What It's Like To Be...

An Archaeologist

April 23, 2024 Season 1 Episode 17
An Archaeologist
What It's Like To Be...
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What It's Like To Be...
An Archaeologist
Apr 23, 2024 Season 1 Episode 17

Unearthing ancient wine cellars, finding the right places to dig, and tracing the arc of lost civilizations with Eric Cline, an archaeologist. What's the difference between a shard and a sherd? And what will archaeologists of the future make of us?

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  1. What do people think your job is like and what is it actually like?
  2. What’s a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know and what does it mean?
Show Notes Transcript

Unearthing ancient wine cellars, finding the right places to dig, and tracing the arc of lost civilizations with Eric Cline, an archaeologist. What's the difference between a shard and a sherd? And what will archaeologists of the future make of us?

Follow us on Instagram!

Got a comment or suggestion for us? You can reach us via email at jobs@whatitslike.com

Want to be on the show? Leave a message on our voice mailbox at (919) 213-0456. We’ll ask you to answer two questions:

  1. What do people think your job is like and what is it actually like?
  2. What’s a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know and what does it mean?

Dan Heath: It was mid-morning, and it was already really hot. Eric Cline was chipping away with a little handpick at an archeological site in Northern Israel. He was a college student on his first overseas dig. The heat was getting to him. Suddenly his pick struck something green and kind of small that flew up into the air.

Eric Cline: And everything went into slow motion. And so, as this green thing is twirling in the air, because I had hit it, and it flipped up, I thought, "Oh, a petrified monkey's paw. That's cool." And then before it hit the ground, I thought, "Wait, a petrified monkey's paw? That makes no sense. There weren't any monkeys here in antiquity." And then I picked it up, and it turned out to be a little bronze kind of a statue that actually goes at the end of a wooden arm on a chair.

Dan Heath: It was a more than 2,000-year-old statue of the Greek god Pan.

Eric Cline: You know, the little guy that's got the double flutes that traipses us through the forest with the animals following him.

Dan Heath: It was beginner's luck. And for a long time in his career, it would remain the single most interesting thing he'd ever found on an archeological dig. By the way, you'll hear what replaced it later. 30 years after the original finding, he saw that statue of Pan on display at a museum. He took a selfie with it. I just love the idea that you have the kind of brain where if something ambiguous and green flies up in the air, you think petrified monkey paw.

Eric Cline: I know a little, a little crazy, right? I plead sunstroke. That's all I can say. I plead sunstroke.

Dan Heath: I'm Dan Heath, and this is "What It's Like to Be..." In every episode, we walk in the shoes of someone from a different profession, a professional Santa Claus, a welder, a piano teacher. We wanna know what they do all day at work. Today we ask Eric Cline what it's like to be an archaeologist. We'll talk about his greatest discovery in the field, what the difference is between a shard and a sherd and what archaeologists in the distant future are going to make of our civilization. Stay with us. One of the first questions I asked Eric when we sat down was, "How do archaeologists know where to dig?"

Eric Cline: Usually you don't know where to dig to begin with, and that's why one of the first things that we do when we're interested in a particular area is to do surveys. And surveys can either be on foot or from the air. So what we frequently do if we do a survey is we line up our group, you know, five people, six people, and they're about 15 or 20 feet apart. And you simply have them walk over the landscape and question the area that you think there might be a site on. And in many cases, what we do is we've got little handheld clickers in our hands, and so as we're walking, we're looking at the ground. And if we see a piece of pottery or a piece of worked stone or a wall or whatever, we click once. And so every time we see another broken piece of pottery, we click again and again and again. And as you get closer to a site, the count will go higher. It's kind of like, you know, counting radiation with a Geiger counter. And so as you get closer to a site, you'll go, you know, let's just say every 10 feet, if you counted it up, you'd be like, "Zero, zero, 12, 50, 200, 750, 500, 10, zero, zero, zero." And you'll know that you've just walked over a site and that, you know, where you had the highest count is probably the center of the site.

Dan Heath: Cline said that archaeologists can also survey land from an airplane or by drones or by studying satellite photos. There's even a technology called remote sensing that lets you look beneath the earth without actually digging. But sometimes he told me it doesn't take much detective work to find a promising site.

Eric Cline: Depending on where you are in the world, like if you are in the Middle East, if you're in Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, you will frequently see manmade or human-made mounds, what are called tels, either T-E-L-L or T-E-L. And those are where people have built city upon city upon city. So for instance, at Megiddo, where I dug for 20 years, there are 20 cities built one on top of another that span about 5,000 years. And so that's really easy to spot. You're driving on a road. You look off to the right, and you're like, "Whoa, there's a tel. Let's stop the car and go look and see what we got." If you were to look at the side of the mound, it looks like a layer cake, but a cake with multiple layers.

Eric Cline: And each of those layers-

Dan Heath: Wow.

Eric Cline: Is a different city or a different occupation level.

Dan Heath: It's such an incredible visual, the idea of the layer cake, you know, 20 cities stacked on top of each other. I mean, it must give you a sense of awe just to kind of get your head around all those different civilizations and what they were consumed with. And how does it feel to kind of be a part of those discoveries?

Eric Cline: Yeah, well, that's what makes, at least for me, archaeology so fascinating. Not only does each day on an excavation unearth new things, almost always unexpected, but the sense of history is overwhelming. And again, to go back to the site that I spent so many years at, Megiddo, biblical Armageddon is what your listeners may know it as. Armageddon actually is a real place. It's not just mentioned in the New Testament, but it's Har-Megiddo, the Mound or Mountain of Megiddo in Hebrew. And it became Har-Magedon, and then H dropped out, and it became Armageddon. But it's the Mound of Megiddo. When walking up to the top of the mound at 5:00 AM each morning to excavate, the sense of history, as I said, is overwhelming because every step you take, wherever you plant your feet, there is 70 feet of solid occupation beneath where you are. And every time I walked up on the mound, I would think, "I wonder what I'm walking over right now." You know, is there... Obviously there's a city, but who lived here? What king or queen lived here? What did the average person do? I mean, it's just absolutely overwhelming. And then when you get up to the top, and you start digging in the area that day, you're like, "Wow, what am I gonna find?" What new information is gonna shed light on the research questions I'm asking? So it really is an amazing feeling, unlike anything else in the world.

Dan Heath: Can I ask a really dumb question? How does a city end up buried?

Eric Cline: It's not a bad question at all. It ends up being buried through a number of processes, usually natural. I mean, think if you leave home for a while, and you're gone for two or three weeks or even two or three months, when you come back, there's frequently a layer of dust on everything, right? So now multiply that by 10 years, 100 years, if a site has been abandoned. If a site's been abandoned, and especially if the wind is blowing, it will quite quickly frequently become buried. If you also have something like an earthquake which knocks down all the walls, and then you've got dirt accumulating.

Dan Heath: And once you've decided where you're gonna dig, like, what are the mechanics of the digging itself? Like, who should we picture doing the work, and what kinds of tools are they using?

Eric Cline: It really depends where you are in the world, but if we can stick with the Middle East for the moment, which I know the best, you'll be digging with big tools, and that surprises people. You'll be digging with a pick, a pickax. You'll be digging with shovels. You'll be digging with wheelbarrows because there's a lot of soil that has accumulated. You have to get the overburden or the topsoil off first, and then and only then will you switch to smaller tools, so, for instance, our favorite, a trowel. We also use what in Hebrew are called a , a . It's a little, like a rock hammer. Looks kind of like a geologist's rock hammer. It's got a pointed end on one side and a broad kind of blade on the other. And so it's like a miniature pickax, if you will, and you can whack away at the earth with that.

Dan Heath: So who is it that's wielding those miniature pickaxes?

Eric Cline: A lot of it is college students, you know, who have to excavate as part of their archaeology major. But a lot of it is people for whom this is on the bucket list, you know, retired doctors, nurses, lawyers, librarians, that always wanted to go on a dig. And especially for them, if I say, "Look, for $700 a week, you want to come digging?" they're like, "Sure, that's a pretty cheap vacation."

Dan Heath: But Eric told me that the volunteers quickly learn that it is not a vacation.

Eric Cline: One of the funniest things was when they get there after about three days and realizing just how hard the work is and that they're picking up buckets of dirt that weigh up to 30 pounds each, they first start saying, "This isn't a dig. This is a health and wellness fat farm," you know? And then they go, "Wait, and I'm paying for this?" They always say, "I had no idea how much work was involved in an excavation."

Dan Heath: And are you working like carefully, gingerly, to avoid, you know, crushing anything? Or does it not require that much caution?

Eric Cline: It depends on what you're finding. At some point, you can put caution to the wind and just go at it with the pickax, you know. And that's where the experienced supervisor will come over and talk to the newbie, to the volunteer, and say, "You know, look at the side of the trench here. You know you can go down a foot and a half before you're gonna hit anything, so just swing away with the pick." Or they'll come over, and they'll say, "You know, look in the side of this trench that we dug last week, and you can see that you're coming down on a plaster floor, and it's only about three inches below where you are. So let's go slowly. Let's go carefully." Use your . Use your trowel. Use your brush. And if you see any changes in color or in consistency, you know, if the soil changes, then let me know. But the one thing that we don't use that often is what everybody thinks we do. We very rarely use dental tools, and we almost never use toothbrushes. And yet that's what you see all the time, is people, you know, delicately with a toothbrush. It's like, yeah, you're not gonna get much excavated if you're using a toothbrush. Those we use, dental tools and toothbrushes, when you found, for instance, a skeleton. Then you have to be very delicate about what you're excavating, and that's when we switch to the dental tools.

Dan Heath: And what is it typically that you're finding? Like what would be kind of an everyday occurrence to find, and what would be maybe a once-a-year or once-every-five-year sort of discovery?

Eric Cline: Again, it depends where in the world you're excavating, but if we continue with the ones I'm most familiar with, the things you'll find most often, which surprises people, is broken pieces of pottery, right, pot sherds. And by the way, pottery, when it's broken, we call it sherds. Shards with an A is pieces of glass. And that's probably the single most common error that non-archeologists, where they're like, "Oh, did you find a shard today?" "Like, no, I didn't find any glass. I did find sherds, lots of pottery," so. And imagine, and it's not surprising because if you make something, say, out of clay, out of ceramic, and you fire it so that you've got a plate, a dish, a cup, a bowl, whatever, that is now not biodegradable. And if you happen to drop it, and it shatters into 100 pieces, each of those pieces will stay around for basically forever. And so that's what we find on sites all the time. Using pottery sherds is our easiest, best, and fastest way to date the levels that we're excavating. So if you've got a pottery expert, you know, which we have on the excavations, most of the professional archaeologists can do this. They can look at a pot sherd and not only say to you, "Oh, that's Roman," or, "Oh, that's Iron Age." They can also say things like, "Oh, that's Middle Bronze IIA." "Yeah, that's, you know, early 17th century BC." So they can actually tell you relatively, or sometimes absolutely, the level that you're digging in. So the pottery is incredibly important, and in part, it's, you know, useful 'cause it's so common. What is not common, to answer the last part of your question, is finding stuff that you would really write home about, like, you know, King Tut's tomb, that kind of stuff. That's a once in a lifetime if you even ever get there. Most archaeologists, myself including, very rarely even find precious metals. You know, we don't find stuff made of gold that often. I think at Tel Kabri, where I've been digging also for the last 10, 15 years, we found one piece, small fragment of gold, but that's not what we're looking for. The pottery actually gives us much more information and is more valuable to us.

Dan Heath: Hey, folks, Dan here. Can I ask your advice about something? So far on the show, we've featured exclusively guests from the good old US of A. We want to expand internationally. And we noticed that at least 20% of you listening right now are from outside the US. Our question is, how do we do that exactly? Like, it would be nice if we could find professions that spoke to the countries that they were from without venturing into cliche. Like, what I don't wanna do is have the kangaroo trainer from Australia or something. Like, how do we find professions that are authentically of their respective nations? Can you help us think of those professions and maybe even suggest a guest? If you are listing internationally, and you want to rise to this challenge, send us an email at jobs@whatitslike.com. Thanks, folks. So, you do an excavation. You've unearthed hundreds of thousands of sherds and other interesting items. How in the world do you extract a lesson or a picture or some findings from all of those individual pieces?

Eric Cline: Well, it takes a village is probably the best way to put it because each category of object or artifact that you are digging up gives you another piece of the puzzle. So, for instance, if you're trying to recreate what life was like at our site of Tel Kabri, which, by the way, was a Canaanite site dating back to almost 2000 BC, so 4,000 years ago, we have a wine cellar that we found. We found it back in 2013. It's the oldest and largest wine cellar that's ever been found from the ancient Near East.

Dan Heath: Wow.

Eric Cline: Yeah, and so what we did was we not only looked at the pottery. We looked at the animal bones, we looked at organic residue analysis, where we took the jars that had held the wine, which, of course, is long gone, right? It evaporated. But the wine was able to seep into the ceramic of the vessels that it was in, these jars about three feet tall. And we could actually determine using the chemicals that we were looking at, the acids. We could look at the molecules that were in there, and we could figure out, oh, this is red wine, and it had herbs in it and spices. You know, it had mint, and it had juniper. But again, that's where you need a chemist to come in and help you out. Then we've got some skeletons. And so we're having the bone people come in and tell us, "Oh, you know, this guy was 25 years old when he died. This one is a woman. She was 40 years old." And then trying to do ancient DNA is the new thing as well. Then we have botanical experts that come in and look at the seeds that we find and look at some of our dirt samples under the microscope to tell us what kind of pollen is there so we know about the environment. So basically doing the actual excavations is just part of the whole picture, and you need a whole raft of specialists that can help you out.

Dan Heath: You know, what's interesting, is I think when most people think archaeologists, they think digging, but what you just told us shows how much of the work is really about kind of reintegrating the puzzle pieces that you found. And I had no idea it was such a cross-disciplinary thing with the botanist and the biologist and other people collaborating. That's completely fascinating.

Eric Cline: And that is a development, I wouldn't call it recent, but since about the 1960s, give or take. It used to be it was just, you know, like Heinrich Schliemann at Troy digging with 300 workmen and publishing "the good stuff," quote, unquote, according to him, like Priam's Treasure. But since about the '60s, we've gotten more and more and more interdisciplinary, and as a result, we've got a lot more information and are much more confident about what we're finding. And this is obviously the way to go.

Dan Heath: So, 1,000 years from now when archaeologists are studying us, do you ever think about what it's gonna be like for them, what will they find, and what sense will they make of it?

Eric Cline: Oh, yeah, yeah. We think of that frequently. What are future archaeologists going to make of us, and are they going to interpret what they find properly? Because I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of the things that we find we are misinterpreting. And of course, the original people are not around to correct us. So part of it is tongue-in-cheek. And actually there was a book published called "Motel of the Mysteries," wonderful book, "Motel of the Mysteries, where, in a couple hundred years, somebody excavates a motel and misinterprets absolutely everything, right? They have the sacred altar and the grand communicator, and they were lying on the sacred platform. It turns out it was a guy lying on bed holding the remote, watching TV, right? It's got nothing to do with any of that. The other thing that I think is really gonna confuse people is when they excavate a museum like the Smithsonian or the MFA or the Met or something like that.

Dan Heath: Oh, that's a great point, yeah.

Eric Cline: Yeah, and I know that's gonna cause confusion because some archaeologists digging in Iraq did find an ancient museum that had been set up in the 6th century BC, and the archaeologists were going, "Wait, what's going on?" There's a Sumerian artifact next to an Acadian artifact, and you know, elsewhere in the room, there's something else. And anyway, it turned out they were excavating an ancient museum.

Dan Heath: What do you think will be kind of the distinctive sign of our era? You know, will it be certain kinds of materials like asphalt or concrete or, you know, other building materials? Will it be structures like stadiums or interstate highways? Or, you know, what do you think will be the telltale sign of the the 21st century civilization?

Eric Cline: Hm, good question. So you're gonna have all of what you just mentioned. They will find all of that. I think the telltale from going back a couple decades too, they're gonna find plastic. This is gonna be the plastic age, if you will, because that's-

Dan Heath: Ooh, that's a great phrase, yeah. Depressing, but great phrase.

Eric Cline: Yeah, it's a fairly recent invention, and it's not gonna go away, right? That's what they're gonna find. But again, it's gonna be an accident of discovery. We have only found one small percent of what was left to us from antiquity. There's tons that has disintegrated and disappeared, and we're never gonna find it. But there's all kinds of other things that we just haven't found yet. And what we find tomorrow could completely change our knowledge of something, an incident, a person, an event, whatever. And so that's gonna hold true in the future too. It's gonna be the accident of discovery as to what they find out about us, which will lead to their perception about us, either rightly or wrongly.

Dan Heath: So, Eric, we always end our show with a quick lightning round of questions. Let me fire away here. What's the most insulting thing you could say about an archaeologist's work?

Eric Cline: Hm, there are many things one could say, but I would say, and you'd have to put a certain look on your face, and you would say, "They don't really know how to dig, do they?"

Dan Heath: And what's the slight that's happening there?

Eric Cline: Usually you would say something like that where they've missed something obvious, like they went right through a plaster floor, or they completely missed a level.

Dan Heath: What's a tool specific to your profession that you really like using?

Eric Cline: That would be my Marshalltown trowel. My particular one, my parents gave it to me for my 21st birthday, and I've still got it. It's now older than most of my students by a long shot. In fact, one of my students looked at it and said, "That should be in a museum." And actually along the way, I've just thought of this, at one point I was talking to the Marshalltown company because they still make Marshalltowns. I think they're located in Iowa. And the person I was talking to, 'cause I was ordering like 50 of them for our season, they said, "You know, we're starting a museum here. Would you donate your trowel to our museum?" And I said, "Absolutely, absolutely not." And they said, "Funny, that's what every archaeologist has said to us." Like, yeah, this is my trowel. You're not getting it.

Dan Heath: What phrase or sentence strikes fear in the heart of an archaeologist?

Eric Cline: I don't know about fear, but exasperation. When somebody says, "Don't you dig dinosaurs?" and we're like, "No, we don't dig dinosaurs. Those are paleontologists," right? But everybody's like, "Oh, you're an archaeologist. You dig dinosaurs. I love dinosaurs." I'm like, "No, we don't dig dinosaurs."

Dan Heath: Who is the most famous archaeologist, whether real or fictional? I think I know what's coming here.

Eric Cline: Yeah, I think you could probably tell me, right?

Dan Heath: Indiana Jones.

Eric Cline: Gotta be, gotta be Indiana Jones, hands down, without a doubt. And I would say that's actually unfortunate.

Dan Heath: Well, I was gonna ask you like, on net, has Indiana Jones been good for the field or bad for the field?

Eric Cline: I would say on the whole, he's been good for archaeology in that he's brought us to the attention of the general public. But he's been bad in that if you haven't taken a real intro to archaeology course, you may be left with the belief that he is doing real archaeology, when in fact he's really not much better than a tomb robber.

Dan Heath: Last question, what makes archaeology so important?

Eric Cline: The fact that we can see where we've come from, the fact that we can find consistency and common themes in our global humanity, that we can see that the people 1,000 years ago, 3,000 years ago, 5,000 years ago, were not that different from us. They had some of the same hopes and fears and everyday problems like that. And we can also, if we're willing to listen, we can learn from them. And so, for instance, with the collapse of the Late Bronze Age, their entire globalized network collapsed. It had been around for like 500 years, and within 30, 40 years, it's gone, right? It was a systems collapse, and a lot of what they had around then we have today, right? Droughts, famines, migrations, invasions, earthquakes, disease. We've got everything that they had back then, and they collapsed and disintegrated. And so I'm worried that history might repeat itself, right? Mark Twain said, "History doesn't repeat, but it does rhyme." And so I do think there are lessons that we can learn from antiquity, but it really is learning just how human we have all been all these centuries and all these millennia and to realize where we're coming from because that will help us look where we are going. The past really does inform both the present and the future.

Dan Heath: Eric Cline is a professor at George Washington University and director of the GW Capitol Archaeological Institute. He also wrote a popular book 10 years ago called "1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed." And now he's got a sequel to that book called "After 1177 B.C.: The Survival of Civilizations." Let me flag something that didn't come up in my conversation with Eric, if you'll forgive the breach in protocol, and that's his book or another one of his books called "Digging Deeper: How Archaeology Works." Earlier this week, I got an email from a listener who said their only beef with the show was that it was too short, which thank you, by the way. Compliments always welcome here, but here's my point. If you felt that way about this episode, let me tell you something. This book, "Digging Deeper," is the longer version. And I'm not plugging this book because Eric wanted me to. He didn't even bring it up. I'm plugging it because it's really, really good, so many great details and stories in this book. You'll learn about Otzi, the Iceman, who was murdered and left in the Alps, where his body stayed preserved for 5,000 years until it was found a few decades ago, the ultimate cold case. And another gentleman from the 5th century BC, whose remains were found in a Danish bog. He was so well preserved that they could tell what his last meal was. Incredible. I was glad that we had this episode back-to-back with the FBI special agent because I think there are actually some similarities there. The agent told us that his job involves assembling 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Well, unbelievably, listen to how Eric Cline describes his job.

Eric Cline: I mean, really think of a jigsaw puzzle, where 2/3 of the pieces are gone, and you don't have the cover picture to tell you what it's supposed to look like. You know, that's an excavation.

Dan Heath: Isn't that amazing? So just like an FBI special agent, the archaeologist's job involves a methodical process, a steadfast curiosity, the ability to take the tiniest clues and fit them into a larger framework, in this case, to learn something about ancient civilizations and how they lived and what they valued and ultimately what we might learn from them to shed light on our modern world. And folks, that's what it's like to be an archaeologist. Thanks to Dawn Smith-Popielski, one of our listeners, for recommending Eric. Appreciate it, Dawn. This episode was produced by Matt Purdy. I'm Dan Heath. Thanks for listening.