Understanding Other People

I’m reading the book Subliminal by Leonard Mlodinow.  The book Subliminal is a close study of the unconscious human mind, the little and big ways that the unconscious influences our daily life; almost entirely unnoticed.  It often talks about unspoken cues that can cause us to either listen or turn away; to remember or to forget. I know this doesn’t seem related to archaeology, but stay with me, and I’ll tie it in, I promise.

I like to read books like this.  I like them because I like to learn, and I like to learn things that tell me more about myself, and I feel I grow by knowing them.  But also, I like to learn things that can help me understand other people.  And I have multiple reasons for wanting to understand others.

First, I want to know how to get their attention. I want to know how I can talk about things that are important to me (like archaeology) and really get someone to listen.  I often say that as an archaeologist, especially as an archaeologist who works within an agency where what I do is just one of several programs competing for funding and staff time, I think you really have to recognize that you are actually a sales person.  And by that I mean that you have to constantly be selling archaeology.  The inherent benefits of archaeology are not often that apparent to the non-archaeologist; it can be difficult for others to understand how days and days of field time and boxes and boxes of muddy and broken bits of things can become anything intelligible or interesting to anyone else.  And so, you must explain why archaeology works the way it does and how it can turn boxes of muddy artifacts into the story of someone’s life, even if they lived 100 years, 500 years, or even 5000 years ago.  And why those life stories matter.  And you must sell archaeology over and over and over, since the non-archaeologists you work with usually change periodically, or as your professional circle widens, or both. Understanding how to communicate to others and how to gain and keep their attention then, is crucially important to this part of an archaeologist’s job.

Also, I am supposed to protect archaeological sites from those who would rather place all the artifacts in frames above their mantle.  To do this… well, there’s no easy way to do this.  But it still starts with trying to understand others and learn how to get their attention.  Digging archaeological sites on federally owned land is illegal, unless you are a professional archaeologist with a permit, or working with one.  So, part of the messaging to combat this issue is doing outreach to ensure that people know that it is illegal, and also to work with the people who paint boundary markers, to try to ensure the boundaries of forest lands are clearly marked.  And working with law enforcement, so they know what to look for that can clue them in to illegal digging and help us catch those who would steal the past from us.

The next part of combating illegal digging, is to let people know what archaeologists can figure out when sites are left undisturbed.  Because I know that many looters, deep down, are actually really interested in ancient people and lifeways, I like to emphasize the things we learn from the materials the illegal diggers don’t even know are there. This includes small preserved seeds, fragments of ancient string, feces, or even microscopic pollen.  Each of these items are nothing anyone would want to put on their mantle, and yet they tell us some of the most fascinating things about the past; such as what did people eat? We can get seeds and other information from feces.  What did their gardens look like? From seeds we can learn about the rise and growth of intentional agriculture, which causes changes in the seeds, making them distinguishable from wild varieties.  What did their world look like? From pollen, we can reconstruct the past landscape that people lived within, allowing us to know that 10,000 years ago, Kentucky had a forest composed primarily of evergreens (pines and firs), which later became the deciduous forest we have now, due to climate shifts.

But, to tell anyone any of these things, I first have to get their attention, and then I have to keep their attention long enough to share at least one of these points with them.

I’m not completely sure that by the end of Subliminal that I will have found the perfect way to get and keep a non-archaeologist’s attention.  But I’ll be better at it, and I’ll use that advantage every chance I get.

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By: Wayna Adams, Forest Service Archaeologist