As this question has come up about half a dozen times in the past few weeks, maybe I need to address it, if not for the inquisitors, at least for myself.
When people ask “Why did you become and archaeologist?” is it wrong to say “It’s better than a real* job”? For some people that makes total sense, for others, they think “WHA…!? you don’t make real money doing that!” It’s tough to make the argument that you want to be educated and have knowledge for knowledge’s sake in a world that equates education to vocational training with the sole aim of making money. If you are that type of person then please go no further here. I would suggest you go read Forbes and try banking or insurance as a career.
The real answer as to why I am an archaeologist is, of course, more complicated than that. First and foremost, I try to remember that I am an anthropologist studying people through cultural and environmental materials. The perception of what we do (even to many students and workers in our field) equates our job to some version of an antiquarian specializing in pots or tools or coins or whatever. That sounds fun but doesn’t exactly approach an understanding of the human condition. Like all collecting, that type of activity is a socially acceptable form of hoarding on some level. In the rare cases when collector/hoarders become archaeologists, things can and do get ugly. I am not that type of hoarder so I will not digress…
When is it anthropology? Here is a short definition from thisisanthropology.org: “Anthropology is the study of what makes us human. Anthropologists take a broad approach to understanding the many different aspects of the human experience, which we call holism. They consider the past, through archaeology, to see how human groups lived hundreds or thousands of years ago and what was important to them. They consider what makes up our biological bodies and genetics, as well as our bones, diet, and health. Anthropologists also compare humans with other animals (most often, other primates like monkeys and chimpanzees) to see what we have in common with them and what makes us unique. Even though nearly all humans need the same things to survive, like food, water, and companionship, the ways people meet these needs can be very different.”
I try to keep this in mind when I think about what I do. There is nothing in this common definition about generating wealth or getting rich but a theme of learning about ourselves that derives from a thirst for knowledge. We are, after all, human.
My journey to anthropology is, in a nutshell, one of interest in both the ancient world and of living people not like myself. I left high school early and traveled extensively and on the cheap, allowing me to see a fair bit of the world both inside and out of the United States while gaining many survival skills that have served me well. I took anthropology classes and archaeological field school long before I was an anthropology major. At the time I was in music performance for about seven semesters with no real plan but was a voracious reader on many topics.
Having a trade helped provide me with a little money for school and life. There was a time where I earned my keep through honest toil as I still didn’t know that you can actually be paid to do things like archaeology. Jumping ahead now…
The education paid off in more ways than I can articulate and grounded me with both skills and ethics that kept me on the better path in this field. Even my time in anthropology has been a winding path. Coming out of music and having an interest in ethnography, it seemed the logical choice to combine those talents into ethnomusicology. After a semester or two it was clear I was at the wrong university for that so I began pursuing another interest; Old World Prehistory. Essentially, I was studying Western European and North African prehistory from the end of the Ice Age until the rise of the Roman Empire (a sort of golden age in my immature world view); a somewhat more traditional path in anthropology.
After years of study and some time working and learning in Europe, various things brought me home to the midwest. Dumb luck and the bizarre interconnectedness of all things, more than real effort, led me to interesting and fun positions at Iowa, Missouri State, Eastern New Mexico, and other non-profit archaeological projects all around the West. Now I am an archaeologist, and while not getting rich, I rarely hate or dread my job like so many of my contemporaries. As long as this works, I’m willing to stick with it.
NOTE: In my experience in this field, it’s important to remember that “archaeologist” can mean very different things. In the Federal Government, it seems to be merely a title for mid-level administrators who deal with compliance in the cultural realm regardless of their education, skills, or knowledge. Many of these “archaeologists” don’t participate in the anthropological community as a whole but confine themselves to the bureaucratic tasks associated with development, often even hiding or discouraging research and discourse in our field. That’s fine, but maybe we should use a different term for that position. Those are NOT anthropologists and therefore NOT archaeologists in my opinionated mind.
*real job – socially acceptable toil generally associated with furthering the welfare of a corporate or government entity lacking in genuine productivity, morality, freedom, etc. This often involves spending time in a sound-dampened cubicle trying to look as if you aren’t really slacking while producing the minimum required to keep said job.