About being an archaeologist

With the USC Symposium quickly (how very quickly) approaching, this is a great time to look back at our archaeological beginnings and see what twisty, marvelous paths they’ve led us down. And perhaps, in the process, reach a satisfying conclusion as to why we have spent so many hours in the lab and on Microsoft Powerpoint getting our projects ready for one fleeting poster session tomorrow – because in the end, it is still a lot of fun sharing our passion with others.

Name: Tiffany Tsai      Year: Junior     Major: Archaeology

1. What is your title at USC? Student archaeologist, research assistant, and STARC Public Relations Chair all come to mind, but really, the only official title I have is “Bachelors of Arts Candidate in Interdisciplinary Archaeology,” which I do not use very often.

2. What is your area of expertise? I have the most field experience in sub-Arctic Alaska and research experience in laser paint conservation and Egyptian names. At the moment, though, nothing particularly qualifies me as an expert in a certain area.

3. When and where was your last dig? Fairbanks, Alaska, in the summer of 2009. It involved finding bits of stone tools and little animal bones from people who had crossed the Bering Strait about 14,000 years ago.

4. How long have you been an archaeologist? In the sense that archaeology begins when you take your first class or your trowel hits the dirt, I have been an archaeologist since June 2008. In the sense that anyone who makes a story of the past using physical remants is an archaeologist, I’ve always been one. Then there is the definition of archaeology as a profession, something you need credentials and years of postgraduate education for, and in that sense I am still trying to become an archaeologist.

5. Why did you become an archaeologist? I have always wanted to study EVERYTHING, and in the first couple of years of college I jumped around from architectural engineering to math to English and even a music minor. Then I took a class on the Ancient Maya and realized that archaeology lets you study EVERYTHING!  For instance, architecture – lots of ancient sites have buildings and infrastructure, and we need to record and reconstruct the building plans. Math/science – one big rising area today is archaeological science, which borrows ideas from physics and chemistry and biology, like how fast a particle decays, to figure out things like how old an artifact is. Language – people study languages of the past to gain greater insight to a society’s beliefs.

6. Describe your most exciting day as an archaeologist. Last year my professor took me and Sarah (second below) to Sedona, Arizona, where we were invited to help evaluate a Native American site found on someone’s ranch.  In the 70s it was home to an artist, and in the back of his studio there was a bookcase covered in inch-thick dust, and we hauled it aside to reveal a door…which when we opened it, led a storeroom filled with artifacts people had totally forgotten about, literally crammed with rotting cardboard boxes full of Sinagua heritage objects from floor to ceiling.  On one hand it was appalling, but as it was my first time “finding” anything I could not help the “oh! oh! oh!”s welling up inside me.

7. Describe your average day. Right now I’m in school, so I just get up in the morning, go to class, rush around campus doing various errands, and go back to my apartment to study more archaeology.

8. What is the most important thing to remember when doing archaeology? On a dig, don’t immediately pick an artifact out of the ground when you find something really cool. Our knowledge of former peoples comes from where an object is found as well as the object itself.

9. Why is archaeology important? You don’t know who you are until you know where you came from.  We, as the species of humans, don’t know what we truly are until we see what others before us have done.

10. What do you see as the future of archaeology? Less destructive digging, more local people getting involved with archaeologists from a foreign place, more women as head archaeologists, increased focus on modern-day American culture and junk from outer space…those are things I’d like to see happen.

11. What do you usually wear on a dig? It depends on where I’m working. When I excavated a Mission Indian site in Southern California, close-toed shoes and a T-shirt and lots of sun protection were necessary, as Sarah said. In Alaska, it was bare feet and a light sweater with long pants (for the mosquitoes).

12. What is your favorite part about being an archaeologist? Hands down, the camaraderie of digging.

13. What qualities must an archaeologist have? A willingness to go through lots of library books and scholarly papers and write lots and lots of papers, which most people don’t realize; a willingness to go out on a limb and get your hands dirty as well.

14. What would you like people to know about an archaeologist that most people are not aware of? I must echo the dinosaur thing, for which there is even a T-shirt: http://www.cafepress.com/shovelbums/2603940

15. What is the most interesting place your work has taken you? There isn’t a place that hasn’t been interesting in some way, but I guess the ancient limestone caves in Belize – and my time spent crawling through their muddy stalactite mazes – stand out in memory.


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