Posted May 20, 2012
RETRIEVING LOST STORIES USEFUL OR NOT?
The Daily Beast, a smart, speedy take on the news from around the world, combined with the depth and investigative power of Newsweek Magazine, recently listed archaeology as one of the 13 most useless college majors. I think the word “useless”, in this context, is unfortunate and wholly inappropriate. What the compilers of the list actually meant is that the job market for archaeologists isn’t exactly booming (true enough) and archaeologists, when we get jobs, don’t tend to make tons of money (also generally true). Does that really mean that archaeology is a useless college major?
In my latest column in the Columbus Dispatch, I responded to the Daily Beasts bizarre characterization of archaeology as a useless major by focusing on the useful knowledge that it can provide. For example, by learning about the mistakes made by past civilizations, perhaps we can avoid repeating them. Here I consider the less tangible rewards of majoring in archaeology. Although I argue in my Dispatch column that archaeology could save the world — or at least our civilization’s precarious hold on it, I freely confess that I did not become an archaeologist to save the world. Nor did I choose this career because I thought I’d make buckets of money. In fact, I chose to become an archaeologist because I was fascinated by the wonders of the past and the prospect of making new discoveries that would shed light on how we came to be what we are seemed to me to be a noble thing to which I could dedicate my lifes work. After thirty or so years of doing archaeology, I still believe I’m following a calling more than a career path.
In the course of my archaeological field school, I was the first person to put my hand in an 800-year-old handprint impressed in clay in the wall of a room in an Anasazi pueblo my team was excavating. I felt an electric connection with that long vanished person as if our fingers actually had touched across the centuries. I feel something similar each time I lift an ancient stone tool or broken fragment of pottery from the earth. I am engaged in making connections with ancient people who have lost their voice and it is my privilege to bring their stories to life again. The Princess of Pure Reason, in Norton Justers brilliant book The Phantom Tollbooth, tells the hero whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer. (And she didn’t mean monetarily!) I believe the world is richer for the retrieval of lost stories made possible by the science of archaeology. It’s sad that The Daily Beast, despite having all the investigative power of Newsweek Magazine at its disposal, doesn’t get that. I would bet that, unless archaeologists start getting better salaries, even if some of those stories lead to insights that end up saving the world, The Daily Beast still will be listing archaeology as a “useless major.” Dont you believe it!’