My third action adventure starring treasure hunter and archaeologist Matthew Connor, The Legend of Gasparilla and His Treasure is coming this June. (Available for pre-order now.) To celebrate this upcoming release, I wanted to interview a real-life archaeologist. Good news for me is that I know one!
I met Sara Marian in the fall of 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky at The Imaginarium conference that celebrates creatives. When I found out that she was an archaeologist, I was pretty exited as she’s the first one I’ve met! I remember her saying that they love finding privies and garbage dumps because they reveal a lot about a civilization. I never would have guessed that, but it makes sense! Sara is also an author and has one published book and three published short stories to her credit. You can find out more about Sara’s books on her website.
She agreed to let me ask her a few questions and I opened the interview up to my newsletter subscribers to see what they might like to find out. Without any further ado, here we go!
Millie from Florida would like to know:
What got you started on the path to becoming an archaeologist?
I was always interested in archaeology. I read a lot as a kid and got hooked on it then. But, you know, most people will tell you when you’re young and interested in it that there aren’t any jobs in archaeology, or they think you expect it to be like Indiana Jones.
I took some time off between high school and deciding to go to college (ten years, actually), and when I went back, I figured I would be an English major and pursue professional editing. My university required you to do a four-year plan of what classes you would need for your declared degree, and I realized I was a lot more drawn to electives in history and science than I was in the English classes! So I started looking into other degrees, chose anthropology as my major, and pursued the sub-discipline of archaeology. And there are, surprisingly, actual jobs in it, although no, it’s not like the movies. But it is what I expected and wanted it to be: a lot of variety day to day, academic but also outdoorsy and physical, and it continuously provides opportunities to learn new things!
Judy from Texas would like to know:
When you were studying, where did you go to practice and learn techniques?
I learned a lot by first volunteering and then working through the Federal Work-Study Program at my university’s archaeology laboratory. Proper curation of artifacts and documentation, but also a great deal about human skeletal remains, mapping techniques, and other things as well. If you’re going to work in archaeology, though, you have to take a field school first. Some universities run their own field schools, either locally or abroad, and students can go that route. But you can also find an accredited field school on your own and still get college credit for it, which is what I did. I went with a great program in Spain through the University of Valladolid working on a Celtic Iron Age necropolis. We worked six days a week, partly in the field and partly in the lab, learning techniques for cleaning, documenting, and drawing artifacts, etc. We also had special programs and workshops some days. And on days off, we went on excursions to cultural sites.
Charlotte from Panama City, Florida would like to know:
What has been the highlight of your career to date?
That’s a tough question! I’ve only been in the business for five years and I mainly work on local projects, so I’m not the most glamorous archaeologist. Ha! The flashiest project I’ve worked on is probably my field school because it was overseas. The project I’ve had the most control over was my thesis work, a statewide sampling of sites associated with mineral springs resort hotels (strange as it seems, Kentucky was once a major tourist area for Southern and East Coast families who wanted to come “take the waters”). The most enjoyable local project for me has been the ongoing excavation at Beecher Terrace, a housing project that’s getting an update, which is built on top of an older, very diverse Victorian neighborhood in Louisville.
Jean from Illinois would like to know:
How much and what kind of technology do you use?
There are probably archaeologists in different scenarios who use more than we do at the firm I work for, but our technology is fairly normal stuff: computers and computer software, GPS units, a total station (the same thing land surveyors use for recording coordinates and elevations), sometimes a drone, and sometimes a backhoe! Most of the tech side is all about mapping and recording locations. We do also make use of LIDAR satellite imagery and Ground Penetrating Radar to detect anomalies that might be archaeological in nature.
Xavier from Canada would like to know:
What archaeological mystery would you like to see solved and why?
The Indus River Valley civilization’s language!1. To me, the fact that such an advanced (and apparently egalitarian) early civilization existed and has only begun to be studied in the last 100 years is fascinating. I would love to know more about the people who built these cities, their ideas and beliefs, and this society!
Chuck from Illinois would like to know:
What dig or site was the most meaningful to you and why?
Probably the Pintia site in Spain, because, as my field school, it was my first! I learned so much there.
Sheila from Minnesota would like to know:
What’s it like to be a woman archaeologist in countries that believe the females should stay at home?
I have never personally worked in such a country, although here in the United States I have overheard some guys asking one of my male coworkers about the fact that there are women on our crew. One of them literally asked him, “Do they actually, you know, work?” I think it shocked my co-worker far more than it shocked me. I’m used to the fact that some men are surprised to see women in my job, but within the field it’s actually pretty balanced. Actually, most of the students pursuing archaeology with me in 2011-2015 were young women, and the firm I work for is woman-owned and managed.
Jackie from Canada would like to know:
What’s the most interesting thing you found?
The trio of Iron Age funereal vessels I helped excavate at my field school in Spain. One vessel for the cremated remains of the deceased, one for the libations, and one for the funeral feast portion offered to the dead. I also found a Derringer pistol in a privy here in Louisville last year!
Brooke from Ohio would like to know:
What is the most unexpected item you’ve found on a dig?
An intact daguerreotype photograph of an African American woman, taken circa 1850.
Martha from Mississippi would like to know:
Have you ever found dinosaur bones?
I haven’t, but I have been on a site where mammoth bones had been found by the landowner! Dinosaurs are a paleontologist’s job, actually; archaeologists study past humans—although there is some overlap because we also look at animal species humans have hunted, and paleontologists, biological anthropologists, and archaeologists study archaic Homo sapiens and proto-human species.
Diane from Illinois would like to know:
Where was your favorite place to visit and explore?
Actually, the answer to this is not an excavation site…it’s the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, Russia. It’s such an incredibly big museum with a vast and varied collection…art and artifacts from everywhere in the world and from petroglyphs and mummies to jewels and weapons, from Rembrandt to mandalas and antiques to Bauhaus furniture. I literally got lost, and I certainly didn’t mind. I also got to go “behind the scenes” to their restoration and preservation lab and talk one-on-one with curators, as well as being able to visit on days when the museum was closed to the public. An amazing experience.
Janet from Oregon would like to know:
What was your scariest dig and why?
Not much about digs is scary by my definition. I am really terrified of spiders, though, and one summer we were surveying a part of a forestry that was chock-full of them. Literally a spiderweb or two every step you took, and a lot of them at face level! I hyperventilated and kept having to control my breathing!
Linda from Missouri would like to know:
Do you go to any of the battlefields in the US where the Civil War and Revolutionary wars were fought?
I work mainly in Kentucky, so there are definitely Civil War battlefields around. Personally, though, I haven’t worked on any. There was one location in Louisville that was close to a known defensive entrenchment, and it’s possible that a harmonica plate (the metal part) we found might have been related to that, but there is no way to say for sure. The firm I work for has also been conducting research to better define the exact location and layout of Fort-on-Shore, Louisville’s pioneer mainland settlement.
Patricia from Indiana would like to know:
How do you get funding for your projects?
I work with a cultural resources management firm, which means we do contract archaeology. Because of legal regulations, any development that uses federal funding or is on federal land is required to have an archaeological assessment done before work begins. This can include road or highway expansions, building projects, park trails, city projects, etc. Occasionally, developers will have an archaeological survey done even if they are not required to, like the developers of the Nulu Hotel in Louisville. (They made a mini exhibit in their lobby using some of the artifacts we found!) It works differently for academic archaeologists. They are generally attached to universities and get funding through their institutions and through grant money.
Janet from Israel would like to know:
What’s the oldest thing you’ve found?
The oldest thing I have personally found was a late Archaic (about 3500 years old) projectile point.
Now, every woman who pioneers in a field that’s most male dominated is an example to the younger generation. Danielle from Tennessee has a nine-year-old daughter named Willow who seems set on becoming an archaeologist. So incredible to hear! Sara, she’d like to know a few things.
1) Are old bones very delicate?
Yes, they are. You have to be very careful when excavating and cleaning bones. Some are more delicate than others. It depends on their age, the soil they are in (some soil is slightly acidic, for example), and how wet the soil around them is (imagine soaking the bones from your dinner plate for 100 or 500 years!).
2) What can she do at her age to prepare for this career?
Look for public archaeology events – a lot of states will have an “archaeology day” every year, or local parks or a local forestry might host archaeology days more often, especially in the summer. If there is an archaeology firm like the one that I work for in your area, they might do special events or even have volunteer opportunities for kids, too.
Read! Read books about archaeology, books about the cultures you are interested in studying, books about history, ecology, and geology! The fun thing about archaeology is that so many different things are useful to know about in this job. Stay curious!2
3) What are the different brushes for?
The brushes are for detail work! If you were working on some of those delicate bones you asked about, for example, you would want to use a very delicate brush to clean off the surface, and maybe a more sturdy brush to carefully move the soil away from the bone without damaging it. Also, an archaeologist looks for the shapes of things that are gone—a wooden house might be all eaten away by insects and time, but the outline of it could still show up as a rectangle of darker soil. To document the house, you have to carefully preserve this shape and draw a map to show the size and location of the rectangle, take photographs, and make notes of any artifacts you found in it. If you are working in sandy soil, brushes are the best way to clean the surface of the rectangle off without destroying the edges. For other soils, we can usually use the edge of an archaeologist’s trowel (our favorite tool!) for cleaning and defining the shapes of things.
Thank you for answering all those questions, Sara! It certainly sounds like an interesting career choice with a lot of opportunity to expand your knowledge.
If you like adventures in the vein of Indiana Jones with a splash of history but lots of suspense and intrigue, my Matthew Connor Adventure series would be perfect for you! And in my true crime fiction style there’s also police investigation. Curious how I pull that off in the action-adventure genre? Download City of Gold, the first book in the series, and start reading today. 😊
1You can read more about the Indus River Valley civilization here.
2 The website for American Museum of Natural History might has information about different kinds of archaeology, different cultures archaeologists have studied, and also archaeology projects and games you can do and play. You can visit their site here.