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What we really know about the past

Monthly Archives: August 2011

An archaeologist says what?

Okay, so with the imminent return to archaeology mentioned in my last post, I have been going around slowly announcing my intent to leave the world of rock climbing (which I have been inhabiting the last 6  months or so), at least professionally.  Professionally is probably not the right word- as it conjures up images of sponsored rock climbers doing extreme things. I wasn’t that.

But I was paid (poorly) for the skills that relate to climbing up things and not dying- so the term is technically true.  However, as much as it pains me to say, I was not Sly Stallone in Cliffhanger. Hell, I wasn’t even Chris O’Donnell in Vertical Limit. Or even what ever the hell this is.

This in no way represents my last 6 months.

But, as I transition from couch surfing, dirt bag rock climber to full time professional, rent paying, dirt bag archaeologist, I was continuously asked one question: What exactly do they pay you to do?

This is an easier question to answer when you work as a climbing instructor or belayer. I teach people how to handle rope so as to not kill themselves. Or-depending on the job- stop people from doing anything too dumb so as to hurt themselves, others, or (most importantly) me.

The explanation is a little bit more complicated for archaeology. Especially if the asker is really interested and not just being polite. With some people, telling them that “I dig stuff up before the bulldozers get there” doesn’t always fly. What we do isn’t that simple, and a person presses with their questions they can easily break through the thin outer layer of  superficial explanation and end up with a spoon full of the half-answers, jargon, and complexity that is the custard-like inner workings of archaeology.

Apparently I think of my profession as analogous to french desserts

But why is it so hard to explain? Well let me try and we shall see.

In my current job, I’m being paid to locate, map, and carefully remove cultural material (a fancy term for stuff) that may be impacted or destroyed by modern development.  Sometimes this involves finding the stuff and moving the development, sometimes it involves moving the stuff. It’s like an environmental assessment. But instead of owls or newts, it’s pottery or bones.



Sometimes in can be all four!

That seems simple enough right? Most of us are somewhat interested in the past, and we enjoy looking at and hearing about cool stuff. (If not, what are you doing read this?)

So we professional archaeologist swoop in like Indiana Jones in a high-vis vest and hard hat, grabbing the cool artifacts before the bulldozers run them over. Then they go to a museum for everyone to enjoy. Seems fair. Right? But it’s not really what we do. Not really. We may, if we’re lucky, find something cool like that owl effigy up there. But mostly we find this stuff:



Those are small pieces of stone, left over from people making stone tools. each small pieces is called a flake, a bunch of flakes are called debitage. It’s really not very cool looking. No one has to fight Nazi Raiders to get at it.

That’s not all we find. We also find bones! Sometimes we find a lot of bones. These bones tell us what people ate. At least they tell us about what people killed and presumably ate. We can also find old plant remains- again, these tend to relate to what people ate- as we are a tad bit focused on eating. We may even find old houses… sort of.

We see the stains of old houses, through the decomposed remains of the major support posts- called post molds. These are exciting only to other archaeologists. I won’t even bother showing you a picture. They are not at all interesting to look at, unless you live your life with your head firmly in an excavation trench.

Seriously. They are visually boring. Don’t even bother.

Okay. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

again.... wooooooo......

It’s the darker brown part. Surrounded by the lighter brown part. Go look again, if you’re not too mentally exhausted by your first look. Then go have a cold shower. You’re probably too excited and over-stimulated.

Woooo.. archaeology. Indiana Jones ain’t got nothing on my post molds.

That stuff  may not look interesting, but it’s the little stuff, the boring stuff, that tell us about how people lived in the past. What they ate. How they lived. Where they spent their time. How they organized their communities, how they gathered food. This information lets us look at how ancient political systems worked, or how past peoples changed their environments, or how they adapted to environmental change. Basically anything you have read in this blog, or from authors like Jared Diamond or Bill Bryson.

Anytime someone tells you about they way things were in the past, it’s mostly likely the result of data collected from thousands of tiny pieces of information stored in small stone fragments, or bones, or chard seeds.

Often in archaeology, this can be more important...

...than this

But guess which one gets you on the front page of National Geographic?

I’m not bitter or anything.

Anyways, my point is that all the cool stories about life in past societies and all the information about past behaviours that can help address modern problems, comes from the small, meticulous, and often boring research that most archaeologist do. And we need to get the small stuff before the bulldozers do.

That answer tends to satisfy most people.

well, maybe not satisfied..... definitely bored though

But not all of them. Sometimes, people follow that answer up with another question. A loaded question.

Who pays for it?

Now, I can (and frequently do) say something like: the developer. Or the government. Or whoever our client happens to be. But it really boils down to one single answer.

You do.

Either directly through taxes, or indirectly through costs incurred by the developer. If I have to go in before a new subdivision goes up, you better believe my cost is factored into the cost of the houses. If I need to go in before a mine starts, or a pipe-line, or dam, or a logging cut, the money I charge is passed on to the consumer.

Perfect! I'll take one Archaeology, please!

I could argue that, in the grand scheme of things, the money I get paid to do the work I do is so astronomically small that when broken down to the actual cost-to-consumer, it’s existence is trivial. However, that’s not the point. I still get paid, and paid (eventually) by you.

There are legitimate arguments for why and how research is funded. Arguments I won’t go into, because others can do it better than me. However, if you are reading this, and you have enjoyed even a little bit of the information I have provided in previous posts, then you have this kind of research to thank. We can argue about how it should be funded, or better ways to do so. But right now, this is how  most archaeology in Canada (and the U.S) is funded- through the consumer. We have to pay for environmental controls, clean-up, and safety, and we also have to pay to help us understand our past before we destroy it.

Either you agree with that, or you don’t.

I’ll argue that the results of our discoveries outweigh the price in time and money, but that’s my argument. You may have a different one.

That’s cool. I’ll listen.


I should note that I left out some other arguments for why we do this- the strongest of which has to do with helping First Nations groups regain an understanding of their past that was intentionally removed by colonial (read:western) actions. I believe in this strongly, but it is a different point. I think professional archaeology is justified by the human desire to understand their past alone. The political and social benefits and dangers of archaeology is a different and equally important subject, but even removed from the debate, I think our goals and our questions are worth the price. But then, I’m biased, aren’t I.