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.
Digging Is Just the Vacation; the Real Work Sucks
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.
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:
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.
We Throw Almost Everything Away
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.
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!)
It's a Destructive Science
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.
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.
The Stuff Is Worthless Out of Context
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.
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.
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.
Archaeological Sites Don't Look How You'd Expect
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.
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.
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.
Priceless Artifacts Get Destroyed for Strange Reasons
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.
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.
"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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