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

Archaeology is one of the sexiest jobs that nobody understands. Most of us get that it involves the ruins of ancient civilizations, treasure, and the odd fistfight with a huge bald German mechanic, but we're less clear on how any actual science gets done. It's time to change that. My name is Hadas Levine, and I'm the woman who has to pick up Indy's slack while he sword-fights and flirts with teenagers.

#6. Digging Is Just the Vacation; the Real Work Sucks

Chris Clinton/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Say the word "archaeology" and one image pops into your mind: Indiana Jones and Gimli, digging up the Ark of the Covenant in the sands of the Holy Land. Well, I'm an archaeologist in a different chunk of the Holy Land, and I can honestly say, it does look a little like that. For a month or two, which is all the digging season usually lasts.

Chris Clinton/Stockbyte/Getty Images
None of us look this good digging, and no one besides Harrison Ford looks this good doing anything.

It's very rare to have an excavation go year-round. In a few weeks alone, you'll find hundreds or thousands of items that need to be photographed, cleaned, and cataloged. And that's what we do the rest of the year: You spend a month or two digging and then 10 months daring carpal tunnel syndrome to nut up already and fight you.

When I went out on my first dig, I expected to see large walls and paved streets covered in vines and angry natives -- you know, the way ruins are depicted in books and movies. It's always something clearly identifiable as an ancient city or temple or orgy cave (depending on your taste in fiction). But then you arrive at an excavation and it's all in tiny bits and pieces, and you realize that most archaeology is making educated guesses about what used to be there based on the scant wreckage you've found. It's like putting together an enormous puzzle after your dog chewed the box with the picture to shreds and somebody stole half the pieces.

For every intact Ark of the Covenant, there are a million scattered Shards of the Something-or-Other.

Oh, and remember that awesome sonar drill thing from Jurassic Park? They shoot it into the ground and find out where the dinosaurs are buried, right before Dr. Grant trots off to traumatize more children:

"I'm starting to think our boss might be a dick."

Stuff like that totally exists, but plenty of working archaeologists go their whole career without ever using it. Dr. Grant was a rock star paleontologist, with a fancy book deal and everything (because that totally exists, and it's not like a Kardashian's biography tops the best-seller lists every week). Most of us aren't rock stars. My university hasn't seen the need to shell out fat stacks of cheddar for maps that look like this:

University of Denver
Those wavy lines = dinosaur tracks, apparently.

We're a little more low-tech. It's pretty common to have a bunch of students stand out in a line near where you expect there might be ruins and just start walking and looking for stuff really hard. We'll comb the whole area for pottery shards or ancient penis graffiti, using such complicated equipment as our eyes, our feet, and pointing. Sadly, there are far fewer sonic shotguns involved in archaeology than you have been led to believe.

#5. We Throw Almost Everything Away

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There are only a few shards of any type of pottery that can identify what it was and when it came from. Basically, if it isn't from the top or the bottom of the vessel, we throw it away. Those are the only bits we really need, and unless the other pieces have some sort of unique penis graffiti or whatever (who doesn't love that stuff?), into the trash heap they go.

Print Collector / Hulton / Getty
Fun Fact: 70 percent of our shared cultural heritage survives in the form of bulbous red penis drawings.

Storage space isn't free. Our university is small, and we can't afford to hold everything we find. It's a shame to let precious chunks of history go to waste. There's a part of you that believes anything human-made from that long ago should be treated with reverence, but the sad reality is that pottery was pretty much the plastic of the ancient world. Around 65 percent of ancient earthenware ends up dug out of the ground, then tossed in a landfill and buried again. Perhaps ... for future archaeologists to dig up and throw away again?

Long story short: Any large dig frees up heaps of this cast-off history. It's kind of sad, but it's also an incredible opportunity to decorate your home for free with some Frasier-quality ancient antiques. You're one archaeological dumpster dive away from an apartment full of straight-up relics. And since it's only second-hand grave robbing, you'll be one of the last victims to die from any lingering curse. Everything's coming up you!

The major name-brand mummies only have time to punish about 10 percent of the cursed population.

(Disclaimer: Please don't pick anything up off the ground from an actual dig site!)

#4. It's a Destructive Science

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Yes, we're careful. Yes, we're slow and exacting. Yes, we have tiny brushes and giant hats. But don't be fooled: When we arrive at a dig, we're there to fuck shit up, scientifically. Archaeology is fundamentally destructive. We destroy most of what we work on, because that's the only way to catalog and study it.

"IT BELONGS IN A MUSEUM, or, alternatively, should be whipped to shit."

Every now and then we'll stop at, say, the walls of an ancient synagogue and think: "OK, I guess we don't want to destroy this. We'll probably get in trouble or something." Then, trying to hide our disappointment at the lack of mayhem, we'll make a small trench to the side and dig carefully underneath it. But sometimes we'll think: "OK, this Bronze Age house is real neat, but we want to get at the Neolithic home under it, so break out the goddamn sledgehammers." Many old walls have been knocked down for the chance to study older walls.

I was a bit dismayed when I first learned we were taking pickaxes and knocking down these ancient treasures. I thought everything was so rare and special, it must need to be preserved. But archaeology is a little like civilization-scale cannibalism, devouring pieces of dead cultures in order to make ourselves more powerful (via the dark art of textbook writing). In Apollonia, we knocked down some Byzantine ruins to get to the Roman level, where we found this mosaic floor for a wine press. It was beneath this huge pile of glass sludge, the remnants of centuries of work in an old Byzantine glass furnace.

Hadas Levine
Imagine a whole floor of this.

We documented everything and published a report. And then we broke it with pickaxes and brought in the dumpsters. Several chunks of the floor wound up as paperweights and house decorations, and the rest wound up in the same place as all of Israel's Happy Meal toys. Man, the lizard people who will invariably take over the Earth someday are going to be really confused when they stumble across our landfills and find them filled with Skylanders figurines and great big hunks of other, more ancient societies.

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