Welcome again to The Cool-List, the column about what it's really like to work the coolest jobs on the planet. You know the kind. They're the sorts of jobs you might expect the Dos Equis "Most interesting man in the world" to have. This instalment will cover the archaeologist, a job romanticized in film, print and video games by such iconic adventurers as Indiana Jones and Lara Croft.
Tell someone in passing that you are an archaeologist and for just a fanciful moment they will imagine you being chased by blow-gun wielding pygmies, or cradling an enormous jewel, or swinging from a cliff by a vine. This is most definitely not the life of an archaeologist, a job which can be somewhat accurately described as reverse high-rise construction.
Archaeology is a science and it is performed by scientists. The fact that entry-level archaeologists are, in the majority, field scientists in the dust, sand, and mud, and not computer scientists in sterile labs, does not detract from the fact that these are intellectuals, not mercenaries. Their taste for adventure is sated by the nearest craft brewery, not by shoot outs with the local government thug. Climbing the job ladder means having an eye on an office in a university, museum, or archaeology corporation.
Archaeology is very cool, however. Archaeologists are constantly embarking on the one true human adventure: Discovery. Every inch they dig, every stone they brush, they are slowly gaining ground on the shore of true novelty, potentially discovering something unseen for generations, proving or disproving an historical theory or rediscovering an idea that would have otherwise been lost to the sands of time. And, while you sit inside the most uniformly colored box in the universe, they get to play in the mud.
The Grown Ups’ Sandbox
A typical day in the life of an entry-level archaeologist is spent setting up, working, tearing down or cataloging a dig. True, research-driven, archaeology is done slowly. A dig location in a remote Israeli cave may go on for many years and unearth more camel bones and broken pottery than anything else. It is these sites, however, that tend to turn up ancient manuscripts or weapons.
Construction-driven sites, on the other hand, are very time sensitive. The company that wants to build a new strip-mall is hoping you won't find something that will stop them and you're either hustling to preserve a historically significant site or just fulfilling the governmental requirement to investigate before the bulldozers arrive and up goes a Papa John's/post office.
There are two things that draw someone to the discipline of archaeology: A curiousity about history and a desire to explore their world. Archaeology will satisfy both of those lusts. An entry-level archaeologist is often referred to as a shovel bum, and it is a fitting appellation. It doesn't take all that much ability to wield a shovel, and the fresh-out-of-college crowd gets to fill the role.
Depending on the company they work for, they may end up travelling locally, or even world-wide, but much of the work is in the unsettled bits of the map. The budding young archaeologist is seeking some adventure... and they will find it. However it may not be exactly what they want. Consider that it isn't all that uncommon to discover a moldering corpse and spend the rest of your time trying to figure out whose it is and what to do with it.
If you were one of those kids that always liked exploring the woods, the caves and camping out and digging involved in archaeology may just be right up your alley. Then again, you may just end up digging in a settled location...
One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure
You may be surprised to read this, but if you think about it it makes perfect sense: One of the best places to do archaeology is in old privies. For those who don't visit renaissance festivals, a privy is a polite word for an outhouse. It may be hard to believe, but ancient toilets are absolute "gold" mines. Before modern plumbing, toilets were just holes in the ground with a seat on top and, if the users were lucky, a roof.
They were also the repository for whatever refuse one wanted to dispose of quickly. All sorts of... stuff... ended up down the privy hole. Empty bottles, household goods, low value items, and whatever the brat down the hall couldn't hold on to all went in - and no one was going after it.
Old coins, jewelry, antique hair brushes, and medicines - anything that could fit went in the loo. It might sound like a bunch of junk, but much of that stuff is quite valuable these days.
Now, you may not be the type of person who is excited by a turn of the century wine bottle... but that person exists. In fact, enough of those people exist that such an item can go for several hundred dollars on eBay or a private antique bottle auction site. These bottles are so desirable to the collector that the professional archaeologist faces competition from amateur toilet divers.
Yes, amateur privvy diggers exist. Not only that, but they are persistent - even obsessive - antique hunters that will compete with a legitimate archaeologist to be the first down into that ancient toilet to claim some metal and glass. Many of them are actually better equipped than the typical shovel bum.
So, while Archaeologists are not Indiana Jones desperately trying to claim a golden cross before the Nazis put it in a private collection, they can wrestle for control of a two-hundred year old dirt-encrusted laudanum bottle discarded by a lady of the night while crying, "It belongs in a museum!"
However, those looking to make a career out of archaeology are really trying to get into an office.
Just finding artifacts is a very small, and the very first, stage of archaeology, coming after deciding where to dig. Cataloguing, identifying, and investigating the discoveries is the true intellectual work, and it's the sort of thing that excites these librarians-of-physical-objects. What looks like a typical oil lamp to you or I may be a one-of-a-kind find that casts importance on the area where it was found.
And let's not forget that while some digs are only as big as an outhouse, others are the size of a city block, or even bigger, and require all the planning, care, and technological expertise of a combination strip-mine, apartment complex, and sometimes even explosive ordnance disposal, all-in-one. Big sites are a complex ordeal, and the people who run them - while few - have intellectually stimulating work with just a bit more sunburn than the average worker.
To sum it up, archaeology is a great profession for the out-of-the-house intellectual type. If you seek a job with irregular hours, are excited by discovery, and aren't afraid of hard work, then it may just be for you. If, however, you shy from the aroma of nature and the occasional dead body, maybe you should consider a different line of work.