(October 16, 2015)—At first, I fell into archaeology almost by accident. My freshman year was a small academic disaster. I was doing well in everything but my Management Information Systems major, and my experience with the COBOL programming language on punch cards convinced me that I was wasting my time in the University of Arizona College of Business.
The only bright spot that semester was the Introduction to Archaeology 101 elective, which was fascinating. Unlike the reading sections of the rest of my classes, which consisted of dialog with a bored teaching assistant, Dr. John Olsen’s Archaeology 101 discussion sections were attended by the professor himself. The meetings provided the opportunity to examine ancient objects—the actual artifacts!—including stone tools made tens of thousands of years ago in Central Asia.
This was vastly more engaging than having to wait three hours to re-execute your source code because you missed a semicolon on card 316 out of 600.
My report card that spring convinced me I was on the wrong track and too immature for school. I took a year off to grow up a bit while keeping the books for my folks’ silk-screening business and trying to figure out just what to do. All the while, I did as best I could to stay current with computing, and was introduced to a tiny little Macintosh computer and the amazing Apple Laser Printer. I spent more than a few late nights learning vector graphics.
Still, I was becoming depressed about my inability to find something worth doing. My mom reminded me how much I enjoyed the archaeology class. She found an article in USA Today about archaeological vacations, and suggested I go digging.
So, I went digging that summer, through the Passport in Time Program at the Saratoga Battlefield. Our team was looking for evidence from the 13th Royal Grenadiers’ encampment between the two Battles of Saratoga. Six weeks of digging, measuring, recording, drawing, sifting, and I found exactly nothing. (Even worse than nothing, I learned at a recent Archaeology Café in Phoenix. I bumped into Gerald Kelso, who had just published a paper showing that our excavations were not on the English trenches and fortifications, but rather on berms created by sand-mining in the 1800s.)
This minor detail—the whole not actually finding anything thing—did not matter to me in the least. The other excavation team, under Dr. David Starbuck, was recovering amazing information about the Colonial era from the farmhouse that served as a field hospital during the battles. So there were plenty of historic items to ooh and ahh over, and thousands of broken ceramics to wash in the evenings.
To me, what mattered was what I was able to learn: stratigraphic excavation. The fine details in field recording technologies. Three-dimensional data-recording on Aardvark coding sheets. And then there was the entirety of learning about the political history and material culture of the late 1700s. The whole environment of the project was like a mental banquet—so much to learn, from so many interesting students and fellow volunteers.
On the way home from Saratoga, I realized I had found my sense of direction. It was so obvious, the ways three-dimensional archaeological data translated directly into the types of data arrays that my (absurdly rudimentary) digital 3D graphics systems could easily display. I was certain I had found a path uniquely suited to what I enjoyed doing.
When I reported back to Dr. Olsen after the project, I told him I was changing my major to anthropology, and I made some sort of vague statement about wanting to try to incorporate 3D computing into archaeological research. Then I went about doing just that. And 30 years later, I’m still doing just that.