One thing we love to do here at the Alumni Council is to interview professionals in the fields relating to history. You may have seen Jolie’s interview a few months back with Podcaster Daniel Clark, and here we have another one! Alumni Lucas interviewed Stephanie Halmhofer, bioarchaeologist, and writer at Bones, Stones, and Books. She is currently running a survey on Canadians, archaeology, and social media use so please help her out by doing the survey and spreading it widely – you can hear her talk more about the project on the Archaeological Fantasies podcast, episode 96.
It’s something we definitely don’t get to do enough of, so if you’re a professional and you’re interested in either being interviewed by a student for a blog post, or joining us on a call next year, please leave us a comment. We’d love to talk to you!
Hey everyone! Around a month ago, the Alumni Council had the wonderful opportunity to attend a conference call with Stephanie Halmhofer, a bioarchaeologist (someone who studies human skeletal remains) who has done notable work digging and exploring around the country. However, since I was unable to attend the call, I decided to email Stephanie a few questions I had about her profession. Being a complete novice to the “field,” I found Stephanie’s replies super cool and exciting to read. I have attached them below. Enjoy, and a huge thanks to Stephanie for being such a great interview subject!
How do archaeologists get paid, and who are they paid by?
We get paid a through a variety of ways. We get paid for doing surveys, excavations, writing reports, and conducting lab work. Sometimes we also get paid for outreach efforts like going to schools/events to give presentations, interviews for TV programs, doing consulting work for TV programs (whether a documentary or a fictional film looking to get the archaeology right), etc. Who pays us also really varies. If you work for a university, it’s the university that pays you.
You can apply for grants as well to help pay for your work supplies (like lab equipment, travel, etc.) and to help you pay the students or employees you hire. But important to note is that the grant does NOT pay you. If you don’t work for a university (I don’t work for a university), you can also apply for grants for the same purposes, but again we cannot use the grant money to pay ourselves. Like I mentioned, not all archaeologists work for universities.
Many of us work in what’s called Cultural (sometimes Heritage) Resource Management. This is the archaeological work that is done in conjunction with construction projects, city-planning projects (i.e. the city wants to build a new public park and include some of the heritage of the area in the planning), area studies, etc. Our pay comes from the people who hire us. Sometimes that’s an engineering firm, sometimes a construction company, sometimes it’s the local or provincial or federal government (I sometimes get hired by Parks Canada and their funding comes from the federal government). Sometimes it’s a home-owner. What a lot of home-owners don’t realize is that archaeological permitting is also part of their construction process (this is an on-going struggle archaeologists have, making this fact better understood). So just like you have to get the proper building permits in place to build a new balcony or addition to your house, you also have to have archaeological permits in place making sure that *if* there are archaeological resources on your property these resources are protected and managed properly. So just as a home-owner pays the construction companies, they would pay archaeologists.
What do you think the role of an archaeologist is in helping society improve (i.e. how archaeology helps society become more knowledgeable/well informed)?
I always say that archaeology is as much about the present and the future as it is about the past. Archaeology can offer some unique insights to help society better prepare itself for the future, especially with regards to matters involving the environment. Including climate change. We can look to the past and see how people managed their environments and how they dealt with climate change. We can see what worked and what didn’t work and use that information to help develop environmental sustainability policies today. For example, controlled burning is something that has been practiced for thousands of years. We can see archaeological evidence for controlled burning and the environmental results of it and how that benefited (or perhaps didn’t?) people in the past. Another cool example is the Clam Garden Network. First Nations peoples along the coast developed incredible clam gardens to help sustain an important food source, and today Parks Canada, Dana Lepofsky (at SFU), and several First Nations are working together to continue the use of clam gardens along the coast. Archaeologists are also rapidly becoming involved in climate change studies/policy-making as well.
How do you consider the moral ethics of archaeology/justify what you do? (ex. how do you make a difference between digging for historical purposes and “grave robbing”)?
This is an especially important question. The answer comes down to differences in the purposes/how/who/whats of the work. Grave-robbers/looters destroy sites and take objects for personal monetary gain. They don’t care about the site and its importance to descendant communities. They only care about how much money they can get for that mask or that projectile point. Archaeologists have an extraordinary amount of ethics they follow. Nothing is sold for money. Descendant communities are always involved in the work (some are more involved than others).
We also have very strict government guidelines, regulations, and requirements for conducting archaeological work – not everyone is legally allowed to be an archaeologist! We have to meet certain requirements before we’re given permission to conduct our work (like educational requirements, experience requirements). As a bioarchaeologist specifically, my work is considered highly culturally sensitive. So, EVERYTHING I do is done in collaboration with the descendant communities. I start off every conversation with “How can I help you, what would you like me to do.” My work is determined by what the descendant community decides. Grave-robbers/looters don’t do that.
Another form of ethical consideration is archaeologists standing up and speaking out against pseudoarchaeology. Pseudoarchaeology is when archaeology is used for alternative purposes and about 99% of the time it’s used to support very racist agendas. Myself and a small but growing number of colleagues spend a lot of time talking about when pseudoarchaeology is wrong/racist, and we use our voices to help support the communities being impacted by it.
Are there any accurate and non-fake news documentaries about archaeology (this question is partly inspired after I read your article about the racist TV show) that you would recommend to me?
There are many fantastic archaeology documentaries and shows out there. If you’re interested in seeing archaeology physically take place, there’s a show on APTN (all the episodes are available on the APTN website) called Wild Archaeology. Three First Nations hosts (including Dr. Rudy Reimer at SFU) travel around Canada visiting various archaeological sites. It’s very well produced and really informative. Right now all of season 1 is on the APTN website and they’re in the process of filming season 2 (the site I’ve worked on quite a bit in Sechelt is going to be featured in season 2). Another fantastic show is called Time Team. The British one is the original. I’m pretty sure you can find episodes on Youtube.
If you’re interested in learning about specific sites or specific topics, spend some time on Youtube looking for documentaries because there are a lot of good ones on there! Pseudoarchaeology (which is what I referred to in that blog post about the CBC documentary that you mentioned) is fairly easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for. This is a blog post I wrote about learning how to spot pseudoarchaeology. One word you’ll hear quite a bit in pseudoarch is “mainstream.” The “mainstream” archaeologists and historians are hiding the truth. The “mainstream” archaeologists and historians refuse to look at things this way. Etc. But often pseudoarch documentaries will claim that some sort of truth is being hidden or manipulated, so if you find yourself watching a show and they start talking about things like that you’ll know you need to watch it critically because it’s likely pseudoarchaeology! Avoid any documentary featuring Graham Hancock. He is a huge pseudoarchaeologist who presents himself very professionally (so many consider him an actual archaeologist).
How much time do you spend in the field digging compared to examining samples in a lab?
Lab versus field time varies with every project. But typically one week in the field = three weeks in the lab. This includes things like writing reports and cleaning/analyzing artifacts. If you have to do special additional testing on artifacts (i.e. carbon dating, XRF, etc.) that would add a lot of additional time. But if you didn’t uncover many artifacts on your site than you won’t have to spend much time in the lab. We typically have a “field season” which runs from mid-April to end of Oct/early Nov. That of course varies each year depending on temperatures and what the projects are (i.e. if a construction company is working in the winter and we need to be there then we work in the winter too). Our “lab season” will then pick up as soon as the field season is finished.
I’m in a bit of unique situation right now where I’m actually spending quite a bit of time in the lab instead of the field. We need to finish analyzing the artifacts from a large project we started last October. We spent 8 weeks excavating in Point Pelee National park and we have about 60,000 artifacts we need to go through. So, while my colleagues are all out in the field I’ve been spending time in the lab going through all of these artifacts because they need to be finished before the end of August (when I move back to BC) and before the next phase of our project starts, which would be another 6-8 weeks excavating. So far, I’ve spent about 3 months working with these artifacts and it’s probably going to take me at least another month to finish them.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever found on a dig?
Honestly, it’s all very cool. And to be even more honest, the artifacts themselves aren’t what’s important. An artifact on its own tells us almost nothing. What’s important is to look at the context surrounding the artifact. Where was it found? What position was it sitting in? What was it sitting near? Things like that. That being said, A few things stand out in mind. A few years ago, I found some glass beads in BC and it turns out they’re an extremely rare style! So rare, in fact, that this is the first time they have ever been found on an archaeological site in Canada. I ended up writing about them for my school work.
I also had the chance to work on a cool historic site in Kingston, ON, a couple of years ago. It was associated with Fort Frontenac (and almost right beside the fort). It had some fantastic stone foundation walls, stone sewer drains, and amazing historical artifacts going back to the mid-1700’s. And the project in Point Pelee that I mentioned above has also been super cool. It’s a huge site with parts of it being about 2000 years old! Beautiful pottery and projectile points, plus lots of post-holes that help us see where the longhouses would have stood.
Note: Below are some links to articles written by Stephanie that I would recommend to everyone as great reading!
You can also find Stephanie on Twitter: @Bones_Canada.