When I was about six, my mom gave me the Golden Book of Archaeology. I loved it! The Golden Book of the Bible? Not so much.  Then, when I was about 10, I discovered Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels while enduring a boring evening at friends of my parents. I was immediately entranced.

“As the twig is bent, so grows the tree,” a wise person once said.  My parents tried, in vain, to lure me away from a B.A. in anthropology.  I would not be dissuaded, so we hit a compromise. I would keep studying Spanish AND anthropology. My parents rested a bit more easily because I could always “fall back on” teaching Spanish. 

Of course, both departments at G. W. wanted me to focus on Mesoamerica. “But,” I said, “I hate the heat.”  And so, I found myself on the North Slope of Alaska at the age of 25, never having been west of Pittsburgh.

Doing what, you may ask.  I was looking for archaeological sites in the tundra way north of the Arctic Circle with a crew of people I had never met, about 200 miles southwest of the nearest human settlement.  The lure of anthropology, especially its sub-discipline, archaeology, sustained me through many years of grad school punctuated by summers in Alaska. I finally got my Ph.D. in 1993.

So what? Here’s what. I look at things differently. Not only do people of my ilk have an inordinate love of the past and of spinning tales about it, we also view the world differently. It’s the social science thing, I think.

You meet someone from a far corner of the earth and ask yourself, “What can I learn from this person?” You don’t think, “Doesn’t he talk funny,” or, “Isn’t that a quaint belief?” Instead, you wonder, “Why are things that way where he’s from? “  “Maybe I should try eating lamprey or grasshoppers, just like they do.”  “Maybe I should go there and check it out for myself.”

Archaeologists tend to love science fiction—“What would life be like if….?”  Most of us still have an old trowel.  The smaller it is after years of sharpening, the better. Most of us love/loved to drink, and also to imbibe in the drug of the particular decade in which we “came of age.”  In a particular settlement in northern Alaska, I first came to experience hashish and moonshine made from raisins and canned fruit cocktail. It was our own version of “going native.” We tend to walk looking at the ground, even in cities—we are so used to looking for artifacts hidden in the grass that we search for them in the concrete, too.

Artifacts are one thing; living people are another. They talk; they yell; they get mad at you. I had worked several years in the wilderness before working “in town,” the town being Barrow, AK, the northernmost community in the United States.

  The inhabitants hated us at first-we were evil scientists from the lower ’48.  We were there to plunder their history and remove it for good. We were also the ethnic minority of choice to pick on.  Luckily, people got used to us, and thanks to our project, there is a new museum in town that showcases all that we found.

The stuff I had to read in school, even the most boring of the 19th century social anthropologists, has greatly influenced me. I’ve had a great education and have known many outstanding mentors.

But it’s the dirt under your finger nails, the conversation with an elder about the old ways, the joy of finding a 500-year old ivory comb, the spontaneous concerts (guitar, banjo, saw and harmonica), the familiar sound of sharpening your trowel, that have given me a breadth and depth of experience I would never have known.

If you’re lucky, you have found your passion or are searching for it. Perhaps it is part of everyone’s  journey.  Keep looking!  When I lose my way, however briefly, I grab my copy of Halliburton (my Golden Book of Archaeology  lost in the past) or  I fondle my trowel. We all have talismans. What’s yours?