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. Tonight we feature Communications Coordinator and Archaeology Southwest Magazine Content Editor Kate Gann. Previous posts in the series are here.
(October 13, 2015)—Why and how I did become an archaeologist? Because of human remains. And lemonade and birdhouses and goat milk.
My family are a bookish people, for the most part. Educators, booksellers, readers, thinkers. Some of us are a bit reclusive about getting out, yet that has never applied to visiting bookstores, libraries, major museums, historic cemeteries, roadside markers, local historical society storefronts…you get the idea.
I can’t remember a time when there weren’t books all over my life. My parents loved history books—the series by Will and Ariel Durant holding a special place in their hearts—and historical novels, too. My mom and her sister Mary have always been especially interested in archaeology. One of my favorite books was at my Nana’s house: the Treasures of Tutankhamun catalogue from the Met! (Though we saw the exhibition at The Field Museum.)
In the mid-1970s, in the summers when my dad wasn’t in the classroom in south-suburban Chicago, he worked for my uncle selling packaging to farmers—the bushel bags and such they filled and brought to local markets. My dad, mom, baby brother, and I set off in the 1972 Olds Delta 88 and coasted the quiet back roads of Illinois and eastern Missouri. I had a favorite t-shirt: McGuire Orchards—Reach for a Peach! And I loved to visit with an older couple in Purple Martin Junction, Illinois, where there were amazing avian hotels on tall poles and the powder-scented lady made real lemonade. My first “big word” was “Effingham.”
I saw a different way of life on those sojourns, and later on camping trips with my best friend and her family (she now lives not far from Purple Martin Junction!). And those back roads through good farming country often led to archaeological sites—ancient or contemporary, people know good farmland. One day, Dad drove the Olds onto the Kampsville Ferry, and we made our way to the Koster site. That same trip, we went to Dickson Mounds. (And let me just say that Illinois’ closure of its state museums, including Dickson Mounds, is one of the most shameful @#$%&* …well, I expect I’m preaching to the choir, so I’ll leave it there.)
At Dickson Mounds, I really saw another way of life—and death. I was six years old. This was in 1979, when the burial ground was open for viewing. I remember standing above and to the side of a cemetery with exposed skeletons and objects on pedestals of earth. I remember a backdrop with a prairie at dawn or dusk. I remember canned narration. I remember not being horrified, or shocked, but profoundly saddened. No one I knew had died yet.
Here, I must pause to note that the burial ground was finally and rightfully closed in 1992. Please note that the article at this link from the time of the closure contains some ugly viewpoints that are not mine, in addition to important statements about why the closure was ethical and necessary. I supported the closure then and always will—because of my formative experience there.
Through the weird wisdom and beauty of a kid’s brain (and as an interpretive writer today, I think, “and probably through an engaging script”), I was very clear on the fact that these were people who had lived and died, and who commanded our respect. I knew those bones represented real people like my family.
About another trip in that era, to Cahokia Mounds, I remember thinking, “Whoa…sledding hill!” So yeah, I was still a kid, after all. Which is why I can’t fully explain the sobering feeling I so clearly recall having at Dickson Mounds. Perhaps it was the dim understanding that my loved ones would die, too.
Fast-forward to elementary school and a trip to the Oriental Institute Museum. At that time, when you entered the hallowed, vaulted, musty, limestone-encased space, the first exhibit case of note was a richly stained wooden box with Plexiglas top. We had to stand on tiptoe and take turns of five or six kids. “Ewwwww!” “No!” “That’s a DEAD PERSON!”
My turn. Hook pudgy hands over edge, look down. A person. Cuddled up like me at night. In a pit of sand. With shreds of cloth and small pots and other little things I couldn’t fully make out. A person. Label copy: Egypt, Predynastic Pit Burial. (Not that I could make that out at the time.)
The group moved on and my teachers had to draw me back to them.
1990: Second day on campus at the University of Chicago. Pluck up my courage and walk across the street from my dorm to the Oriental Institute Museum. Ask if there are any jobs open. Spend the next five years there. Earn an undergraduate degree.
I was fortunate to travel to the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia several times on archaeological projects. I loved being able to go places without being a tourist. (Pfft! On some level, of course I was a tourist!) I was on the back roads again, camping out, meeting farmers in small communities, sipping fresh, honey-sweetened goat milk. Reach for a pomegranate, reach for an olive.
Reach, sure—but as it turned out, I could not DIG my way out of a paper bag. I remain in awe of those who have a gift for the dirt. Fortunately, because of my time at the Oriental Institute, working with Ray Tindel and Karen Wilson and others in collections, I could care for artifacts and manage information about them. So that’s what I did on most field projects. And there came a day when I had the skulls of several infants and toddlers on my work table. Little persons. I gently prepared them for the Turkish archaeological authorities who would arrange their reburial.
1995: Fifth day in Tucson, ten days before graduate school begins. Pluck up my courage and walk into the Arizona State Museum (what’s at the top of that link? Another notice of devastating $#@&*% budget cuts, that’s what). Ask if there are any jobs open. Spend the next 13 years there, working for the indomitable Arthur Vokes and Mike Jacobs in archaeological collections. Earn a Master’s degree.
First projects? Helping the museum comply with the terms of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA, 1990), which requires human remains and associated grave goods to be identified, taken off display (if applicable), and returned to descendant tribal groups (actually much more complicated than that, and still ongoing—and note that this is the law that ultimately led to the closure of the burial ground at Dickson Mound). Knowing, whether in repatriations or ordinary cataloging, that these were people’s things, and worthy of my best care and attention.
I’m not sure whether I can be counted as an archaeologist any more. I was never interested in becoming a bioarchaeologist, oddly enough. By natural proclivity and a strong sense of actual people, I fell into painstakingly taking care of their stuff, and then into joyfully helping explain others’ theoretical work about why people and their stuff are important. Into helping to tell their stories, even imperfectly. To me, my work is a means of bearing witness to lives lived, a way of acknowledging that everyone’s existence has meaning. It’s also my way of coping with my own losses, past and forthcoming.
It’s because I saw what I did that I understand that, and it’s why I have never lost sight of the people.
I’d like to thank Bill Doelle, Doug Gann, and Lewis Borck for their comments on a draft of this essay, and Michelle Hegmon for patiently listening to me ramble on about its ultimate content one evening recently.