopping with her husband.

Rental Car Guy (RCG): What does your company do?
Me: We are a cultural resource management company.
RCG: Uh... I don't know what that is.
Me: We are a group of archaeologists and historians who do work on historic sites in the southeast. I am an archaeologist.
RCG: Oh, like at national parks?
Me: Yes, only we are contractors. So we work at a variety of places some of which are National Parks.
RCG: What are you doing in South Carolina? He had just asked me where I was going, a standard line for the rental process.
Me: I am doing a highway survey, which is [insert shortest possible explanation for shovel testing here]. Remember, I was in a hurry. RCG was not in a hurry, he had visions of Indiana Jones dancing through his head.
RCG: So, have you ever worked on any big sites?

An excavation outside of Tiwanaku in Bolivia. An example of a "big" site.

This is the point where I could have told him about the two world heritage sites I have worked on or my international archaeology work. But, I personally hate that people do not think about cool cultural heritage that they have in their own backyards when they are thinking about archaeology. So, I gave him some brief descriptions of sites I have worked on in Tennessee and South Carolina, which I thought were really cool.

Historic African American cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina.

A Mississippian era habitation site in Tennessee.

This brings me to my rant. Please do not misunderstand me, I love that people think my job is cool. I think my job is cool. I love explaining archaeology to people and telling them about history and preservation. I think it is great that I get to introduce people to this career that they did not previously know existed. It just drives me crazy when people think my job is all sexy National Geographic-style excavations in Egypt or, you know, "somewhere else".

Archaeology is everywhere! People have been living in North America for a really long time (from 50,000 to 15,000 years, a very debated timeline). Plus, in the recent past, we have a rich history as a country, territory, colonized entity, etc. Your house and town are just one in a long series of houses and towns in your geographic region.

Pueblo Bonito, in Chaco Canyon, NM. A truly amazing UNESCO world heritage site.
This is a prehistoric pit house archaeological site near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

Think of places like Chaco Canyon and Cahokia. Those places are pretty amazing, rivaling anything Egyptian or European in complexity and political organization. If you think of those "big" sites as cities (not that they actually functioned as cities), imagine the "suburbs" a big site like that would have around. Imagine what way those everyday people lived can tell us about our shared human past. That is the archaeology I do! North American archaeology is important and the everyday, small excavations I do serve a purpose in helping us to understand the prehistory of this continent. I am a very small cog in a large group of archaeologists working on sites across the country and world. Very few of these archaeologists are working on something that could be considered a "big" site.

Now I just wish there were some way I could tell this to people who ask me if I have worked in Egypt or what "big" stuff I have worked on without sounding bitter or jaded. Rental Car Guy, remember archaeology is everywhere.

The Elizabeth Cady Stanton House in Seneca Falls, New York.

1 comment:

  1. Oh dear. You know I know what you mean. Not that I'm an archaeologist, but I despise the misconceptions about what's big, important, and worth studying. I was trying to explain to someone the other day that anthropologists do not dig up dinosaurs. I don't think he got it.
    I often get confused looks when I tell people I studied anthropology but I don't do any excavating.
    I say, just get comfortable with the knowledge that you know something most other people don't know: that North American archaeology, CRM or otherwise, is exciting and important!