< [up a level]
"These artifacts bear a message:" An Interview with Dr. Yun Kuen Lee
Sam: When did you become an archaeologist?
Dr. Lee: In 1976 at the age of 22.
Sam: What got you interested in archaeology?
Dr. Lee: I have always been interested in history. We can learn a lot from history. When I first got in touch with archaeology, I felt in love. I was fascinated that in archaeology we not only could learn from the past, we could touch and feel the materials made and used by people of thousands of years ago. It seems that these artifacts bear a message that the ancient people are trying to communicate with us. We as archaeologists have to break the code of the message.
Sam: What training or education has helped you most as an archaeologist?
Dr. Lee: My college graduate school training in history and anthropology.
Sam: What field of archaeology do you work in?
Dr. Lee: My regional interest is China, especially the rise of Chinese civilization and the change in social organization through time.
Sam: Can you tell me about any interesting field experiences you've had?
Dr. Lee: Let me tell you about a scary experience. I worked with Richard Leakey in Kenya in the summer of 1986. We lived in tents. You can imagine the kind of facilities we had in the field. Every morning, most of the crew members picked up shovels and walked to the bushes in different directions to look for ideal bathroom sites. One morning, when I was walking to the bushes for the usual morning ritual, I heard trampling noises like an animal walking in front of me. I did not see anything because of the thickets, and I dared not to find out. All kinds of terrible things came to my mind. I turned my back and walked steadily back to the camp trying not to scare whatever was behind me. Seconds later, I heard the roaring of a lion. It sounded like a very hungry lion!
Sam: Where have you found your most interesting artifacts?
Dr. Lee: 99% of the time, archaeologists have found the garbage left over by ancient people. How they disposed of garbage varies from culture to culture. When I was working in Detroit, we were excavating a historical site co-occupied by the French and the British settlers. We found that the garbage in the northern section of the site was neatly organized and buried in pits. In the southern section of the site, on the contrary, the garbage was found everywhere. It was a mess. We wondered what it meant. We looked very carefully at the old city land records and found out that the British settlers occupied the northern sector of the site, while the French settlers lived in the southern half. When we further searchd the ethnographic literature, we found that the British culture of the 18th century was very concerned about hygiene and treated their garbage with care. The French, on the contrary, simply threw the garbage out the window for dogs and pigs.
Sam: How many hours a day do you work at a dig?
Dr. Lee: Archaeological field work is tough. We usually work eight to ten hours during the daytime plus few hours in the evening on the cleaning, organizing, and cataloguing of the artifacts, and writing and checking the field notes.
Sam: What tools do you use?
Dr. Lee: Trowels and screens.
Sam: What is your favorite thing about archaeology?
Dr. Lee: Archaeology helps us to understand the peoples and cultures of the past. It allows me to appreciate where we are. I also like outdoor activities rather than sitting in the office, and the chance to work in different countries and cultures.
Sam: Is there anything you don't like about archaeology?
Dr. Lee: I can't think of anything.
Sam: What would you say to a child who was thinking about archaeology for a career?
Dr. Lee: Archaeology is very challenging and rewarding. I would not trade archeology for any other career.