My Path to Archaeology

Why did I become an archaeologist?  After all, when I was a kid, I hated being outside.  There were bugs outside!  And if I went outside, I got dirty, hot, and sweaty!  Inside was cool, clean, and a bug-free zone.  I was notorious in my outdoors-loving family for being an indoors kid.

Looking back, I think my path to archaeology started when I was about five or six years old.  I remember playing in our driveway with my friend Jackie after school and on weekends.  (Yes, I did have to go outside sometimes, even if I didn’t like it.)  The driveway was paved, but there was gravel along its edges. Jackie and I would pick up the rocks along the edges and find rocks that looked unusual in some way – shape, color, they were pretty, they had neat things in them (called inclusions), whatever – and make up stories about them.  In essence, in our own childish ways, we were interpreting the history of the rocks, how they came to be what they were.  This is what archaeologists do with the artifacts we find.  Unlike historians, archaeologists usually don’t have written documents to tell us what happened to the people living at the sites we are working at, because the sites were occupied before written language came along, so we are left to the artifacts – the stuff – they left behind to interpret their lives.

The next major landmark in my road to becoming an archaeologist happened when I was in my early teens.  Again, it involves rocks.  Do you see a pattern here?  I was walking around a limestone gravel parking lot and noticed a very pretty, smooth brown rock.


It had sharp edges, but more unusually, it had a fossil in it.  How cool!  Years later, when I got to high school, I asked a science teacher about this rock and its fossil and he told me it was the cross-section of a small snail (imagine chopping a snail in half the long way).  And then he told me something I didn’t expect.  He pointed out some angular edges on this rock and told me that it was an artifact.  He said that someone at some point hundreds or thousands of years ago had been making a spear point and this was a flake that was knocked off during the manufacturing process.  There were certain tell-tale characteristics on this rock that left no doubt this is how this rock came to be shaped this way.  Again, this is exactly what archaeologists do when analyzing lithic (stone) artifacts.

So I was quite thrilled to realize that I had in my hand this tiny little rock that held the remains of a formerly living thing (the snail) from hundreds of millions of years ago, the snail died and became fossilized in the bedrock.  Millions of years pass and then someone hundreds or thousands of years ago picked it up, probably made a tool, and then I was the next person to hold this in my hand.  Stop and think about that for a minute.  We don’t have time machines that can physically transport us to the past, but archaeology can help us travel through time by linking us to the people, places, and things of the past.  And the good news is, people are pretty much everywhere.  So no matter what part of the world you are interested in, there is archaeology there waiting for you to discover it!

The third event that led me to archaeology was a realization one day in high school Civics class that the three or four sentences that talked about Indians in the United States were more interesting to me than the rest of the book.  I wanted to know more about these people who were here before Europeans, before written history, and their cultures that have largely disappeared.  The only real way to do that was through archaeology.

Those links through time are very exciting to me and I keep looking for them as I do my job, as I read about other archaeologists’ research, and look to the next discoveries.  How are we linked to people who lived before us? What can the things they left behind tell us about them?  How did those people function in their world?  How did their cultures change over time?  Archaeology can look at all of these questions and more.

Check out these links for more information and get started on your own archaeological path!

Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Division of Environmental Analysis Archaeology Page

Kentucky Heritage Council, home of the State Historic Preservation Officer

Kentucky Archaeological Survey

Falls of the Ohio Archaeological Society

The Archaeology Channel: Exploring the human cultural heritage through streaming media

by Susan Neumeyer

Archaeologist Coordinator, Division of Environmental Analysis

 Kentucky Transportation Cabinet






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