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"Dirty and Sweaty and Doing Science:" An Interview with Dr. Carole Mandryk
It's A Small World Note: One of the things we learned from Dr. Mandryk's interview is that she grew up only a few miles from Sam, Nick, and Andy! She went to the public middle school and high school in Sam and Nick's school district. Check out your school graduates and find out what they did when they grew up!
Sam: When did you become an archaeologist and what got you interested in archaeology?
Dr. Mandryk: I read a book when I was six called Peggy's Travels that got me interested in other cultures and anthropology. When I was nine there was a book fair at my school where I bought a kit that let you make a plaster cast of the Rosetta stone and then do rubbings and that's when I started wanting to be an archaeologist. I also did a little dig across the street from my parents' house by a stream and found broken pieces of stoneware, bottles, and a porcelain doll's head. Years and years later I checked old maps in the Fairfax County (Virginia) archives and found there was a house near there in the early 1800s and the stuff I dug up were probably from their garbage dump. I still have those broken pieces of pottery and show them to students in introductory lectures (and of course tell them they should never dig things up!). They were also widening and flattening Braddock Road (in Fairfax, Virginia) and seemed to constantly finding Civil War artifacts.
Sam: What training or education has helped you most as an archaeologist?
Dr. Mandryk: Well obviously, you need to go to school forever (I hope you like school!), but doing archaeology, getting experience surveying for sites, actually digging, getting a feel for what the sediments feel like, and working with artifacts in a lab are all very important experiences. I did a BA in anthropology (but mostly archaeology) at Beloit in Wisconsin (a very good school!), an MA in anthropology and Museum training at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., then a Ph.D. in Anthropology and Quaternary Studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I also just like school a lot and at various times took courses at the Northern Virginia Community College (when I was working as a paralegal trying to decide if I wanted to be a lawyer or an archaeologist), the College of Santa Fe, and the University of Hawaii. I also did museum internships at Museum of New Mexico and the Smithsonian.
Sam: What kind of archaeological work or what field do you work in?
Dr. Mandryk: My research primarily concerns paleoenvironmental reconstruction and the analysis of interrelationships between the physical environment and social and biological factors of cultural systems with particular interest in the Pleistocene/Holocene transition. This work involves analysis of pollen (for vegetational reconstruction) as well as soils, sediments, and landforms (for landscape reconstruction). I'm not necessarily interested in paleoenvironments per se but in what the paleoenvironmental context--large or small--means for archaeological interpretations. At the first site I ever worked on, the excavators felt an association of broken mammoth bones and a 33-pound boulder implied human agency. I felt it was unclear if the bones and boulder were actually in same strata. If not, they would not be associated and no anthropological implications could be drawn. They also assumed the boulder was brought from the river one mile away. I remember wondering "How do you know where the river was 14,000 years ago?" Ever since then I have been interested in CONTEXT.
One of my ongoing research themes is investigating the first peopling of the New World, who were the first Americans, where did they come from, when did they come, etc. This involves focusing on both large scale--environmental--and small scale--sedimentological--contexts and how they affect our understanding of the archaeological record.
Sam: Can you tell me about any interesting field experiences you've had?
Dr. Mandryk: Well they're all interesting in different ways. Some of my experiences include living in a tent in the Colorado foothills for three months while excavating a mammoth bone site; walking 10 miles a day eating beef jerky and plums surveying the California and Arizona deserts; investigating a Middle archaic site on Martha's Vineyard at Lucy Vincent Beach in khakis and hiking boots in 90-degree heat while the beachgoers wear nothing more than bathing suits; analyzing microstratigraphy from the Cactus Hill site (just 2 hours south of Washington, D.C.); mapping 11,000-year-old beaches of a Pleistocene lake at the California-Oregon border...Every experience is a little different.
This summer I will spend 6 weeks on a Russian freighter surveying the Kuril Islands between Hokkaido and Kamchatka for old landforms and hopefully early archaological sites that might shed light on routes of peopling of the New World.
Sam: Where have you found your most interesting artifacts?
Dr. Mandryk: Hmm… actually right here in the Peabody Museum (Harvard University). I had a student a few years ago looking for a senior research topic where she could analyze both human remains and artifacts and we looked through catalogues of the museum collections. There was a Harvard archaeologist (Putnam) who excavated several sites in Tennessee in the 1870s and the artifacts have sat unstudied or all these years. My absolute favorite artifact is a green pipe carved out of soapstone in the shape of a woman, kneeling, holding a stirrup pot-a typical Middle Mississippian pot from about 1200 C.E.
Sam: How many hours a day do you work at a dig?
Dr. Mandryk: It varies; on one, we worked from 6 am to 4:30 pm with only 30 minutes for lunch. In California, I would often go as long as I could bear--to 6 or 7 at night--to maximize the season. I did a dig in the basement of a building of Harvard Yard last summer (lots of cut up human bones from old medical school classes) and we were constrained by the hours of the construction workers and when the gates locked and had to quit at 3:30 in the afternoon, which was kind of frustrating.
Sam: What tools do you use?
Dr. Mandryk: The typical things are trowels, screens, and so on. I also use corers and augers for obtaining sediment cores, special mapping equipment, lasers, GPS [Global Positioning System] units, digital cameras, and lots of lab equipment for analyzing sediment and pollen samples.
Sam: What is your favorite thing about archaeology?
Dr. Mandryk: This might sound weird but there is really something great about being dirty and sweaty and at the same time be doing science. What other job is like that? Digging ditches or landscaping is physical but not mental. Archaeology is both. Another thing is the connection with the past. I think it's an incredible feeling to hold an artifact, say a Clovis point, and know you're holding something that a real person made more than 11,000 years ago--it's amazing.
Sam: Is there anything you don't like about archaeology?
Dr. Mandryk: Sometimes it's a little too political--with people fighting too much about their differences of opinion. It's also underfunded and misunderstood.
Sam: What would you say to a child who was thinking about archaeology for a career?
Dr. Mandryk: This also might sound odd but I would never ever encourage anyone to become an archaeologist. It doesn't really make good sense in terms of a profession if you want to be sure you'll find a decent job and have money. There are not many university jobs. There is lots of less secure work. So I figure it should be completely self-selecting and you should try to do it only if you're obsessed with archaeology.
I do believe it would be great if more people took both archaeology and anthropology courses. It's unfortunate people see anthropology and archaeology as things you'd take only if that's what you intend to do professionally. I like to point out that lots of people major in psychology without intending to be psychologists or English without planning on being English professors. Anthropology should be seen as a good undergraduate degree that prepares people for the world in general.
You should try to get some field experience--there are so many more opportunities now than when I was your age: volunteer work, paid field schools, etc.