The last day of Earth Science Week is designated as International Archaeology Day!
I'm don't know a lot about archaeology, but I know someone who does! My friend Dr. Kristin Landau is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Alma College. I asked her to answer five questions about archaeology. This is what she had to say.
|On site in Honduras - I don't think dogs are essential to archaeology...I could be wrong. (Photo courtesy of Kristin Landau)|
Question 1: What is archaeology?
Archaeology studies past people through the artifacts we leave behind. Did you know archaeology is actually one of the FOUR branches of anthropology?! The other three branches are cultural, linguistic, and biological anthropology. As a whole, anthropology is the study of humans, and so archaeologists are interested in human groups who are no longer around today. The only way to study them is through all the stuff they left: buildings, mounds, pots and pans, tools and the like.
Question 2: Why is archaeology important?
Archaeology is important for three big reasons. First, archaeology shows us the full range of how humans make a living on Earth. Of course we can take a plane and fly to every country, but all the people around today only represent a small fraction of all the cultures that have ever existed. So archaeology helps us know how humans lived from millions of years ago to today.
Second, archaeology teaches us lessons about the past so that we can avoid repeating our mistakes. If we know what caused something bad to happen, we can prevent it in the future. But also, sometimes people in the past did things in better ways, and we can also learn from that.
And last, archaeology is important because it connects us to our heritage and identity. In our world today of digital technologies and vast (online) social networks, we’ve lost a sense of our history and belonging. The physical parts of archaeology—the buildings, pots and pans, tools, mementos, cherished items—remind us of who we are. They restore a sense of identity. Preserving those items connects us to our history, to passed loved ones, and even our heritage. Think about meaningful objects you have – what is it about them that creates meaning? How do you feel when you think about them?
Question 3: How does someone become an archaeologist?
Discovering archaeology is always fun. Archaeology is rated the #5 best job in science! Most jobs in archaeology require a college degree, and some require a Masters or PhD. After an archaeological field school, you can always work as a “shovel bum” going out to conduct surveys or excavate a piece of land. Usually people with an MA or PhD are more involved with managing archaeological excavations, and writing up reports to let the public know what’s going on. In the United States, most archaeologists work in Cultural Resource Management (CRM). They could work for private CRM firms, or for the State Historic Preservation Office or Department of Transportation. Some archaeologists also work in museums and also manage the museum’s artifact collections or put together exhibits. A small number of archaeologists also work as professors – they teach archaeology during the school year, and conduct research projects during the summer.
|Excavating a Maya ruin in Honduras (Photo courtesy of Kristin Landau)|
Question 4: Why did you get involved in archaeology?
I got involved in archaeology during my second year of college. I wanted to go to another country and see how people lived who were completely different from me. I ended up on an archaeological project in the Central American country of Honduras! The ancient Maya had a city in the very far western part of that country. Fourteen years later, I am still doing archaeology in Honduras, now as a professor. I hope that I can help make life better for the indigenous people there by offering jobs and teaching their kids about the ancient Maya and archaeology. This past is theirs to know about, identify with, and feel a sense a belonging to.
Question 5: #5 How can the public help archaeologists?
Thanks for asking! The public can help archaeologists in a few ways:
- Attend your state’s archaeology and international archaeology day! (10/13, and 10/20 in Michigan)
- Visit local museums or become members of your local historical society
- Check out archaeological sites near you
- When you’re visiting archaeological sites, leave everything how you found it. Never take an artifact you find on the ground, or move a stone in a building.
- Support science and science funding for institutions like the National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities. Politicians especially like to target archaeology for being fiscally useless.
Bonus Question: Other than your own dig, what is your favorite archaeological site?One of my favorite sites not too far from central Michigan is Cahokia, in western Illinois. Cahokia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and represents one of the largest, most complex societies in what’s currently the United States. We’ve been doing research at Cahokia for such a long time, but there are still big mysteries. Maybe you can help solve them!
I completely agree about Cahokia. Shara and I visited the site in 2016. It was one of the most amazing places that we have ever been, especially when you consider that more than one hundred mounds on the site constructed entirely by human labor. In addition to the mounds there is a world class museum displaying some of the archaeological finds from the site.
|Mounds at Cahokia|
Cahokia is about eight hours from mid-Michigan by car. We visited during a week-long vacation, but it is totally within range for an extended weekend trip.