In the winter of your tenth year, your letter to Santa Claus consisted of the following items:
• Bull Whip
• Leather Jacket
• Wheelock’s Latin
• Optimus Prime
You had recently seen Raiders of the Lost Ark and were obsessed with becoming an archaeologist, just like your new hero, Indiana Jones. You were sure that with all the accouterments of the profession in hand you’d be jetting off to discover fortune and glory in exotic lands in no time. Optimus Prime was on the list because you were ten and trucks that turn into robots were awesome. Plus you’d need a modern relic of appropriate weight to swap out for some treasure, should it come to that.
You skated through high school with grades just high enough to be respectable and test scores that ensured your entry into the college of your choice. It’s not that you were lazy per se; you just chose to study ancient cultures on your own at the expense of doing your biology homework. You figured the general curriculum of public school was fine for most kids, but when you already know what you want out of life, it’s up to you to pursue it on your own terms.
College was another story. You had a hard time dealing with the idea that your undergraduate degree required so many credits in things that meant so little to the study of ancient peoples. You were paying your way; you were supposed to be laying the foundation for your future. Who were they to tell you what classes you needed to take? You should have been in Paleolithic Symbology 2102 studying religious iconography of early man, not European Literature 1101 reading and dissecting the works of Thomas Mann.
Even the practical coursework in your field was a chore. You had envisioned study abroad programs at Giza or Angkor Wat. What you ended up with was a summer in the swamps of central Florida, uncovering arrowheads numbers 15,234 through 15,416 left abandoned by yet another well-studied and well-documented pre-Columbian native tribe. Every day was an exercise in being hot, getting bitten by mosquitoes, and carefully sifting and cataloguing two cubic centimeters of soil. Every time you found an arrowhead, which was about once per hour, you tried to envision historically appropriate ways of driving it into your skull. The bow and arrow was a bit unwieldy for the task, and you concluded that modern man’s greatest technological achievement was the creation of weaponry compact enough to be easily used on oneself.
You slogged your way through a master’s degree and then fled school. Your original goal was to be a tenured professor who uncovers treasure troves of important artifacts on the weekends and over summer break, but you couldn’t bear the thought of giving lectures on dating arrowheads with the Harris Matrix every semester for the next forty years. Furthermore, the idea that you would have to expend so much effort publishing academic papers turned your stomach. You wanted to be a man of action. You couldn’t imagine someone flaunting the “publish or perish” axiom at Howard Carter, much less Indy. You could always come back and get your PhD later, you reasoned, with plenty of real experience to draw from when crafting your thesis.
The archaeology job market wasn’t as slim as you might have thought, certainly not so much as other scientific fields, like marine biology. It was the nature of the jobs themselves that was less than ideal. Increasing demand for new construction in the U.S. was driving the market for project archaeologists, but you saw that as nothing more than a standard corporate middle management position that requires you to dig in the dirt sometimes. The bulk of your job would be hiring and managing a crew, writing and watching the budget, and painstakingly documenting each square inch of a job site where yet another arrowhead was found. The primary goal on these sites was to not find anything interesting so that construction on the all important strip mall could continue unabated. That was definitely not the career you had in mind.
You became a field technician. You were low man on the totem pole, but that was okay as long as you were out in the field. You were a freelancer and were able to be choosey about the sites on which you wanted to work. The pay was awful and you had no benefits, but at least you were traveling to the locales you had dreamed of all these years. When you landed a spot on a site in the Valley of the Kings, you thought you were in heaven.
It wasn’t long before the work and the Egyptian sun had you convinced otherwise. Far from your dreams of fortune and glory, you were documenting the tomb of an as-yet-nameless pharaoh of the Old Kingdom. Your daily agenda didn’t stray far from:
• Wake up sweating
• Use small paintbrush to gently dust 32 grains of sand from a one square inch piece of a broken urn
• Painstakingly document both the unremarkable piece of clay and the unremarkable pool of sand in which it was found
• Consider that this was likely part of a pot that somebody pissed in five thousand years ago
• Wash hands
• Brush away a little more sand
• Change shirt from too much sweating
• Watch as more sand appears from nowhere to cover that which you had uncovered an hour ago
• Become convinced that sand is the real mummy’s curse
• Brush away another inch of sand
• Painstakingly document that you found nothing of interest in that last bit of sand
• Sweat more
• Brush more sand
• Discover small shard of pottery, unpainted. Brush sand. Document. Sweat.
• Curse the gods
• Vow revenge. On anyone.
• Go to bed and sweat.
You were tormented at night by the idea that everything interesting had long been discovered, and that you had wasted your life becoming little more than a glorified librarian—with sand. Dejected, you made the decision to return home and figure out your next steps. You would probably teach, though those project archaeologist jobs were sounding pretty good as well. It only takes one bout of malaria to make you reevaluate how important health insurance is in a compensation package.
You resigned from the site and headed to the airport to catch the next flight back to the states. On the way through the security checkpoint you were chosen for a random search and the agents started rifling through your carry-on. The three unremarkable shards of urn that you were bringing back as a souvenir for your niece had caught their eye, and the fact that you didn’t have any documentation for them landed you in an Egyptian prison for antiquities smuggling. Egypt is proud of their artifacts and guards them closely. It was a small transgression, and after some intervention by the US Embassy you were made to pay a fine and you were free go home.
The damage to your reputation, however, was irreparable. Breaking the sacrosanct laws of field science got you ostracized from the community. You couldn’t get a job as a janitor in a university, let alone a professor. And forget professional archaeology. Nobody would hire a guy who has demonstrated such disregard for the integrity of the site. The best you could manage was a job teaching American History at an underfunded public school in central Florida. Every year you take the kids on a field trip to the swamp and try to act enthusiastic as they unearth arrowheads.