By Dave Scheidecker, THPO Field Technician
One of the questions I often get asked as an archaeologist is “What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found?” It seems simple and straightforward, yet it’s always an odd question to try and answer. What’s interesting to most people and what’s interesting to an archaeologist often aren’t the same things.
Think of the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark (And if you haven’t seen it, go see it right now. I’ll wait). Indiana Jones sneaks into ancient ruins, deftly avoiding poison darts, spring loaded spikes that activate at the touch of sunlight, and the world’s largest bowling ball, to make it out with a priceless golden idol that was worth all the risk.
But is it? Really, when you get down to it, it’s a statue made out of a shiny rock. Statues are nice, we can learn from them. You can see the art style of the people who made it. What it represents could be something very important to the people who had it. Or it could mean they liked cats. But now think about that temple the statue was in. This is a temple that, among other things, has solar and pressure-plate activated booby traps. Ones that still work after centuries without maintenance! That beats out most warrantees you’ll get now. Think of what could be learned by studying that temple… if the team could survive.
For an archaeologist, the artifacts found can be individually remarkable, but the real importance is what they tell us about the site they were found in. All of the things we find and all of the data we collect are tied together. Context is everything. This is one of the reasons archaeology goes so much slower in the field than it does in the movies.
Of course, we don’t deal with ancient spike traps much in regular archaeology. Not just because few traps keep working long after the culture that built them has gone, but because the best information we get can come from the least glamorous places. The best information about how people really lived comes from the garbage. Yep, that’s right. We get far more information from their tossed out leftovers than we do from that statue. The true treasure trove is when you find the garbage pit. Bones of what people ate, broken dinnerware, tossed out tools… the pieces of life from all around the site are collected in one spot. The trash.
All of these individual items, every artifact, is part of a larger context: the site itself. And not just the item itself, but how it was found. Where was it? How far underground? What was it near? An arrowhead taken from a sight is a curiosity. An arrowhead found within a site is a piece of a puzzle, one that tells the story of the place and the people who lived there when it’s put together. And that is the real goal of archaeology, to preserve the legacy of the people.
The most interesting things most archaeologist find aren’t artifacts… they’re sites. Not every site that is important is easy to spot, and not every place is important to the same people. In ancient Greece scholars once put together a list of incredible sites that people should visit. The Pyramids of Egypt, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Statue of Zeus, the Temple of Artemis, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria… the Seven Wonders of the World.
Of all these ancient sites, only the Pyramids remain. The rest were lost through the ages, fallen into ruin, destroyed, or lost to memory (If you can know Halicarnassus without help from Wikipedia, then you know your history!). If this happened to such well known places, think of all the other places lost through the years. And not every site has such obvious importance to the people who don’t use it. Many sacred places with long and rich histories might seem like simple wilderness to those who don’t know. With the amount of construction and development going on in the world today, ancient sites and sacred spaces are constantly at risk of being bulldozed.
One of the most important jobs archaeologists have is preservation. We work to identify sites that are culturally and historically significant. We ensure that they’re not destroyed when we can, or that the knowledge is preserved if we can’t. Sometimes the most interesting thing found is a place that’s important to people, has a story, and is important to them. And that’s not a thing. But it is the best part of the job.