Between now and October 17, 2015, Archaeology Southwest is participating in the Archaeological Institute of America’s celebration of International Archaeology Day (10/17/15) by sharing blog posts about why—or how—we became archaeologists. Today we feature Leslie Aragon, frequent collaborator, Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona School of Anthropology, and Field Director of the Preservation Archaeology Field School (read on to find out why that is ironic). Previous posts in the series are here.
(October 13, 2015)—I never wanted to be an archaeologist. It never occurred to me that it was within the realm of possibilities. I had never even seen those Indiana Jones movies everyone was always so excited about. And honestly, spending any amount of time outside in the hot sun was not even remotely appealing to me. Growing up in Phoenix, we learn from an early age that spending too much time in the sun only gets you on the fast track to melanoma.
So, when I started college in the early 2000s, I was pretty sure I was going to be a teacher… or a psychologist… or drop out and spend the rest of my life working at the local grocery store. Any of those options seemed equally plausible and reasonable to my 18-year-old self.
During my second year of college, I accidentally got signed up for a course called “Buried Cities and Lost Tribes: Old World.” I had no idea what it was about, but it was at a convenient time in my schedule that semester, so I left it in. After the first class, my head was spinning from all of the new and scary terms that were being thrown around by the very enthusiastic graduate student who had been assigned to teach the course. “Archaeology,” “Neolithic,” “Mesopotamia,” “the Levant.”
I immediately called my sister, who was also in college at the time, and told her that she needed to sign up for this class, as there was no way I was doing it alone. And she did.
Before the semester was over, my sister had decided that she was going to “field school” that summer in southwestern Colorado. She also decided that since she took a class with me, I should take this one with her. She made a convincing argument; it was only a few weeks, and I could get credit for it! Perfect! Field school! The other archaeology class turned out to be fun, so how bad could this be?
I was pretty excited about it when I told my mom the plan, and I was a bit offended at her hesitant reaction and side-eyed expression when she asked if I knew what that was. “You know it’s outside, right?” Being 19 at the time, of course I knew everything. “Of course I know what it is!” Eye roll, heavy sigh, storm off…I didn’t.
On the first day of field school, I was not exactly having the experience I had envisioned. We have to dig? With picks and shovels? And what the heck is this caliche stuff?! It’s terrible! And it’s hot! And DIRTY! Why is everything so dirty? It wasn’t dirty in the pictures we looked at last semester! There isn’t even anything IN this unit!
On the second day of field school, I told the project director I hated archaeology, it was dumb, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. She convinced me that I should give it a chance, and even if I decided not to stick with it, at least I was getting credits for the field school. Man, was I angry at my sister! But I gave it a chance and it did get more interesting. By the end, I was hooked. To everyone’s surprise—including my own—I even asked if I could come back to help with the field school the following year.
When I got back to school, I took all of the archaeology courses I could. New World archaeology, Southwest archaeology, Archaeology of Egypt, it was all so interesting! I loved learning about different cultures and what we could figure out about people from what they left behind. I had been bit by the archaeology bug for sure, but now I had a whole new kind of problem. I really wanted to be an archaeologist, but I really did not want to be a professor, which is what I was led to believe was my only option.
As a result, I spent the next <too many> years trying to convince myself that I didn’t want to be an archaeologist. I tried out a lot of different majors, but none of them spoke to me the way archaeology did, and I kept coming back to it. I spent nearly every summer trying out different types of archaeology in different areas: northern Arizona, New Mexico, New York, Israel. Each time was a new adventure, and I loved that about it. I just didn’t know how to turn it into a career that didn’t mean spending most of the year in a classroom.
Finally, in 2008, while I was participating in an REU program through the University of Michigan at Homolovi State Park, I was introduced to a group of people who changed my life. Sarah Herr and Jenny Adams from Desert Archaeology, Inc., and Doug Gann from Archaeology Southwest (then the Center for Desert Archaeology) came to talk to our field school about what they did. Here were three people doing really cool archaeological research who were not associated with a university!
Sarah’s talk on cultural resource management (CRM) was particularly influential. In fact, after her lecture, I told her that I wanted to work in CRM and she put me in touch with the Desert Archaeology office in Phoenix. I think that was July of 2008, and on August 1, 2008, I was hired by Desert Archaeology, and I have been working for them ever since.
Since then, I have also completed my B.A.—it took me nine years to come to terms with getting an anthropology degree— my M.A., and I am currently working on my Ph.D. For the past three years, I have been the field director for the University of Arizona and Archaeology Southwest’s Preservation Archaeology Field School. It’s a rewarding experience being able to pass on what I have learned through my various trials and tribulations to the next generation, and to see some of the students go on to do great things. Not one of them has told me that they hate archaeology so far, but if it ever happens, I’ll know what to tell them.
After graduate school, I have every intention of continuing to work in CRM. It is a field that is constantly changing and requires a great deal of flexibility just to get through day-to-day activities, which really keeps you on your toes! And I love it. It was a long and winding road to get here, but I can honestly say that this is where I belong, and I couldn’t be happier.