Have you ever wondered why you are the way that you are? Why do you and your friends dress the way that you dress, talk the way that you talk and do the things that you do? Where did your ancestors come from, and how did you end up where you are now? Archaeologists are fascinated by these questions and they try to answer them by studying people from different time periods, places and cultural contexts. Archaeology is such a valuable discipline not just because it’s interesting, but because of the way that it makes you think.
Over the past few decades, archaeology has captured the attention of the public and figured prominently in popular culture. This has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it has generated a tremendous amount of interest in the field that has led to more opportunities, more money for research and more support outside of academia. On the other hand, people think that we study aliens. We don’t. Or, they think that we study dinosaurs. We don’t. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have told someone that I’m an archaeologist, and they respond with something like, “Wow you must know everything there is to know about dinosaurs.” I don’t. Those experts are called paleontologists.
What do archaeologists do? Archaeologists study people. More specifically, archaeology is the study of the past through material remains. It is a branch of the broader field of anthropology. Anthropology, not Anthropologie (although the latter is highly recommended if you need a cute spring romper). With movies and games like Indiana Jones, National Treasure and Tomb Raider, archaeology has developed a reputation as an adventurous, risky, relic-hunting sport where people are shooting guns at you and you’re usually trying to solve a weird ancient puzzle that bad guys are also trying to solve. (Why are the bad guys always gifted at solving ancient puzzles?) Sorry to bust your bubble, but archaeology isn’t about finding the lost temple like Indiana Jones or vandalizing tombs like Lara Croft, it is learning about people in the past so we can contribute objective pieces to the ever-evolving autobiography of our species. It’s beautiful, and worth every grueling hour in the field and lab.
I know what you’re thinking, ‘what does it really mean to ‘study’ people in the past? You just go through dead people’s things and try to figure out what they were in to? Creepy. While I don’t disagree, archaeology is creepy in some wonderfully informative ways. There are researchers in every corner of the globe trying to answer thousands of questions that will help us better understand our species and our story. These questions might be directed at subjects such as: social organization, subsistence strategies, settlement patterns, symbolism, religion and resource management. Every study helps us better understand the past, and adds one little piece to this impossibly complex jigsaw puzzle that is our human journey.
The real value of archaeology though, is not so much in the things that we find or conclude, but in the perspectives that we adopt. Archaeology, and anthropology more broadly, force you to practice true empathy. To really analyze people from a vastly different cultural context requires empathy. You have to leave your own perspective, and all of those annoying little strings that made you that way, and adopt someone else’s. You have to see things through their eyes and walk in their shoes. People that can really do this tend to excel at other aspects of life. It’s a lot easier to resolve a conflict when you can analyze the issues through the lens of the other party. It’s easier to build a strategy at work when you really understand everyone’s goals. It’s easier to accept certain inconveniences caused by other people when you empathize first, (For example: he might’ve cut me in line, but maybe he’s late to a meeting. I’ve got all day, and I’m not going to let something like this ruin my Cinnabon).
When you see things from another’s perspective you become more understanding, agreeable and tolerant. And then, you pretty quickly realize that despite our vast diversity as a species, what’s even more fascinating, is how curiously and extraordinarily similar that we all really are. That’s the real treasure that archaeology has the potential to uncover. And this perspective is worth pursuing, spreading and fighting for.
The Perot Museum’s new exhibition, Origins: Fossils from the Cradle of Humankind, will display the authentic fossils of two hominin species from South Africa, Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi, and what we know about their lives so far. This will be first time ever that these fossils will leave South Africa, and the first time fossils from two different human relatives will be on display. And, they’re only coming to one place: Dallas’ Perot Museum of Nature and Science. Origins opens to the public on October 19, and timed tickets are available here.