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Making American Archaeologists:
Memories of Childhood Fascination

Mary S. Black

The recent SAA census of American archaeologists presents a contemporary profile of the varied members of the society (1997, M. A. Zeder, The American Archaeologist: A Profile. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA). The census examines employment, research, publication, financial trends, and higher education for archaeologists. The survey demonstrates the increased presence of women in the profession and the widening gulf between academic and contract archaeology. Overall, the census presents a clear picture of adult archaeologists in America today. But how did these adults get here? What led them to become archaeologists in the first place? These and other questions were asked in a brief email survey on the Internet listserv Arch-L in April 1998.

In general, the email survey found that archaeological interest most often emerges during childhood. Four main factors contributing to that emergence include: (1) events such as visits to sites and museums, or discoveries; (2) books and magazines; (3) family interest; and (4) supportive teachers. These results are similar to Naiser's study of 300 science professors who reported that childhood experiences were critical to their decisions to pursue science as a career [1993, G. Naiser, Science and Engineering Professors: Why Did They Choose Science as a Career? School Science and Mathematics 93(6): 321­324]. Parents, teachers, and archaeology educators need more research about children's interests and influences on adult decisions to provide optimal support for youngsters and understand the motivation to engage in archaeological careers.

Arch-L had 2,078 subscribers in 51 countries at the time of the survey. Subscribers included professionals, avocationals, students, and others. Of those 2,078, 208 replied to the survey, yielding a modest 10 percent return rate. This is a far smaller return than reported for other email surveys of between 41 percent and 76 percent (S. E. Anderson and B. M. Gansneder, 1995, Using Electronic Mail Surveys and Computer-Monitored Data for Studying Computer-Mediated Communication Systems. Social Science Computer Review 13(1): 33­46). Of the 208 responses, 171 were from the United States, and 37 were from other countries. The largest group of respondents was 113 professional archaeologists working in the United States.

The survey asked six questions: Three were about early interest in archaeology and three sought basic demographic information, such as respondent's country of residence. The survey did not ask specifically about gender. Respondents were fully informed of the intent of the survey before they chose to participate. This survey was done as part of ongoing research in the use of archaeology education in elementary and secondary schools in the United States. For the purpose of this study, "professional" was defined as earning a living through paid archaeological work.

U.S. Professionals

When does interest in the human past begin? The survey reveals that 40 percent of the 113 U.S. professionals claim to have first become interested in archaeology between the ages of 7 to 10. Another 23 percent place the beginning of their lifelong interest between ages 7 to 14. This is not a surprising revelation because of the widening interests of children during these ages and their developing recognition of both culture and the past (1984, K. Fischer and A. Lazerson, Human Development: From Conception through Adolescence. W. H. Freeman, New York). Another 20 percent declared that their first interest began between ages 15 to 20, often as college students. About 10 percent reported the onset of archaeological interest as adults, between the ages 21 to 31. The remainder claim that interest began before age 7. Thus, fully 70 percent of the responding professional American archaeologists developed an enduring interest in their career field before age 14.

"My interest in old things began at age 3 when my family (and therefore I) became excited about an 1844 penny my brother found in our back yard. That was reinforced when I found "my very own" 1787 CT penny near our home. This interest flowered about age 10 and I decided then I would be an archaeologist," reported one respondent. Another person described interest as emerging "when digging swimming pools, lakes, and harbors in my parents' backyard at a very early age (6­7). I was very curious about the dish and glass fragments found in the earth. I recall asking questions about it, who they [sic] were, how it got there, and if they [sic] lived in the same house." "I actually remember making a bet with my sister that I would be an archaeologist when I grew up. I sure wish I could remember what we bet because I would like to collect (with interest) after all these years," reminisced another.

The vast majority (74 percent) report that this archaeological interest developed without the intervention of formal schooling whatsoever. This reflects the fact that most American children do not study anything about archaeology in school (1991, J. P. Shaver, Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning. Macmillan, New York). While the lack of archaeology education in elementary and secondary schools in the United States is well known, the fact that a high percentage of professionals develop an abiding interest in their career field at an early age, without the benefit of formal education, is notable.

The 25 responding U.S. professionals (22 percent) who were exposed to archaeology in elementary or secondary school had a variety of experiences. Six said that all or a portion of a regularly organized class provided their first exposure to archaeology. Four participated in a school archaeology club (two of the four were founders of the club). Three remembered school trips connected to archaeology. Two recalled independent study or reports they wrote. Four received their introduction to archaeology education in schools outside the United States, and one from some other school-related activity.

Prompts to childhood interest in archaeology varied among the respondents. Over 40 percent associated their budding interest to an event, such as a visit to a museum or site, or the actual discovery of an artifact. One respondent described nascent fascination unfolding "as I followed my father in the freshly plowed field on our farm searching for projectile points." Another commented, "A defining moment for me was visiting Stonehenge when I was 11. You could still walk in and around the stones then, and I was overwhelmed by the mystery of it all." Several mentioned the powerful impression the King Tut exhibit at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art had on them as children in the late 1970s.

Books and magazines were the second most influential spur (34 percent). One said, "My parents subscribed to National Geographic and I devoured every issue. They also bought two books, Indians of the Americas (1947, J. Collier, W. W. Norton, New York) and Daily Life in Ancient Times (n.d.), that I read over and over again from grade school on. Now that my father has died, I have these same two books in my personal library." Several mentioned reading Ceram's Gods, Graves, and Scholars (1967, C. W. Ceram, Knopf, New York) as children. One older respondent recalled reading "the book Romance of Archaeology (1934, R. Van D Magoffin, Garden City Publishing, Garden City, N.Y.) that I bought with $2.50 earned by picking cotton for a week."

Family members were the third most often-reported influence (22 percent). After all, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles are most often responsible for children's outings, trips, and books in the home. "I think my parents are ultimately responsible," commented one respondent, "because they encouraged me to read, especially history and science."

Teachers rank as the fourth most influential factor in early archaeological interest (14 percent of responding U.S. professionals). Even though archaeology education is not often taught directly in schools, several respondents noted the importance of having someone "who was interested that I was interested." Social studies teachers and college professors were most often named as encouraging young archaeologists-in-the-making.

A few admitted to having been influenced by television (4 percent) and movies (2.5 percent) as children. "I remember seeing a program on PBS (NOVA) called 'The Asteroid and the Dinosaur' which dealt with the extinction of the dinosaurs. I was fascinated with the idea that you could dig something up that hadn't seen sunlight for millions of years and learn things from it. I progressed from being interested in giant reptiles to being interested in human beings." "Let's not forget Raiders of the Lost Ark," confessed another.

The identification of four main factors that contribute to the emergence of archaeological interest (visits and discoveries, books and magazines, family interest, and teachers) is important to all those concerned with public education and the nurturing of budding archaeologists. Perhaps the biggest surprise in the survey responses was the vivid memories of childhood books, trips, and discoveries. Such experiences can clearly have an impact on children for a lifetime, sometimes leading to lifelong career choices. The documented emergence of archaeological interest in young children is significant because of the implications about children's thinking and the beginning of future career paths. While there would appear to be no shortage of professional archaeologists, this study demonstrates the importance of childhood experiences in cultivating sustained interest in the scientific understanding of the human past. It is predicted that enhanced opportunities for children in archaeology education would have long-lasting benefits to the field in terms of public support and understanding. ·

Mary S. Black, Ed.D., is assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Texas at Austin. She is a member of the SAA Public Education Committee and Education Chair for the Texas Archaeological Society, as well as cochair of Texas Archaeology Educators.

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