What do I tell aspiring young archaeologists?

Talk to school children about archaeology via SkypeGrowing up in Idaho, the closest I ever came to meeting a real-life archaeologist is when I touched a cardboard cutout of Indiana Jones at my local video store when the Last Crusade came out. I knew that was what I wanted to do as an adult (or become an astronaut), but I had no idea how I was going to get there. I had no role models. Knew no archaeologists. Never went to a public archaeology dig or heard an interview with a real archaeologist. It wasn’t until I finished college that I learned about cultural resource management archaeology.

Now, I do my best to make sure people know about archaeology: what it is, what we do, and how it helps society. I believe it is best to connect with people as soon as possible—preschool if possible; elementary school at the latest. This is why I’ve started reaching out to schoolteachers in my network seeking opportunities to give online talks to students as often as possible.

Talking to kids is the least I can do

For the past couple years I have been doing Skype live chats with elementary and middle school kids in various locations around the United States. Archaeology is an excellent topic for schools because it addresses both STEM fields and humanities like history and social studies. Our industry is interesting enough to be the feature of any Career Day activities as students would much rather learn about archaeology than what it’s like to sell life insurance or be a pharmacist.

Primary school has changed a lot since I was a young, youth. Schools are equipped with all the technology necessary for you to hold a live talk via Skype, Google Hangouts, Gotomeeting or any other webinar platform. Most teachers that have ever FaceTimed can usually figure out how to get your voice and Powerpoint slideshow to project on a screen for your class. You do not need any special equipment other than a laptop with an internet connection and webcam (you don’t even need the webcam if you’re shy, but the kids really do like seeing your face.)

Telling students the real deal about being an archaeologist can be a life-changing event in a young person’s life. In a world where archaeologists remain fantasy figures only seen on television or (worse) Hollywood, giving a young person the chance to ask questions to a real-live archaeologist is something that I would have loved to have happened back when I was in elementary school. I’ve done this long enough with the same classes to learn that a few students who were doing poorly in school improved their grades simply because they heard that you need to be good at school if you want to become an archaeologist.

It gives students hope to learn that, contrary to what their parents and friends may tell them, some Americans actually do realize their dreams. Sometimes, you really do get your dream job. It is possible if that’s what you really want to do.

However, being an archaeologist is not all bread and roses. It’s a very hard industry to break into and even more difficult to survive. What you say to children is different than what you tell college students. You have to walk a tightrope with young children—encouraging them to go for their dreams while also giving it to them straight. This can be hard to do. So, what do you tell a nine-year-old that wants to be an archaeologist?

Interesting that you would ask. I am currently planning a Career Day talk in the next few weeks with a group of fourth and fifth graders. The plan is for me to create a PowerPoint that connects my work with what they’re studying while also giving information about being an archaeologist and what they need to do if they wish to pursue archaeology as a vocation. This time, the teacher had a list of seven questions he would like me to answer so he has a better idea of what I plan on talking about. I wrote a short response to his questions and here’s what I said:

  1. Tell me a little background about yourself and where you earned your degree (attended college), what you studied. I am from Boise, Idaho and earned my Bachelor’s in Anthropology with a Native American Studies minor from Boise State University in 2001. I got my Master’s in Anthropology from the University of Idaho in 2005 and I’m now working on my PhD in Anthropology with a focus on heritage conservation at the University of Arizona.
  2. What inspired you to pick this field? When I was a kindergartner I decided I would either become an astronaut or an archaeologist. In high school, I found out I was an inch too tall to be an astronaut so I went into archaeology.
  3. How long before you were successful in this field? It depends on what you call success. Simply to become an archaeologist is a form of success because it’s so hard to stay in this field. You get paid a respectable salary, enough to be middle class but that comes through getting a good education (at least a Master’s) and experience. I know some archaeology company owners that are millionaires but most are not. My dreams were to start a family, buy a house, and become an archaeologist. It took over 30 years to accomplish those goals but I did it. The rest of my life is icing on the cake. I still have a long way to go towards many of the other things I’ve always wanted to do (like dig on every continent and underwater), but it feels good to look back on all the stuff I’ve already done.
  4. What has kept you working in this field? I stay in archaeology because of the human stories I get to uncover. I’ve found all types of artifacts and worked all over the country, but it’s the way archaeology relates to human life that always keeps me in awe. That feeling when you discover things people haven’t seen in thousands of years or hear elders tell tales about their heritage that we thought were myths but we can see evidence of those stories right in front of our eyes– it’s hard to explain but it helps you see humanity in a whole new light. We have been on this planet for about 200,000 years but the things we all need–food, shelter, family, love, security– remain the same.
  5. What would a student need to study in order to enter this field? As early as middle school or high school if possible? If you want to become an archaeologist you need to have two things: a) an insatiable desire to keep learning, and b) the ability to do hard, detailed work for days, weeks, years, on end. There are all kinds of archaeologists. Not all of us work in the field. But, all of us have a passion for learning– how to research, how to listen to descendant communities, how to analyze artifacts, how to write, how to run a business (yes, most archaeologists are business consultants). And, we all have enough drive to keep going, paying attention to detail, long after most people would have given up.

Anybody can become an archaeologist. There are no special physical or mental requirements. More than half of us are women. Some are in a wheelchair or physically handicapped in other ways. Not every archaeologist is good at school, math, or writing. But every archaeologist that stays in the field has a strong desire to learn as much as possible about the past and the fortitude to keep on task. There are other attributes that will help, but desire and heart go a very long way because archaeology is one of those dream jobs. Most people think it would be cool to become an archaeologist but very, very few have the drive and dedication to see it through.

That being said, your students can become archaeologists for a day anytime. You just need to do a job shadow at a local archaeology company or volunteer on a dig. There are lots of volunteer opportunities. Check out the National Park Service’s Passport in Time program to see what’s available in your area http://www.passportintime.com/ If you don’t see anything in your area, press your local government, universities, companies to get something going. Local interest is one way you can bring archaeology to your community.

  1. What does the future look like for this field? Right now, there aren’t enough archaeologists to do all the work. College grads are finding jobs and doing well when compared to what was happening during the Recession. However, the near-term future all depends on what President-elect Trump does to environmental policies. Right now, the majority of archaeologists work as consultants under the National Environmental Policy Act or National Historic Preservation Act, which forces government agencies to consider their impacts on the environment and historic properties (i.e. archaeology sites). There will be severe impacts to the archaeology industry if these laws get repealed.

Nevertheless, there is always risk in any career. A degree in anthropology is never a waste because it is applicable in so many industries. Microsoft is said to be the second biggest employer of anthropologists in the country. Also, U.S. environmental consulting companies are expanding into Africa, South America, and Asia. Now you can help those countries learn about their sites before they are destroyed by construction, which is something that didn’t really exist when I started in the field a decade ago. I’d say, if you really want to become an archaeologist, don’t be deterred. Things will be different when your students graduate from high school. In the long-term (10+ years), I see environmental laws expanding and more opportunities in international consulting. The future seems bright to me

  1. Why would they want to enter this field? If being an archaeologist is your dream, go for it. You only get one life and being an archaeologist can be a really fascinating career. It sure beats flipping burgers, pushing shopping carts, or answering endless emails in a corporate tower. You will see things that will blow your mind. There are a lot of dull moments but, for someone that has a passion for history, you won’t even know what you’re doing is boring to other people. Plus, you help protect sites, help descendant communities reclaim lost heritage, and gather information that helps us in the present. Archaeology is like teaching– you do it because you care and feel like you are contributing to society.

How you can be the highlight of a child’s day?

Do you want to help me spread the word about archaeology to schoolchildren? Giving school talks over the internet is seriously the least costly form of public outreach you can possibly do. An archaeologist at any experience level is more than capable of giving a Career Day talk because it is very, very unlikely that anyone in that classroom will ever have met an archaeologist. Remember, these are children. Even sharing your field school experience will go a long way towards encouraging any nascent archaeologists and helping show kids there’s a diversity of careers out there that they can do some day.

Here’s how I got into giving school talks:

Reach out through your existing network: I talked to other kids’ parents and to schoolteachers I knew via Facebook. This is probably the easiest way to get started.

Expand at the institutions where you have already given talks: Each grade has different curriculum and your experience will be relevant to what is being taught at different times of the year. Once you have given one talk, tell that teacher you are willing to do this again for other classes.

Don’t worry about being perfect: Share what you know. Answer questions as best as you can.

Tell other archaeologists about what you’ve been doing: It will take all of us working together to demonstrate the worth of what we’re doing and grow the legions of archaeology fans. That means Skype calls all over the country as often as possible.

Act. Now. Just do it: What are you waiting for? Write a public Facebook message stating your willingness to give a talk. See what happens.

Strike at the root of the problem

The United States is in a transitional period. Industries created by a mature, progressive, environmentalist society—like cultural resource management archaeology—can only exist as long as that society exists. The society in which we all live has more understanding of the natural world than at any point in human evolution. Human scientific and technological development, however, does not smoothly move in an upward trajectory towards increased complexity, sophistication, and improvement. There are times when we regress. These regressions are natural, but I am among a large number of cultural resource management archaeologists and scientists that does not want to see our scientific, technological, and ecological advancements degenerate because of those who are afraid of change.

It is extremely important for every scientist, researcher, and social advocate to reach out to those communities that may not understand or value our work. We have to explain why our work is important. It is up to us to reach out because our livelihoods depend on the continued existence of scientific inquiry and because our work helps make society better. We can no longer passively stand by and watch the regulations dedicated towards environmental and historic preservation get rolled back by profiteering, pseudo-populist “business-interests.” We are past the time when we could chose whether or not we should do something. We all must act now!

Donating a few minutes of your time to do a Skype chat with schoolchildren is one of the easiest and most effective means of informing the public of the value of cultural resource management and archaeology. In addition to helping an aspiring young archaeologist go for her dreams, you will also be telling your fellow Americans about the importance of archaeology BEFORE they grow up and get told it is irrelevant Red Tape. If you are reading this blog post, you already have the technology to make this happen at a school near you. All you have to do is act.

Wanna get started? Write a comment below or send me an email.


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