What is an Archaeologist?

arcIt still remains rather amazing that, for many, particularly with people of Australian and American backgrounds, the first thing that comes to mind upon hearing the term archaeology is in fact Indiana Jones. Digging a litter deeper however reveilles that many people do in fact have a rather detailed perception of both what an archaeologist is and what they do. In a paper prepared by Ramos and Duganne[i] the majority of people interviewed mentioned that digging of some form or another shaped that image. This is somewhat different from the dictionary definitions of what archaeology is “The systematic study of past human life and culture by the recovery and examination of remaining material evidence, such as graves, buildings, tools, and pottery”[ii]. In furthering this line of enquiry a number of people from several countries around the globe were approached, including Australia, America, Japan, Egypt, and Eastern Europe. Despite the similarities there were also a number of differences that immediately came to light (perhaps the most notable is the lack of Indiana Jones references from Eastern Europe and Egypt). Perhaps is all these ideas were to be rolled up and beaten together something more concise could be proposed. Here is what they had to say:

IG remarked that, they perform excavations. They research a historical site and perform excavation in search for various objects, artifacts. An archaeologist is a profession that is one of those not so widely chosen by young people nowadays. A person with a scientific mindset is more likely to choose this type of profession as their future career. If I know somebody who does this for a living, in my mind I picture them as a person who is more interested in science and discovering something new rather than being concerned with receiving more money (e.g. by doing something of commercial nature).

MS saw an archeologist as someone who looks into dead cultures and the roots of our culture. They dig and puzzle out what they find, how it was used, what it was for and they can work out the implications of these objects and how they related to the society and culture at the time. They have a fascination for the mythology and religions that were dominant in these cultures. They can tell us how our society and culture has changed and evolved.

JD regards an archaeologist as someone who has a good understanding of the literature about past events, societies and so forth. Ideally they also do specific research around a specific region and will go and visit it and dig up a site, painstakingly extracting layer upon layer of dirt to uncover forgotten items and buildings, mapping their location in a 3D space to extrapolate the age of the item and how it reflects on the story of the region to gain a more accurate history.

JT said archaeology is “Hard yakka digging around, an intelligent person with lots of zest. A quest for the truth. Lots of digging, reports n presentation. Can be male or female of all ages’ not necessary stereotype like in the movies. Works across all cultures n languages, people we can’t live without.

RB felt that they were “a person who translates, decodes and deciphers meanings from written and pictorial texts so that they can travel to specific locations and unearth objects in order to justify or change current theories about how ancient cultures and civilizations operated on a day to day basis. If you want it simplified then I guess it would be someone who spends a lot of time reading and researching so they can go and dig around in the dirt trying to find something that may or may not be there”. Interesting RB’S children had their own ideas such that an archaeologist was “a person who goes to weird places and finds cool treasure after digging in the dirt”

Mel told stated that their thoughts were that an archaeologist digs up bones and artifacts and tries to figure out what they were. It’s like a huge puzzle; you have to dig up the pieces and put it together and you’re not sure what it’s supposed to look like when you’re done. It’s probably physically demanding at times, but a very exciting mental challenge.

LS holds that their “impression is a person in a casual clothing (a bit of times from Indiana Jones movies) and with a small shovel and a brush  might wear also glasses, the look in the eyes is very concentrated, with a small excitement, what the earth will show today”

Of course there are also those that arrive at the other end of the spectrum. These, although shorter, may to many prove to be no less common in their thoughts. RT simply noted that an archaeologist was “an historian with dirty finger nails and sunburn, I could go into more detail”, it was said “but essentially it would come down to this”

ND added to this by describing them as “a person that digs up old crap from ancient rubbish dumps”.

All this before finally arriving at the most common form of image as presented by CP of “unearthing, mapping and collating of places and events in human history…while being chased by Nazis”. Once again the Indiana Jones reference resurfaces.

[i] Ramos, M & Duganne D 2000, Exploring Public Perceptions and Attitudes about Archaeology, The Society for American Archaeology, National Parks Service, Department of the Interior

[ii] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000 Houghton Mifflin Company


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