Dr. Ben Thomas: (Part 1) International Archaeology Day

“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.

Dr. Ben Thomas - AIA 5.6.15

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.

Meanwhile, he called Mike Adams, Outreach Manager at the Museum of Science Boston, and together they created the Archaeology Fair, now held each October at the museum.

“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.

mos - arch - welcome sign

mos - arch - arch tool kit leveillee

mos - arch - native american tools


mos - arch - fried mealworm - voelkel

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

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:

  1. Caitlin Davis: Mayan epigraphy: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-caitlin-davis/
  2. Archaeology for Kids: Dig Magazine: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/archaeology-for-kids-dig-magazine/
  3. Origin of the Boston Archaeology Fair: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/boston-archeology-fair-its-origins-through-the-archaeological-institute-of-america/
  4. Marine Archaeology: Matthew Lawrence at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-matthew-lawrence/
  5. 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/
  6. Alan Leveillee: Cultural Resource Management: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-alan-leveillee/

Archaeology for kids! DIG Magazine

A very nice woman volunteering for the Archaeological Institute of America handed me a few copies of Archaeology Magazine on International Archaeology Day.

Somehow, the fact that I had nieces and nephews came up in our conversation, and she handed me a copy of a magazine I’d never seen or heard of prior to that moment: Dig Magazine.

First, I was excited: what a fabulous magazine!! Published in NH, no less! I wish this publication had been available when I was growing up.

And then, I was puzzled and a little frustrated.  Why wasn’t this magazine more widely available?

For anyone interested in archaeology (or paleontology–as they are including more of this topic as well), “Dig” offers fun facts, interesting articles, games, and great pictures throughout its pages.

Kids are encouraged to ask questions (online and by mail), take quizzes, and draw pictures.

It is a marvelous and entertaining way to introduce kids to these sciences.

And, for young girls–for whom strong and intelligent role models in many magazines can be rare–the archaeologist behind “Dr. Dig” is a woman.

I wanted to know more.

Rosalie F. Baker, Editor of Calliope Magazines, was extraordinarily kind in her responses to my emailed questions.

Dig Magazine March 2013

(March 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

1.  How long has “Dig” been published?

DIG began publication in 1999.

2. What prompted its creation?

A desire to inspire children to be inquisitive about the past. Even more, we wanted to further their understanding of how archaeologists uncover the past and then analyze finds to expand the known “picture” of the past.

Dig Magazine Dec 2013

(January 2014 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

3. How did the archeologist (Dr. Dig) come on board?

Everyone thought it would be a great idea to have a department where kids could ask questions about archaeology. We felt the best way to personalize this for kids was to create a character who would be present in every issue—Dr. Dig!

Her full name is Angela Murock Hussein. She has a doctorate from Brown University in Classical Archaeology and is married to an Egyptian Egyptologist.

Dig Magazine Oct 2013

(October 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

4. Why isn’t “Dig” more widely available?  Often, the only option kids have along these lines in local bookstores is “Kids” (National Geographic). Does this reflect challenges to magazines in general?

Getting the message out about the magazine is always a challenge. We are trying to become better known. But the magazine is available on most newsstands that carry children’s publications, such as Barnes and Noble. We’re also in hundreds of public and school libraries across the country. We believe the addition of our digital edition will also increase our visibility. A PDF version is currently available and a fully interactive digital edition will be launched in 2014. We believe the articles in each issue are exciting, engaging, and offer the latest information known on the topic as they are written by people in the field. We hope our content and our marketing push will help the magazine grow.

Dig Magazine May 2013

(May 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

5. How did you become involved in the magazine?

My husband and I had founded CALLIOPE magazine in 1981 and merged with Cobblestone Publishing in 1982. We featured an archaeology section in CALLIOPE. It seemed a perfect fit for me when Cobblestone took over DIG in 2001. And I have enjoyed every minute of it since.

Dig Magazine Jan 2013

(January 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

6. Has the magazine grown since its inception?  Are there any significant changes that have been made over time?

Yes, the magazine is continually growing. In fact, we just added a new department (Blogosaurus) —a column that focuses on the latest news about dinosaurs. While their study falls under the field of paleontology, many of our readers send us questions about dinosaurs and the new theories and finds. So, we thought we would feature a one-page department that presents a new find, a new way of thinking, or a fascinating discovery and then encourages readers to send us their thoughts on the topic. In January we will introduce a second new department – Field Notes—which is done with the Leon Levy Expedition, whose work focuses on the site of Ashkelon in Israel. We will be right onsite with the authors, engaged in digging, learning what tools are used, what happens when a find is made, and much more.

Dig Magazine July 2013

(July 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

7. Do you have any anecdotes about publishing the magazine or its readers that you’d like to share?

I think what is most exciting now are the Ask Dr. Dig programs we are developing. We have done four so far in different parts of the country. Some have been at large venues, others at small venues. Our intent is to offer more in 2014. The Dr. Dig program is about 60 to 90 minutes (last one, however, ran 120 minutes). An archaeologist dressed in the character of Dr. Dig lets attendees ask “Dr. Dig” questions they have always wanted to ask an archaeologist in person. Sometimes the archaeologist also does a presentation – a project that is related to some practice in the field of archaeology.

Check out the DIG Magazine website! http://www.digonsite.com/index.html

Ask Dr. Dig a question: askdr.dig@caruspub.com

Or see questions she has already answered: http://www.digonsite.com/drdig/index.html

Learn more about Dr. Dig (Dr. Angela Murock Hussein)! http://www.digonsite.com/drdig/AboutDrDg.html

Do you have a child (or a niece or nephew) who loves to draw?  Check out their Art page: http://digonsite.com/awesomeart.html

If your local bookstore doesn’t carry this magazine, please ask them to start doing so! Your voice matters.

Many, many thanks to Rosalie Baker for her generous responses and her time! And many, many thanks to Ann Dillon at ePals Media for the images of Dig covers!

Dig Magazine Nov 2013

(November 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

Boston Archeology Fair – Its origins through the Archaeological Institute of America

This past October 19th was the 7th Annual Archeology Fair, but it was my first experience of such an event, and I LOVED it.  It is the reason I reached out to some of the archeologists who participated and why I asked them about their remarkable work (please see previous posts).  For those who were not able to attend or did not know of the event, I wanted to be able to share how wonderful it was.

The event is the brainchild of Dr. Ben Thomas, Director of Programs for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA).  As Kelly Lindberg, Site Preservation Program Administrator at AIA, explains below, Dr. Thomas worked with the Museum of Science, Boston (MOS) to bring this day to fruition.

The estimated number of people who attended that weekend is close to 5500. (“…the AIA and MOS estimate that we spread the wonderful world of archaeology to around 5469 people over the weekend.” from: http://www.archaeological.org/news/aianews/14283)

That is phenomenal.

Kelly very generously responded to further questions about the origins of this fantastic event:


1. Per the flyers, this is the 7th Annual Archeology Fair. Does this mean it’s been held at the Boston Museum of Science for the past 7 years, or that it has been celebrated for 7 years?

Both, actually. The AIA began working with the MOS 7 years ago to bring together this great event, and we have held it at the Museum each year.

2. What prompted the AIA and the Boston Museum of Science to work together on this?

The idea for the fair started back in 2005 when our current Director of Programs, Ben Thomas, started working at the AIA. At that time, the AIA held an archaeology fair at each of its annual meetings, which are held in a different city each January across the US, and Ben wanted to start an annual fair in Boston, where the AIA has its headquarters. He approached Mike Adams, an educator at the Museum of Science who had attended our annual meeting archaeology fairs in the past, with the idea and everything developed from there. The AIA and the MOS had our first archaeology fair in 2007, and we have grown and expanded every year since.

3. How are the archeologists and presentations chosen for the fair? Are they always based in New England?

Each spring the AIA contacts a number of different professional organizations (historical societies, archaeological institutions, museums, university departments, etc.) in the New England area who share an interest in archaeology, history, anthropology, and other related fields; all our presenters volunteer their time at the fair.

4. Can you tell me more about your role in the fair?

I am the AIA’s point person for this event. I work mostly with presenters, getting commitments to present and making sure their activity needs are met. I also work closely with my colleague at the MOS to finalize scheduling, logistics, and publicity for the fair. On fair days I provide any support presenters and volunteers may need, from assisting at presenter tables to covering lunch breaks.

5. Do you want to share any anecdotes about the planning process or reactions to the fair?

Each year the AIA and MOS have the opportunity to work with a fantastic group of presenters and volunteers, and we are so glad to be part of these organizations’ outreach and education programs.

In addition, every year we see so many fair attendees with a great interest in archaeology, and we are honored to make this learning experience available to them.

6. Will the fair be on the same date at the same location next year? How far in advance do you start planning for the event?

We try to schedule the fair at the MOS to fall on the same weekend as International Archaeology Day, which is the third weekend in October, though scheduling conflicts do sometimes arise either at the AIA or the MOS. We start planning the next fair in the spring, generally March or April.

7. What do you enjoy most about archeology?

For me the best part about archaeology is learning about how people lived, and thrived, in the past; it amazes me how far we’ve come in a few short millennia.


I cannot thank Kelly Lindberg enough for her time and fascinating insights, nor Dr. Ben Thomas, for creating such a wonderful event.  An enormous thank you to everyone involved in this year’s Archeology Fair!!

Please be sure to check the AIA’s website for archeological events throughout the year: http://www.archaeological.org/events

Please also check the MOS website for their events and exhibits: http://www.mos.org/public-events or http://www.mos.org/coming-soon

Boston Archeology Fair – Spotlight: Alan Leveillee

It is not hard to spot the enthusiasm in Alan Leveillee’s eyes when he talks about archeology.   Speaking with him at the AIA-MOS Archaeology Fair, I was struck by his warmth and easy-going manner, and I had to remind myself not to monopolize his time as he discussed some of his experiences in the field.

Alan explained that, although he does some teaching at Roger Williams University, he works largely in “cultural resource management” at a company called PAL (the Public Archaeological Laboratory) in Rhode Island.  There, he is senior archeologist and principal investigator.

As discussed in a previous post, “cultural resource management” refers to the work an archeologist does researching a site before any construction or development can begin.  If any archeological resources are found, the archeologist is there to determine how best to preserve those resources.

Alan was researching a site in Millbury, MA when he discovered a Native American cremation site.  This discovery lead to his book in 2002, An Old Place, Safe and Quiet: A Blackstone River Valley Cremation Burial Site.


1.     You mentioned discovering an archeological site (a Native American cremation site) at Blackstone River in Millbury.  Can you explain how you determined that it was a cremation site?

We determined it was a cremation because of thousands of fragments of calcined (burned to the point of a chalky-white appearance) bone- both human and animal.  There were also artifacts included as burial offerings.

2.      Were you able to tell when this site was used?

The site was used by multiple generations of Native Americans between 2,800 and 3,800 years ago.  It was also recognized as a burial ground by subsequent Native American peoples in the Woodland Period, approximately 1,500 years ago.

3.      Do you know what Native American tribes used this site?  Or do you have theories on this?

They were the ancestors of today’s Wampanoag, Nipmuck, and Narragansett peoples.

4.      Have you participated in the Archeology Fair at the Boston Museum before?

Yes, there have been a total of seven fairs- I’ve had the pleasure of participating in all of them.

5.      What do you enjoy most about being an archeologist?

I work with great colleagues at PAL, get to teach a bit, and attend public events like the Museum of Science Archaeology Fair.  With a little academic background, imagination, and luck, I get to time travel- what’s not to enjoy about a career in doing that!!!


For more information on Alan’s book regarding the cremation site, An Old Place, Safe and Quiet: A Blackstone River Valley Cremation Burial Site: http://www.abc-clio.com/product.aspx?id=65710

Public Archaeology Lab (PAL): http://palinc.com/

Many, many thanks to Alan Leveillee!!

Boston Archeology Fair – Spotlight: Dr. George Mutter, Egyptian Images in 3D

I’d like to return, on this post, back to October 19th at the AIA-MOS Archaeology Fair.

One of the featured events was referred to as “3D Images of Egypt”, and it was held twice on that Saturday.  I was able to catch the second presentation (held directly after the “Ask Dr. Dig” panel discussion), but I did so based on the mention of “Egypt” alone.  I hadn’t been able to read anything about it.

Each visitor was given 3D-glasses, and we were instructed to sit in the middle section of the theatre at the Museum.  This, it was explained, was for optimum viewing.

The lights went down; Dr. George Mutter took the podium; the images began to populate the screen.

And I listened with rapt attention.

This was not simply “3D Images of Egypt”.

This was a fantastically unique slideshow narrated by Dr. Mutter, who peppered his descriptions with fascinating details of what it might have been like as a European traveler viewing Egypt and its archeological sites around 1870.

The images he displayed, largely in black-and-white, became that much more alive in 3D.  Coupled with his narration, one could actually begin to feel as though they were traveling back in time and across continents.

Images of 19th-century Cairo, the people of Egypt, and archeological sites–some with debris scattered everywhere–sent my imagination reeling.  What was it truly like?  What were the sounds? The smells? How was the heat? What did the Egyptian people think of the European people?

As many know, Europe was generally introduced to Egypt (and ancient Egypt) after 1798 when Napoleon made his military conquest there.  The images in this presentation were almost a century later.  Howard Carter wouldn’t discover Tutankhamun’s tomb until 1922.

One of the initial images was of a houseboat, and Dr. Mutter explained that this was used on travels on the Nile, as there weren’t any hotels along the way.  Before each trip, the boat was sunk to “get rid of the bugs and vermin”.

This was the kind of detail I absolutely loved throughout the presentation.

Dr. Mutter is an academic physician trained at Harvard and Columbia, and he very graciously responded to my questions below.


1. When did you first become interested in 3D images?

I was captivated by the immersive experience of historic stereophotographs about 30 years ago, when I ran across some in a New York City flea market.  It was the images, not taking pictures myself.  A sense of discovery took over, never knowing what would turn up next.

2. Your website mentions that you and your colleague have “access to a unique collection of 26,000 original images of broad topical and geographic coverage from 1855 through modern times”.  From where does this collection originate?

They were produced in the 19th century by commercial studios in Europe and the United States, who sent photographers all over the world.  Mounted on cards, the paired stereoviews (right and left were taken by separate lenses) were sold for education and entertainment.    Piles of stereoviews collected in Victorian parlors but became gradually dispersed over time, and today are generally available through flea markets, auctions, and specialised dealers.   Its hard to re-aggregate a large collection now, but easy to get a few.  The 26,000 images at Photoarchive3D were collected by myself and collaborator Bernard Fishman through 60 years of combined experience combing through these sources.  Bernard and I met at a photo show, and decided to create a virtual (digital) single “collection” derived from our separate holdings.  Our goal is to share these treasures with others, getting them excited about history and learning something in the process.  

3 . How did you select the images shown on Saturday?  And have others been able to see these pictures through your organization before?

“19th Century Egypt in 3D: A Victorian Trip Up the Nile”  was designed to simulate a real journey c.1870.  The best available images from this period corresponding to a typical Nile tour were arranged geographically, from Alexandria to the second cataract.   Only 50 or so were chosen from a total of several thousand Egypt views we had at hand.   We are biased towards visually and technically superb images, both in what we acquire and what we showcase for display.  The absolute best are rare stereophotographs printed on glass, as they retain microscopic detail and unparalleled tonal range.   Some subjects, such as local people and mummies, we were careful to include because Egypt is not just monuments and they were part of the experience.

We have shown the Egypt images at a convention of Egyptologists, to college students as part of their coursework, and to a groups of photohistorians.   Our website (www.Photoarchive3D.org ) has a few Egypt images, but we prefer to do it live.   In addition to Egypt, we have done presentations on the Ottoman World, 19th century 3D education, and historical preservation.

4. I was absolutely fascinated (and horrified) to learn that, prior to each journey down the Nile, the houseboats were sunk in order to get rid of the bugs and vermin.  How was this fact discovered?

There are plenty of vintage guidebooks and travelogues which have these everyday details.  There were no group tours before about 1870, so the guidebooks are very explicit about how to plan and execute a successful trip.  My favorite is “1000 Miles up the Nile” by Amelia Edwards who traveled in 1873 and later founded the Egypt Exploration Society.    Just so your readers do not think boats were disposible, I should clarify that they were sunk temporarily in shallow water, and then bailed out, nicely cleaned up, before the voyage.

5. Have you, yourself, been to Egypt?  And if so, what are your favorite archeological sites?
I personally have been to Egypt twice, and Mr. Fishman is a trained Egyptologist who worked at Luxor.  All the sites are special in their own way, and that is the beauty of it.  Alexandria evokes the past without showing much on the surface, Giza impresses with scale, at Amarna you feel like the only person around, and Luxor exceeds all expectations.     

6. Your presentation focused on images of Egypt, but do you have a favorite time-period and set of pictures in your organization’s collection?  Why is it your favorite?

The biggest appeal is a sense of being able to freely journey anywhere, going back 150 years, and seeing something that would not be encountered today.  I like ephemeral showcases like the Crystal Palace in Victorian London, or worlds fairs such as the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.   Classic archaeological sites such as Rome and Pompeii are beautifully captured before they crumbled further.  For atmosphere there is no better place than Ottoman Constantinople (Istanbul).  Natural history museums are a favorite, as the displays remind me of my childhood boiling skeletons in the basement.

7.  Were it not for photoarchive3d.org, would these images be lost?

No one knows what fraction of original production remains, but most views were “published” as many identical copies which have been preserved by virtue of being scattered about.  This means there is a lot out there still to be discovered, but 25-30% of our inventory is potentially unique, as I have not seen other examples in all the years of searching.     Although many individual images do exist outside of Photoarchive3D, there is added value to reassembly of groups of images which create a thematic virtual experience for the viewer.   This is our strength.

8. What do you hope people will learn from your organization?

It would be wonderful if our audience could see a bit of themselves in the people and places of the past.  We do that by putting them in unfamiliar environments, and letting them react with their own sensibilities.  Wouldn’t you sink your boat to kill the rats and fleas if you had to live on it for several months?


An enormous thank you to Dr. George Mutter for his generosity, his insight and his fascinating responses!

Please be sure to visit the website of Dr. Mutter and Mr. Fishman: http://photoarchive3d.org/

And check back to see their events; I cannot recommend them highly enough! http://photoarchive3d.org/DOCS/Events.htm

Boston Archeology Fair – Spotlight: Matthew Lawrence

One of the presentations on October 19th at the AIA-MOS Archaeology Fair was “Ask Dr. Dig“, a panel discussion with four archeologists who work in four different milieus: one who works largely with road and bridge construction sites at the NH Department of Transportation, one who works as a city archeologist in Boston, one who works in Egypt, and the other who works in and around the ocean.

Highlighted on this post is Matthew Lawrence, a maritime archeologist who works at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off of Cape Cod.

This was a fascinating discussion.

Because two of the four work at development sites, there was talk of “cultural resource management.” In other words, archeologists are often required to investigate a site before development can begin.  It is their job to make sure any archeological artifacts are removed appropriately.

Of particular note to me was something that Matthew Lawrence himself said in response to this part of the conversation: “It is only when things are being disturbed that archeology is undertaken.”

Ask Dr. Dig

(Information on screen highlighting the panel members at the Boston Museum of Science; picture thanks to Sheila Charles.)

Dr. Dig Panel

(Picture of panel members. From left to right: John Nolan, Joseph Bagley, Sheila Charles, and Matthew Lawrence; picture thanks to Sheila Charles.)

Matthew generously responded to my follow-up questions below:


1. Have you always wanted to be a maritime archeologist?

Growing up I participated in an archaeology club at my local museum and once I learned to scuba dive, I knew exactly what I wanted to do for a career.

2. What kind of training does one need to be able to do archeology underwater?

In addition to learning about the theories and methods of archaeology, its usually necessary to become a proficient scuba diver. Alternatively, experience with advanced marine technology, such as remotely operated vehicles, can allow you to conduct archaeological research without getting your feet wet.  For those who would like to try out underwater archaeology, but not pursue it as a career, there are a number of avocational training programs available to teach the basics.

3. How do you preserve things that are found underwater once you bring them up?  Do you work in conjunction with other people and other fields to do so?

Artifacts recovered from the oceans require a lengthy and expensive conservation process that involves the removal of dissolved salts and the stabilization of the artifact’s structure.  Artifacts recovered from a freshwater environment may only need structural stabilization.  Specialists in the field of conservation are a vital component of any underwater archaeological research project.  These individuals typically have a greater understanding of chemistry than most archaeologists.  As in all archaeological research, much of the information learned about a site is found out in the lab.

4. During the discussion, you mentioned that the archeological artifacts you’d most want to find would be Paleoamerican artifacts.  What kinds of artifacts would these include?  And how would one find them (by digging underwater? is there any underground technology that might help?)

Evidence of paleoamerican habitation of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary could be found in the form of fire rings or stone tools.  It possible that organic materials also might be present in a buried context.  To locate these materials, archaeologists would use optical survey systems, sub-bottom profilers, and coring.

5. In your work at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, do you often see whales?  Do you have any fun anecdotes about marine life you encounter?

I frequently see whales and other marine life on the surface, while conducting archaeological survey work.  When investigating shipwrecks on the seafloor, I usually find them teeming with a variety of fishes and invertebrates.  While diving on a shipwreck a few years ago, a large gray shaped passed close by me in my peripheral vision.  My first thought was BIG SHARK!!!!, but it turned out to be a large mola mola, a large, flattened, unusually shaped fish that I had never encountered near the seafloor.

Mola Mola Matthew Lawrence SBNMS

(photo of mola mola courtesy of Matthew Lawrence)

6. What do you like most about being an archeologist?

Archaeology is fun! The thrill of discovery when I find a new site or new information is followed closely by the enjoyment I get interpreting that information for an interested audience at a presentation.


For more information about Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary: http://stellwagen.noaa.gov/

Many, many thanks to Matthew Lawrence for his fascinating answers and lightning quick response to my emails!

Boston Archeology Fair – Spotlight: Caitlin Davis

The AIA-MOS Archeology Fair, held at the Boston Museum of Science, had archeologists–with artifacts, presentations and activities–spread throughout sections of the museum.

I was honored to meet Caitlin Davis, an eloquent member of the Archaeological Institute of America, a writer and a woman of adventure (as one can easily see from her gorgeous blog), and one who describes herself as an ‘archaeologist-in-training.’

She was at the Mayan archeology table focused on activities for children.  These activities centered around an ancient ballgame, including pictures of Mayan stelae to color.  When asked, Caitlin explained that the letters were written in Ch’olan Maya.  And it was then that she described her interest in Mayan epigraphy.

mos - arch - caitlin davis

1. What interested you in Mayan archeology and more specifically Mayan epigraphy?

I have been interested in archaeology since childhood ever since reading a Nancy Drew book in which our fearless heroine travelled to Peru and visited Machu Picchu. Coming to college at BU I planned on studying the Inca and had even began learning Quechua, the indigenous language of the area I wanted to study, but no courses in South American archaeology were being offered. I decided to do what I considered the next best thing and took a class titled ‘Ancient Maya Civilizations’ which completely blew me away. I was completely amazed by the writing system of the Maya and the interaction between the textual history and the archaeological record. It was in the middle of that semester that I decided that Mesoamerican archaeology, specifically the Maya, was what I really wanted to study.

As for epigraphy, I have always been interested in languages. I attended a specialized language program in high school in which I took classes in two languages and took classes separate from the rest of the study body with focused on global languages and cultures in other subjects, like English and History. I think epigraphy exemplifies what archaeology is truly about – knowing the people behind the artifact. To be able to read about the Maya in their own words is incredible, and every time I translate something, even just a syllable, I am blown away at the fact that the thoughts of someone who lived thousands of years ago are now revived in front of me.

2. Were you in charge of creating the activities on the table at the Museum of Science? (If so, what prompted you to discuss the ball game?)
I was not in charge of creating the activities at the table. The AIA has had the ball game activity for at least the past 3 years, and it always does well with drawing in younger children who may not be interested in archaeology itself.

3. Do you have any fun stories of reactions from kids to the activities at your table?  Or questions they asked?
A lot of kids were surprised that the ball game required players to bounce the ball on their hips and that a modern version of the ball game, ulama, was played today. Many parents were also shocked when I told them how long ago the ball game was first played (3500 years ago). And of course, mentioning the human sacrifice at the end of elite games always gets a reaction.

A few kids mentioned the scene in El Dorado, a children’s movie in which Spaniards discover a city of gold in Mesoamerica, when the two protagonists play the ball game using an armadillo as a ball. It’s very cute!

4. Can you tell me more about what you do at the AIA?
I worked at the AIA when I was an undergrad as a work-study and now I work there part time, mostly working on paperwork for the AIA’s national lectures circuit and academic fellowships. For the past few months, in preparation for International Archaeology Day, I have been working on emailing possible collaborating organizations, making blog posts about archaeology events, and generally just publicizing IAD.

5. What do you like most about being an archeologist?

I would still consider myself to be an archaeologist-in-training, as I do not currently have a Ph.D. (although I am in the process of applying to graduate programs). What I love most about archaeology is the aspect of discovery. Excavating a site and knowing that I am the first person to see something in thousands of years is an incredible feeling. It’s also amazing when research comes together and an artifact assemblage begins to tell a story. There are a lot of things to love about archaeology, and anyone who is even the slightest bit interested should look to get involved!


Warmest thanks to Caitlin Davis for her time, her insight and her enthusiastic responses!

Boston Archeology Fair – Introduction

International Archeology Day was this past October 19th.

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) held its 7th Annual Archeology Fair in conjunction with the Boston Museum of Science.

mos - arch - welcome sign


It was an incredible event, and I highly recommend putting it on your calendars for next year!

Tables of archeologists were scattered throughout the museum, and activities were available for all ages.  One could speak with local archeologists, representatives of museums and the AIA, authors and members of a “living history” group.

mos - arch - arch tool kit leveillee

mos - arch - fried mealworm - voelkel

mos - arch - brigitte

(Brigitte Keslinke, a freshman studying Greco-Roman archaeology at Boston University and an engaging host at the Mayan Archeology Table!)

mos - arch - Stephen H. native american drilling

(Stephen Hulbert from the Massachusetts Archaeological Society demonstrating how Native Americans used to drill into wood.  I am not sure in which time-period this was used.)

mos - arch - native american tools

Oct. 19th – Archeology Day!

I’ve been so focused on National Fossil Day, that I really haven’t done much research on International Archeology Day, but here it is! http://www.archaeological.org/archaeologyday


The Boston Museum of Science has an Archeology Fair, begun today (Oct. 18th) and continuing October 19th, 10am – 3pm: http://www.mos.org/public-events/archaeology-fair

Please be sure to check your local museums for their respective events!