What to Do if You Encounter an Archaeologist in the Wild

Pic: Me, sitting in my unit in BC recording some level depths, something you’ll often see archaeologists doing.

Imagine you’re out for a walk in a National park and you come across a team of archaeologists on an excavation.  Do you talk to them?  Do you keep walking past? What if you run into one of them in the washroom?  What happens if you make eye contact?

For anyone who has visited Point Pelee National Park over the past 7 weeks (with one week left to go), they’ve had to face these difficult questions head on as we’ve been excavating all around the Marsh Boardwalk.  There was no escape from us.  Even the washroom wasn’t safe, as evidenced by the constant sand footprints on the floor and sand around the sinks.  Truthfully, we were happy to chat with the public, especially since we had permission to do so, in the washroom or not.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been on excavations within public places where I’ve interacted with the public in one way or another.  I’m always happy to have people express an interest and ask questions while I’m at work.  While most interactions are generally enjoyable, there are times when the questions or comments aren’t the most appropriate or we hear the same “if you find gold it’s mine” joke several times over the course of a day.  I’ve taken it upon myself to write out a little guide of Do’s and Don’ts suggestions on how to have a happy encounter with a wild archaeologist.  Many of these will also apply to social media encounters (i.e. Twitter, Instagram, etc.), and aren’t listed in any particular order! Remember, a happy archaeologist is a helpful archaeologist willing to take time out of their work to chat with you!

  • Do feel free to approach an archaeologistIf you see us on an excavation and 
    The first sign you’re by an archaeological site – a somewhat sketch looking wooden tripod with piles of dirt beneath it, generally tucked behind a fence or yellow caution tape
    you’re curious, definitely feel free to come over and talk to us.  Unless we’re really busy, we’re happy to pause a moment and chat.  I promise we won’t bite.
  • Do try to keep your questions brief. We’re generally working on a strict schedule and while we would love to answer all your questions, sometimes we just don’t have enough free time. Also, don’t take it personally if we don’t stop our work while we answer your questions!
  • Don’t cross the safety barriers to talk to us. Archaeological sites involve a lot of open holes which aren’t safe to walk around.  We have a lot of tools around that could hurt you if you step on/trip over them.  Sometimes our units are in the middle of patches of poisonous plants, like poison ivy or stinging nettle.  The point here is that barriers of one variety or another are usually up for a reason and the best idea is to respect them by staying behind them.
  • Don’t yell a question at us from afar as you’re walking by. To be honest, it’s quite rude.  Nobody likes to be yelled at.  If you have a question, come over to us to have a chat!
  • Don’t ask “what’s the coolest thing you’ve found?” You might have been to amazing museums and seen cases full of bright and sparkly artifacts.  Or you’ve seen movies or played video games centred around rambunctious adventures to collect bright and sparkly artifacts.  But truthfully, archaeology isn’t about what’s cool.  Archaeology isn’t even about the artifacts themselves.  It’s about the information artifacts can share about the lives of the people who made them and interacted with them.  We respect the connections descendant communities have with their ancestors through material culture and we don’t want to devalue that connection by saying one thing is cool and another isn’t, or by objectifying very personal or sensitive materials. The better question would be, “what can you learn from what you’ve found?”
  • Do understand that archaeologists work with culturally sensitive materials and aren’t always able to answer your questions or discuss their work. We don’t mind when you come over and ask, “what have you found?” But depending on what we’re working on and who we’re working with, we might not be allowed to or willing to give much information about it.  If an archaeologist is trying to dodge some of your questions, don’t take it personally.
  • Don’t crack jokes about digging for gold or dinosaurs.  For starters, when it comes to gold we’re not really sure where you’re getting that idea from.  Are you referring to gold coins? Other gold objects? Do you think we’re mining for gold? It’s a little confusing, so if you’re genuinely interested in gold objects it’s best to be specific with your questions!  Also, we don’t dig dinosaurs.  Those are paleontologists you’re thinking of.  And finally, we hear these jokes practically all day, every day.  To be completely 100% honest, we’re tired of hearing them.
  • Do understand that we’re actual scientists, doing actual scientific work.  This one is especially true for female archaeologists you see on site.  You have no idea how many times people have assumed that I’m a student and that my male colleagues are supervisors. Many times when I answer a question it seems to not be taken very seriously, which is frustrating.  When an archaeologist answers your question, understand that they’re answering it from a place of knowledge and expertise.
  • Don’t tell us about about the times you’ve thought about looting materials from sites. Believe it or not, this is actually a common topic people bring up.  To be fair, I know that not everyone understands the value of archaeological context.  An artifact is nothing without its context, which is where the most important information is found.  Many people have come across artifacts, whether on hikes or on their own property, and it breaks our hearts every time we hear about your box full of all the artifacts you’ve found.  Even worse is when the story involves human remains (yes, people have told me about the times they’ve thought about stealing human remains they’ve seen).  Skulls don’t look cool on personal shelves.  Artifacts don’t look cool on personal shelves.  It’s disrespectful and obtuse to think otherwise, and don’t be shocked when we tell you this.
  • Do think about bringing us hot coffee. Ok, this is honestly just wishful thinking.  It’s sometimes really cold outside and, if you know where we’re going to be working, hot coffee would not be turned down…

It was a chilly morning and I was dreaming of hot coffee…
So there you have it, my short guideline on how to have a happy and informative conversation with an archaeologist.  We love what we do and we love sharing our passion with others, especially those who are just as passionate about archaeology!  To summarize, we love talking with the public and answering your questions!  Honestly, it’s one of my favourite parts of my job.  Just be mindful of what and how you’re asking.

See Also:

A 95-year-old  ‘Real Life Tomb Raider’ Isn’t a Hero, She’s a Thief 

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6 thoughts on “What to Do if You Encounter an Archaeologist in the Wild

  1. Wonderful list – and ye olde “Hey, have you already found some gold?” joke by passers-by seems to be an international phenomena, in slight variations.


  2. Read the title like it was some kind of big bad scary thing… Kinda like what to do if you meet a bear or mountain lion

    “If you randomly stumble onto the territory of the dreaded archeologist… Beware their traps, zones stringed off as part of sacred rituals, do not sneak up on them for they will pelt you with sharp tools, do not join them in the pit for they will tickle you to death with the confusing soft brissles of scraping doom….”


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