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

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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/
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These Two Museums Need Your Help: Pt. 1 Triceratops Fossil in Boston

 

UPDATE 19 June 2015:  FUNDING HAS BEEN EXCEEDED.

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Earlier, I wrote about the undetermined fate of a Triceratops fossil.  The Museum of Science Boston has until June 30th of this year (only weeks away!) to raise $850,000 in order to keep that fossil.  So far, the total raised is $450, 961.  This is significant, but it’s not enough.

You can help: http://mos.org/keepcliff

Keep Cliff MOS screenshot

Screenshot of mos.org/keepcliff, Museum of Science Boston

Triceratops Boston Museum of Science

Image of the Triceratops fossil at the Museum of Science Boston, taken by the author

cliff skull & museum

Image of Triceratops’ skull, Museum of Science Boston, taken by the author

Keep Cliff 1

 

A “Keep Cliff” panel at the Museum of Science Boston, image taken by the author

 

More information can be found here: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/the-undetermined-fate-of-a-rare-triceratops-fossil/

The Undetermined Fate of a Rare Triceratops Fossil

If you’ve visited the Museum of Science, Boston, and you’ve seen its fossil room, then you’ve seen Cliff.

Cliff - triceratops

 [image of Cliff, taken by the author]

It is an impressive specimen, and it is named after the grandfather of its anonymous donor.

“Cliff is mostly complete,” wrote E. James Kraus, Jr., the museum’s Executive Director of Development and Campaign Director, “making it one of the world’s rarest paleontological finds, and one of only four other largely complete Triceratops fossils on display in the world.”

The basic details of its excavation, purchase and temporary home in the Museum are in the public record:

  • It was excavated in the Hell Creek Formation in North Dakota in 2004.
  • Because it was discovered on private U.S. land, the fossil could be sold, and it was.
  • It was prepared by a commercial fossil company and mounted in Italy.
  • Its first owner was a private collector from Germany.
  • The fossil was auctioned by Christie’s in Paris, 2008; the asking price was not met.
  • Ultimately, the winning bid of $942,797 was from an anonymous man who was raised in Boston.
  • That man contacted the Museum of Science and offered to loan the fossil for a period of 7 years, as a way of giving back to the community.

TRICERATOPS
Fin du Crétacé, entre 67 et 65 millions d’années avant notre ère, découvert en 2004, Nord Dakota, Etats-Unis
T.Horridus Marsh 1889
Longueur: 680cm.

La longueur totale est de 6m80 avec le montage actuel.
The total length of this lot as currently mounted is 268 in.

Le squelette pourra recevoir le nom choisi par son futur acquéreur. Une plaque de détermination est placée sur le socle avec une surface vierge destinée au nom de baptême futur du dinosaure et au nom de l’acquéreur.

Le socle à gradin en bois et la monture en inox d’inspiration moderniste participe à la préciosité de l’ensemble.
[info from Cliff’s original catalog listing at Christie’s, courtesy of Christie’s]

That 7-year loan is about to expire, and in order to keep the fossil, the Museum of Science is currently trying to raise $850,000 by June 2015.

“At auction, Cliff is now valued in excess of $2 million, and Cliff’s owner has agreed to gift $1 million+ if we can raise the $850,000,” E. James Kraus, Jr. explained.

“We are planning several fundraising events,” he continued, “but the details are still being finalized.”

If you visit the museum and buy anything from its gift shops, you will see donation jars, and you will be asked if you’d like to round up the sum of your purchase to the nearest dollar to go toward this effort.

There is also on online campaign to raise money here: http://mos.org/keepcliff

Twitter: #KeepCliff

The requisite sum might seem extraordinary. And, if nothing else, it calls into question the concept of fossil ownership in this country.  Most people cannot afford to buy such fossils; few would donate them, on loan or otherwise.

This particular author is extremely grateful to be able to gaze at Cliff, stare at it from various angles and ponder what the animal might have been like in life, not to mention what it took to actually excavate the skeleton. The opportunity to see something that enormous and that rare, rather than a replica, cannot be overstated.

This, according to E. James Kraus, Jr., is what the donor hoped.

“He wished to have the fossil displayed for the education and enjoyment of the public and generously offered the fossil on long-term loan to the Museum of Science.”

And yet, the number of unanswered questions—in a field in which questions and transparency are encouraged–leaves this author a little unsettled.  Details that are a normal part of a fossil’s provenance are, in this case, absent to the public.

For example:

  • Who discovered the fossil?
  • Who excavated it?
  • How long did it take to excavate?
  • Who prepared the skeleton?
  • How, if at all, was it preserved?

Further questions, prompted by the situation of buying-and-selling a fossil, are also absent:

  • Who originally sold it to the German collector?
  • Why was the loan to the Boston Museum for 7 years?

And ultimately, the question that rises above all else: If the sum of $850,000 is not raised, will it be put back on auction?

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You can help: http://mos.org/keepcliff

The author would like to state–for the record–that personal opinions in this piece are not those of the Boston Museum of Science or of Christie’s.

Truly, thank you to Cliff’s donor for enabling us to share in this wonderful fossil!

Thank you to Erin Shannon, E. James Kraus, Jr., and to Beverly Bueninck!

And thank you to all of those at the Museum of Science for working toward keeping Cliff!

MOS - Cliff

 [image of Cliff, taken by the author]