6 Things Movies Don't Show You About Being an Archaeologist

#3. The Stuff Is Worthless Out of Context

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Most people think you can just look at an object and know where it came from and what it was. That might be true for a few famous artifacts: the gladius is clearly a Roman-era sword, just as the DeLorean is clearly a Reagan-era car. But since most archaeology deals with bits and pieces of things, the origin isn't always so clear.

Ken Ishii/Getty Images Publicity/Getty Images
Archaeology is assembling a functioning DeLorean based on one hubcap and a vague description of Back to the Future Part II.

Imagine yourself in the future, trying to picture how modern-day American politics worked based on nothing but the knickknacks on the shelves of Capitol Hill and the thousands of dick pics Anthony Weiner has sent to history. It's the regular, mundane, everyday items people used that tell us about their world. But if we can't date those artifacts, we don't know which people we're learning about. Context is the only reason our discoveries have any scientific value.

When we find something we can date at an excavation, it gives us a chronological anchor for the whole level. Without an anchor, any given site is just archaeological blue balls. This happens a lot with prehistoric sites: We can't even tell whether a site was used by humans or Neanderthals if there aren't bones lying around.

Ken Ishii/Getty Images Publicity/Getty Images
Getty's crazy-ass suggestion might actually be right.

Context is also why archaeologists consider grave-robbing such a kick to the Sankara Stones. If some asshole breaks into King Dustysack IV's burial chamber and steals his priceless taint scratcher, it might as well be lost to us forever. By the time it's recovered, the odds of anyone figuring out where it actually came from are slim to nil. It'll be auctioned off to some wealthy Egyptophile as a pretentious paperweight, and the world will never know how Third Dynasty pharaohs struggled with jock itch.

#2. Archaeological Sites Don't Look How You'd Expect

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Movie archaeology relies heavily on the backs of anonymous sun-beaten Arab diggers hired as cheap labor/convenient Redshirts by intrepid researchers almost certainly about to get cursed. That may have been true at some point, but today the brunt of field archaeology lands on the Jagermeister demographic: American college students. If you want to volunteer at a dig yourself, there are plenty of options.


Even with today's notable Nazi shortage.

Most archaeological digs depend on volunteers. These people fly in on their vacation to wake up at the crack of dawn and work all day in the blazing sun. They're not paid for this back-breaking labor -- in fact, some pay to help us. They buy their flight, they pay for their room and board, and they give up hours of their time just for the privilege of manhandling some ancient chamber pots. Most of the people at any given dig are volunteers. There are only a handful of real scientists and professional diggers.

Siri Stafford/Photodisc/Getty Images
Dorms are the Home Depot parking lots of archaeology.

But seriously, it's pretty fun, if you ever have a free summer. The work is hard, but in the nighttime there is beer and all the romance of an Indiana Jones film without the recurring Nazi attacks. So long as you keep the right mental picture in mind, you won't end up disappointed: Excavating doesn't look like people randomly throwing dirt off of monuments, like the first screen-cap in this article. It's a systematic process -- and a small one. The largest dig I was on had about 30 people. You work in grids and you move about as fast as a dead man rides a bicycle.

Don't expect to see an ocean of hard-eyed supermen down in the trenches, either. There aren't a lot of girl archaeologists in the media (besides Lara Croft and both of her breasts, which count as separate entities), but I think our faculty is mostly female, and many of my co-workers are women. This field used to be predominantly male, but for a few select figures. That's changing. Women only make up 30 percent of Israel's tenured faculty in archaeology, but we submit 40 percent of its research.

Hadas Levine
Above: me, archaeologging.

Archaeology's intense physical demands used to make it one of the most male-dominated fields in science, but even in Victorian days there were women who took to the fields and deserts in their whalebone corsets and ivory camisoles. Archaeology's incompatibility with "traditional" female virtues (childbirth, dying in childbirth, etc.) didn't stop Gertrude Bell from exploring Babylon with Bedouins in 1909 and winding up the most influential Westerner in the Middle East around a decade before women could legally vote in the United States.


Hell, wearing jeans was still a Class A misdemeanor for American women.

#1. Priceless Artifacts Get Destroyed for Strange Reasons

Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images

Until the mid-'90s, all human remains found in archaeological sites in Israel were considered archaeological remains. In 1994, that changed. Now they're treated like any other human remains, and they must be properly buried, just in case they are Jewish. We had to toss the remains we were already studying in a hole and now all NEW finds are reburied immediately, because members of no other religions have died in the Holy Land. Apparently the guys from all the Old Testament wars just evaporated, like corpses in a video game.

There was one skeleton in particular, the only example of a crucified skeleton we had, that my professors rushed to save. They got a few weeks to study it and make a cast of one pierced anklebone, and then the centuries-old corpse was chucked in a hole for ... closure? Again, this was the only physical evidence of a crucified corpse ever found. And we just up and reburied it.

Bart Ehrman, The New Testament 3rd Edition
But hey, what kind of historic importance does crucifixion have, anyway?

Hidden in a small office in an inconspicuous box is the only example of a Neanderthal pelvis in the entire world. Technically, we're allowed to have it, but only because it predates the Jewish religion. It's still collecting dust in a storage area because we're afraid they might change the rules -- maybe they'll decide that, given the chance, the Neanderthal probably would have converted to Judaism and try to bury it again.

Hemera Technologies/Photos.com
"Alright, let's fit this dude for a yarmulke."

For such a holy place, we destroy a lot of relics. Not long ago, a bulldozer dozed the hell out of a site near the Benot Ya'aqov Bridge ... which happened to hold the earliest known evidence of humans using fire. Israel's chairman of UNESCO sites was actually forced out of his position for asking that people excavating Jerusalem's Western Wall take some effort to preserve the site, rather than just digging like crazy and hoping nothing breaks. I mean, sure, I admitted earlier that that's what we do sometimes -- but we break things in a careful and deliberate manner. Because we're professionals.

If you have an interesting job or a crazy experience and you'd like Robert Evans to write about it, you can contact him here. He would appreciate it if you'd donate to help his favorite farm recover from thieves.

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