“I think the main thing about archaeology is that people love the idea of discovery,” Dr. Thomas mused.
“The thrill of discovery,” he amended.
I sat across from him in his corner of the office, an ocean of research and paperwork between us.
Our conversation proceeded to the symphony of phones ringing and professional conversations throughout the room: the soundtrack to daily work in most offices. Traffic—constant and, at times, unruly—was a barely muted cacophony just outside the nearest window.
But all other noise seemed inconsequential when he spoke. It wasn’t just the content of his words and how quickly they drew me in, it was also the cadence, the honey-soaked lilt, the music of his voice. I didn’t realize English could sound so lovely. Listening to him brought my favorite language to mind and for one of the very reasons it is a favorite. In French, the words of a sentence are pronounced fluidly in one beautiful linguistic stream. And this is exactly how he speaks.
We were discussing archaeology in general, his work at the AIA, the ideas behind the annual Archaeology Fair in Boston, and his fieldwork in Belize.
Image of Dr. Ben Thomas at his desk in the AIA office, Boston; taken by the author
It was an absolutely gorgeous Spring day in Boston. Against a cloudless blue sky, the streets were lined with pink and white cherry blossoms, the kind that dance like confetti whenever a breeze tickles the branches.
Dr. Thomas and I had been trying to connect for quite some time, our schedules finally meeting in the middle of the week. With the address in my mind, I scanned the brick homes and then the commercial buildings for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), where Dr. Ben Thomas works as Director of Programs.
The AIA may have loomed largely in my mind, but it is housed discreetly on the 6th floor of a building owned by Boston University. And it was there that I learned how one of the most exciting annual archaeological events came to fruition.
It started with Jane Waldbaum, one of the AIA’s governing board members, later the AIA President, who organized a family-friendly fair at the AIA’s annual meetings. These meetings—like those of other large scientific organizations—are held at a different location each year, and they are geared toward professionals in the field. The fair was a way of including the general public.
Dr. Thomas and his staff took that idea several steps further.
They brainstormed how to bring archaeology to more people, how to create a positive event—something that would engage a wider audience, not just the occasional announcement of a huge discovery and not in reaction to negative impacts within the field: looting, theft, vandalism.
“We wanted an event that said: ‘This is something that’s worth celebrating: our past, our culture, our cultural heritage, archaeology itself.’”
So they created National Archaeology Day. There was no fee attached, there was no agenda. Any group could celebrate it and create its own set of events. The idea was simply to highlight archaeology in all of its forms.
“We wanted to tell people that archaeology can be local,” Dr. Thomas explained. “You don’t have to go to Egypt to experience archaeology; you can experience it in your own community. There’s always something going on.”
And, he continued, “[w]e wanted people to connect with each other, especially professionals and laypeople.”
The fair succeeds on both counts. Thousands of people attend the event in Boston each year. Tables of archaeological artifacts and archaeologists are dispersed in multiple areas throughout the museum. The day is filled with panel events and guest speakers, and anyone can ask any archaeologist questions about their work. While archaeologists who work in Egypt are often present, most of the fair consists of New England archaeologists who work in the area. It is now in its 10th year.
Images of the Archaeology Fair at the Museum of Science Boston in 2013; taken by the author
Another goal of the fair is to clarify what archaeology actually entails, a confusion that persists today with paleontology. Often, the two distinctly different fields are believed to be one and the same, when, in fact, archaeology revolves around ancient people and their artifacts; paleontology studies extinct creatures—those that are not human.
“[The general public appears to have] great enthusiasm for archaeology,” said Dr. Thomas. “But there’s also a lot of misunderstanding about what archaeology is and what archaeologists do. For a lot of people, [archaeology is] just about finding stuff.
“We try to emphasize the fact that the ‘stuff’ is just the means to an end. I mean, ultimately, what we’re trying to study is human behavior: what these people did, where they lived, how they behaved, what they ate, how they interacted with each other. And the artifacts are just the clues.
“It’s: Why? Who? When? How? Those are the things that we’re trying to get to.
“Finding things is just the first step. I shouldn’t say the first step; it’s the middle step, because you’ve already done a ton of research, you know why you are looking for something where you’re looking, and then, when you find it, you have to figure out what it means.
“What it means, I think, is the most fascinating, although not the most visibly glamorous, because you’re in a library somewhere doing research and typing up reports on the lab.”
National Archaeology day quickly transformed into International Archaeology Day—a reflection of its popularity well outside US borders. The number of organizations that supported and celebrated it surprised everyone at the AIA. Sponsors of the day now include the National Park Service and National Marine Sanctuaries.
International Archaeology Day 2015, screenshot from the AIA website
You can find local events for this upcoming International Archaeology Day in October here: https://www.archaeological.org/archaeologyday/events
Previous posts about the Archaeology Fair in Boston:
- Caitlin Davis: Mayan epigraphy: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-caitlin-davis/
- Archaeology for Kids: Dig Magazine: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/archaeology-for-kids-dig-magazine/
- Origin of the Boston Archaeology Fair: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/boston-archeology-fair-its-origins-through-the-archaeological-institute-of-america/
- Marine Archaeology: Matthew Lawrence at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-matthew-lawrence/
- Dr. George Mutter: Ancient Egypt in 3D Photographs: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-dr-george-mutter-egyptian-images-in-3d/
- Alan Leveillee: Cultural Resource Management: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-alan-leveillee/