(Okay, admittedly, put like that, it doesn’t sound super appealing.) But every year, hundreds of professors, students, and eager adventurers pack their work boots, sunscreen, and trowels into backpacks and head out to domestic and international excavation sites to put themselves through an average 6-8 weeks of the aforementioned work environment. What’s the appeal?
Archaeology, mainly thanks to the Indiana Jones franchise and the over-emphasized chest of Lara Croft, is commonly perceived as a pseudoscientific pursuit that mainly targets bright, shiny objects. Conveniently, these objects turn out to be extremely valuable or possess mysterious supernatural powers. Unfortunately, the entire field historically developed out of a pursuit of such items, so the contemporary push to study cultures for the sake of cultural significance rather than monetary value has been a slow change.
For example, consider the most prevalent archaeological discoveries commonly known in contemporary society. Tutankhamen, or “King Tut!” as he has been affectionately dubbed, remains one of the most popular international attractions to date. This is due in no small part to the allure of the mythic curse surrounding the mummy and the original excavations. No less sensational, though definitively less historically-grounded, are the annual claims of finding Noah’s Ark, artifacts from the time of Jesus, and other biblically-charged “discoveries.” The drive for prestige based on the level of popularity and attention given to the find remains, sadly, one of the biggest obstructions to a true conception of what archaeology is and the importance it carries.
Just like cinematic sex scenes and the ability of movie protagonists to get through airport security without a ticket, archaeology is far less glamorous and exciting than Hollywood would have you believe. But this sentence remains true if the only reason one pursues archaeology is for the discovery of shiny things. Begone, magpies! Archaeology is for academics and historical enthusiasts. And no amount of physical pain, sunburns, or insect bites can detract from the high-energy, tense, exciting environment unique to an archaeological dig.
Every day is an uncertainty. There are the days where you dig and dig and find nothing more than bone fragments and pottery sherds. (And, on some digs, not even those.) Yet the potential always exists…the potential for a complete vessel, an inscription, a piece of jewelry, a burial, a temple, and, naturally, the hope of finding the archaeological discovery of the century. While such larger discoveries are not infrequent, more often, daily searches in the ground uncover more gratifying, albeit smaller discoveries. Perhaps one day a door is revealed, marked only by the rectangular pattern of stone. Another morning the dirt flakes perfectly off a lower layer, marking an ancient floor. And the next afternoon a piece of mosaic might be uncovered.
Each piece of history, however insignificant, is a piece of history taken directly from its time period. (Assuming the excavation has an undisturbed stratigraphy!) As an excavator, being able to hold even the smallest sherd of pottery, in the knowledge that you are the first person to interact with that artifact since it was buried, however many hundreds or thousands of years ago, is an emotion of wonder, passion, and exhilaration.
So yes, archaeologists are insane. There are much less strenuous ways to spend the best months of the year…or are there? For archaeologists, the addiction to the dirt, the history, and the potential for wonder are an irresistible draw. And for almost anyone, the excavations are a place, where for two months every year, you get to share and enjoy the experience with a group of people just as crazy as you are.