International Archaeology Day 2018: What do archaeologists have to offer?

It’s funny how every time I tell someone I’m an archaeologist, they say, “Like Indiana Jones?”. Professor Jones, of course, pioneered archaeology’s entry into Hollywood and pop culture, but I’m not here to point out all the serious defects in his portrayal of us as whip-cracking grave robbers. That’s a story for another rainy day!

Today, as is the norm with celebrating International Archaeology Day (and as you, my readers, voted for in yesterday’s newsletter), I’m going to run through what I do as an archaeologist and for those of you not familiar with this branch of study, I’ll also run through how we do what we do and why what we do is so important for the world. 

One of the biggest confusions about archaeology for anyone new to it is where it belongs. In some institutes around the world, especially North America, archaeology comes under the department of Anthropology. Whereas, in others, for example, where I’m studying now, it comes under History. Interestingly enough, universities or institutes with a free-standing Department of Archaeology are very hard to come by. But it deserves to be a field of study on its own- archaeology isn’t just about finding out more about people in the past: it covers everything from environmental conditions and mountain formations to dinosaurs and microfauna. Hence, one of archaeology’s biggest selling points is that it can offer something to everyone- from scientists working in labs deciphering complex chemical and biological activities, to a field archaeologist toiling for hours out on the field conducting surface surveys in the scorching sun, archaeology promises to be a very reflexive discipline. 

One of my favorite aspects of archaeology is the theory involved. Thanks to the work of pioneers such as Lewis Binford, Ian Hodder, Michael Schiffer, Sir Colin Renfrew, and many more, you can spend countless hours debating on the issues raised by their work with your peers, colleagues and even your professors! 

In a groundbreaking article by British archaeologist David Clarke in the 1970s titled “Archaeology: the loss of innocence”, Clarke thoroughly explored the rising scope of archaeology and how vast the interdisciplinary contributions to it can be. Whether you’re just an enthusiast or a student, and you haven’t read that paper, I strongly recommend you to read it. It completely changed my perspective on archaeology.

Now, I’ll just run through what my work is like:
Currently, I’m a part of two projects: 1. Excavation in the Tairona region of Colombia, and 2. Mapping and survey of Fort Korlai- a Portuguese promontory fort in Western India.

The first project involves a lot of data processing and cataloging: and most of it is done online through a shared database, so I don’t have to travel all the way to Colombia to be actually associated with the dig. My work primarily involves pottery pattern predictions, finding potential sites to be excavated through archival research, and interpreting symbolism in ceramics with the help of ethnographic research. Here, my knowledge of Spanish and some associated Colombian dialects comes in handy.

The second project, which is entirely my own, has been progressing for some years now. Surprisingly enough, my interest in the beginning was attracted not by the fort, but by the rare species of snails that can be found hibernating in between the rocks that make up the defenses of the fortification.

Korlai is one of those rare places where I can do mollusk behavior studies and archaeology at the same time.

But soon, my interest was sparked by the construction phases of the fort, and now, my research involves both archival research and fieldwork. The fieldwork is what most people think is the “fun part”. Well, it’s not. Fort Korlai is built on a hill projecting into the Arabian Sea- the climb to the top takes a solid hour, and by the time you reach the top, no matter how fit you think you are, your arms and legs will be sore, and your clothes drenched. And that’s the beauty of working in the coastal regions of India- they are never cool. Even if you go in December, which is what I’m usually forced to do, the sun will dehydrate you easily in a couple of hours. So as it turns out, adventures aren’t as cool as they look in the movies. 

Despite the difficult climb, the incredible view of the Arabian Sea from the top makes you forget your woes for just a little while.

But this is just the beginning. Once you reach the fort, you’ll find grass more than six feet high choking the grounds. So get out your stick, lace up your boots, and start hacking your way through the dense growth. But be careful, I can’t remember how many venomous snakes I’ve encountered there over the years- one misstep and you could be in serious danger. After all this, if you have strength left, you will set up your work station and start doing your work. And before you know it, it’ll get dark. So now you have to climb down the treacherous hill, spend the night sleeping like a log in a room somewhere, and then come back again the next day and do everything all over again. 

Sounds fun? This kind of work is definitely not easy, and you might ask: are the end results worth all the pain? Yes, they definitely are. Surface surveys, where you are armed with tools as simple as a compass, some measuring tapes and a camera, can do wonders to take your research forward. And this is not just limited to places where no one ever goes- even archaeological sites as frequently visited by the public as the Ajanta and Ellora caves in India can give you a glimpse of something undiscovered if you care to look closely enough.

If you are observant enough, there’s always something new to discover.

So I guess what I’m trying to say here is, archaeology has come a long way from where it first began. Now, it is a self-sustaining as well as self-critical academic discipline that can tell the modern world stories that have never been heard before. 

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