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The Real Poop

“I need a dustpan, a trowel, and a shot of tequila,” grumbles Dr. Graves.

By 8 a.m., temperatures have already risen to the mid-90s in the tropical forests of Guatemala. Things are getting steamy. Dr. Graves is excavating Sal Si Puedes, which is the site of the so-called Maya collapse in the 8th century AD. With a crew of 30, they have been carefully excavating a hieroglyphic staircase that may reveal the date of the apocalypse.

Sally, his grad student (and soon to be his 3rd wife), is spreading sunblock on her hair. She likes to be thorough.

One of the workmen calls out from a pit, “Hey Doug, I think I’ve found something.”

Dr. Graves nudges his way past Sally and climbs down into the pit.

“There are some broken potsherds, a couple of obsidian blade fragments, and a few bits of animal bone. Folks, I think we’ve found some ancient trash,” Dr. Graves announces.

Students, workers, and other archaeologists start clapping. Dr. Graves takes pictures of the artifacts where they were discovered, measures them and draws a sketch map. Suddenly, he turns pale.

“My God. We’ve hit the mother load. It looks to be some type of alien communication device. What type of material is this?”

He picks up a small rectangular object covered in mud.

“Good grief. I knew I dropped my cell phone earlier,” gasps Sally grabbing her mobile out of Dr. Graves’ hand, “We need to get him some water ASAP.”

Dehydration is one of the biggest dangers for archaeologists, especially those who work inches from the sun in hot climates and drink tequila shots at 8 in the morning. It’s not enough water, not poison arrows, rolling boulders, or booby trapped tombs. Archaeologists are often at the mercy of the elements. Rain, snow, heat, poison ivy, and malarial mosquitoes can turn any archaeological project into a hell on earth for the faint-hearted. However, most archaeologists thrive off the excitement of the fieldwork. Is it like Indiana Jones? Sometimes, but it’s more like the TV character Bones, back in the lab sorting it all out with microscopes and tweezers.

Like Dr. Jones, many real-life archaeologists are professors. They teach anthropology classes like Mystery Cults of Ancient Greece, take students to exotic locales for field schools, present papers on Egyptian medicine at conferences, and publish their discoveries in books and journals. You don’t have to be sequestered to a life in a classroom, though. Museums, government agencies, environmental consulting firms and private corporations hire archaeologists to do field research. Oftentimes, archaeologists work for cultural resource management (CRM) firms, which help enforce federal regulations that protect archaeological sites. If builders or developers receive even a single dollar of federal money to widen a highway or sink internet cables, they have to let archaeologists make sure that sites aren’t destroyed in the process.

Archaeology can also change the way we think about what it means to be human. Archaeologists have found evidence that our earliest ancestors lived part-time in trees, used stone tools, scavenged, and first walked upright over 3 million years ago. Sure, these human ancestors probably weren’t square dancing and hosting barbecues, but the fact that they were making simple tools helps us understand how we evolved.

Archaeology itself has evolved over time. It’s gone from a pastime of wealthy gentleman adventurers collecting objects for their cabinets of curiosity to a real science with all the wonderful gadgets and lab coats that come along with that title.

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