I have been doing a lot of CRM lately, often in well-traveled areas. It seems like almost daily someone stops to ask us:
- “What are you doing?”
- “Have you found anything cool?”
- “What are you hoping to find?” Sometimes followed by… “I didn’t know there were Native American sites here”
When people have asked these questions of me, both while I’m doing CRM and when I’m working for academic excavations, I am unable to give them satisfactory answers. If you have encountered an archaeologist in the wild and asked these questions of them, it is likely that you have heard some or all of these canned answers (bonus points if the wild archaeologist looks wary or appears to not want to talk to you):
- “We haven’t found anything”
- “We aren’t hoping to find anything”
- “We work for an archaeological company (or university)”
- “We are just doing survey to make sure there aren’t any archaeological sites before construction starts”
In general, archaeologists love to talk about their work and about sites they have worked on. But when they are actively surveying or excavating a site, they often do not want to let the public know about it. This is primarily to safeguard the archaeological site(s). Looting of archaeological sites is a problem all over the world, and most of us have either experienced their site being looted or know someone who has had theirs looted. Though we take precautions, like bagging and removing from the field immediately significant artifacts, we often cannot afford to secure the site completely except at the most prestigious of projects. Looting is devastating to the archaeological record, removing valuable information that could help us to fully understand the site. When an archaeologist is approached in the field by someone they don’t know, they cannot be sure that that person is not a looter or that they won’t tell someone who is. Though we would love to tell you all about what we’ve been doing, and what we’ve been finding (especially on days when we make “exciting finds” like arrowheads) we can’t risk the impact to the archaeological record that looting would have.
Asking us what we are doing is generally a safe question, and we’ll be happy to answer. Asking what we are finding or what we hope to find, is often not. Likely, you will not get the “real” answer to either of these. You could also talk to us about our backgrounds, or the projects that we have worked for in the past.