Archaeology Programs Dig


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of John Atherton.

Architecture majors build models. Economics majors design business plans. Math majors… well, they pretty much just do math all the time. But they like it.

For most of the liberal arts, however, hands-on college coursework revolves around archival documents, textbooks, and published research. Locked for hours in muffled libraries, volumes stacked high on their desks, it’s often only their imagination that can transport these students to antiquity.

Archaeology stands as an exception. Rooted in the past though it may be, the tangible products of history are examinable by living hands and eyes, so long as they are first discovered. Thus, archaeology students often supplement coursework with in-field experience, such as digs.

Digs are so substantial to an aspiring archaeologist that the Institute for Field Research (IFR) was founded in 2011; it’s an independent, non-profit organization that allows students to participate in field research regardless of the academic institution they attend. They work with top researchers from around the world to develop programs like an excavation of the Graeco-Roman town Karanis in Egypt (third century BCE), the impact of outsiders on the indigenous cultures at the El Rayo site in Nicaragua, and research at The Ifugao Rice Terraces, the UNESCO World Heritage monuments in the Philippines.

Students can also participate in invaluable research taking place here in the US, such as at Binghamton University in New York.

“Our facility is a research center on the Binghamton University campus, and we focus on what we call ‘our own backyard,’” Dr. Nina M. Versaggi, Director of the Public Archaeology Facility at Binghamton University campus, tells BTR.

The facility is devoted to conducting high-quality research on the prehistory and history of the Northeastern United States, educating students and practicing archaeologists on the professional conduct of their field in the 21st century, community outreach, and collaborating with Native American descendants.

“We try to involve students outside the classroom as much as possible so they can get a feel for the professional aspects of archaeology and their future careers,” Versaggi explains.

Just recently, one of their teams made a discovery on the banks of Canandaigua, one of the Finger Lakes in western New York. While working with the Department of Transportation for new developments, they found a “very rich and dense” prehistoric site with thousands of stone byproducts for making tools, in addition to several unique tools themselves.

Versaggi says one of the broken projectile points (arrowheads) uncovered was four times harder than anything seen before, and many of the products were so finely crafted and consistent it was as if one person had made them all.

“This takes a common object [like a projectile point] and its byproducts and launches them out of common context–for instance, they were using it to hunt–and into a new one that has to do with people practicing religion or other types of ceremonies,” she concludes.

Still other archaeological research extends beyond the land and to the sea, like Texas A&M’s Nautical Archaeology department, which focuses on research into underwater excavations of shipwrecks. Working closely with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, the program allows students to go on dives that explore submerged cultural sites. From an ancient shipwreck in Sri Lanka to shore-stranded wrecks in Northern Brazil and the pirate shipwrecks of Port Royal, the INA is responsible for the world’s most innovative archival oceanic research. Graduate students in the program have the privilege of seeing the sunken skeletons of history not on paper but first-hand through their goggles.

The name of the discipline is a tad misleading, because archaeology is not limited to the archaic. For example, PhD candidate at the University of California Berkeley Colleen Morgan studies the history of the Burning Man festival in Nevada while strict experimental archaeologist Tim Rast carves up hooded seals in his backyard and fashions traditional Newfoundland tools like adzes and harpoons.

It is the in-field exposure students gain through programs like those at The Public Archaeology Facility at Binghamton University that grants them the skills to translate into unique future research projects.

“In the process [of working with us] they’re gaining invaluable boots-on-the-ground experience that qualifies them for jobs all over the globe,” Versaggi says.

To that effect, in the fall of 2015 the facility will start a specialized two year master’s degree in public archaeology, which will include cultural resource management as well as different types of heritage studies. Students who come out of this program will have not only academic training but an in-field summer internship to put on their resume as well.

“After completing the program, it’s the goal of the facility to see every graduate placed in a job,” Versaggi says.

We know what you’re thinking–you should have majored in archaeology. Yes, us too.