Earlier this week, the man next to me on the train inexplicably broke rule No. 1 of commuting. He peered over my shoulder at my iPad and, with a maniacal look in his eye, said “Is that archaeology?”
The only correct response to such a query is: “No, I teach English Literature. Fascinating subject though, archaeology.” This inevitably ends the conversation. People find English Literature too boring to talk about, are still haunted by undergraduate courses in Victorian literature, or believe that, as they haven’t read a book for at least 5 years, are not qualified to converse on the subject. “No, I teach English Literature” is one of my favorite tools for avoiding boring people and pointless conversations.
Thanks to Indiana Jones and Time Team, every idiot on the street thinks they know something about archaeology. Everyone always wanted to be an archaeologist before they “got a real job”. A statement to which I still don’t know how to respond – I find my job real, thank you very much!
Under-caffination and shock at this breach of commuter protocol must be my excuse for unwisely saying “Yes. It is a Harris matrix of trench 3.” Any actual archaeologist at this point would have given me a pained look and gone back to their morning paper. Harris matrices have to be one of the dullest tools, and make for equally dull conversation.
“Have you found any dinosaurs?”
At this point I probably should have taken the high road, said “no”, and allowed the gentleman to tell me all about how fascinating he finds these large, extinct reptiles. Instead, I sighed, and pointed out that archaeologists don’t excavate dinosaurs, paleontologists do, and paleontology is a branch of earth science.
“Oh. So you must excavate dead bodies. I bet you travel to really exciting and cool places.”
Cool is not a word I normally associate with the field. It is usually hot, dirty, and full of vermin. Of course I do tend to excavate in deserts and tropical forests, and I suppose if I excavated in Greenland I might feel differently. I also rarely associate the field with excitement. I am perhaps unusual in the fact that I don’t enjoy the field – it is where I go to work and, for me, is the most boring part of my job. Spending hours a day relocating tons of dirt, sifting it, recording and labeling every tiny fragment of anything potentially anthropogenic….I prefer my air-conditioned lab here in the heart of the city over the field. But, I have been to some interesting countries.
“Yes, I do travel a good deal. But, dead bodies aren’t really my thing. The recently dead are looked at by forensic scientists and skeletons are the domain of physical anthropologists. I am a materials scientist. I study ceramics.”
His disappointment was palpable. The reality of archaeology never lives up to its exotic reputation. Perhaps, I should tell people I teach English Literature for their sake rather than mine – let the illusion of Dr. Jones live on.