Learn more about what archaeologists do and what inspires them.
Erin Dunsmore is a Senior Archaeological Specialist with the Tennessee Valley Authority.
What made you want to be an archaeologist?I loved the idea of learning about how people lived a long time ago. I’ve always loved puzzles and being an archaeologist is like working a puzzle. You put the different pieces together (artifacts, their surrounding contexts, historic records, talking to descendent communities) to solve the puzzle of how things were in the past.
What is the coolest thing you have ever found? My favorite archaeological dig was a Neanderthal cave site in France. Being able to find stone tools that were last used over 30,000 years ago was a highlight of my career!
What is your favorite part of your job? Being able to protect sites from grave robbers!
Dr. Sarah Sherwood is an Associate Professor and University Archaeologist at The University of the South – Sewanee. Her specialty is geoarchaeology.
What made you want to be an archaeologist? My father was a geologist (he studied rocks and why landscapes are different) and he loved history. As a family we spent a lot of time wandering through the forests and old abandoned house sites, learning and wondering how people in the past lived, what they ate, what they might have talked about when they sat around the fire at night. I was able to volunteer on an archaeological dig near my home town when I was 12 years old. I loved every minute of it. At that point I was hooked.
What is the coolest thing you have ever found? My focus in archaeology is called “geoarchaeology”, using geology and soils to help answer questions about people in the past. We spend a lot of time paying attention to the layers in an archaeological site to figure out how they came to be there and what they tell us about the artifacts they contain. Archaeologists like to say “its not what you find, but what you find out“. So for me one of the most interesting things I found out was when I was working with the National Park Service to excavate a big mound that was falling apart due to the nearby river moving closer. These mounds, about 1000 year old, were built by ancestors of the American Indians as special places where they built their chief’s houses or special community or meeting places. It was built just like our engineers today would build it to make it stable, able to support buildings and last a very long time. We also learned that these mounds were often made with bright colors of soil (dirt) and that these colors may have meant certain things. To me it was exciting to learn about these people in the past just using the dirt.
What is your favorite part of your job? I love working with groups of different people who specialize in different things having to do with archaeology such as plants, animal bones, and tools made out of rocks like arrowheads. Everyone brings the things they know together. Even when we are all sweating and working hard we love what we do and are working together towards a shared goal of understanding our shared history. Together we make new discoveries and then get to share what we have learned with everyone.
Paige Silcox is a Site File Curator with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology. She specializes in Geographic Information Systems in archaeology.
What made you want to be an archaeologist? As a kid my favorite books were about people who lived a long time ago. I loved reading about their day-to-day lives like what they ate, what kind of houses they lived in, or even how they went to the bathroom. When I got to college I took a Prehistoric Archaeology class just because it sounded interesting and I realized that learning about the day to day lives of people in the past was something I could do for a living!
What is the coolest thing you have ever found? That’s a tough question to answer! Sometimes it’s not so much the finds themselves that are cool, but what they say about the people who made them. A cane torch mark on the ceiling of a cave, even though it just looks like a black smudge on a rock, can tell an amazing story about an adventurous person investigating in the darkness thousands of years ago. To me, that find is just as cool as the stash of large stone axes in a field or the tiny blue glass bead in a pre-Revolutionary War era cellar.
What is your favorite part of your job? You can probably guess from my other answers that I love telling the stories. I really enjoy organizing information and sorting and analyzing it in different ways to see what story the data is telling us. And I love sharing those stories with other people and getting them interested in the people and places we can learn about through archaeology.