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Meet an Archaeologist!

Learn more about what archaeologists do and what inspires them.

Dr. Anneke Jazen is an Assistant Professor with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee.

What made you want to be an archaeologist?  I’ve always loved animals and paleontology. Once I learned that there was a whole field of archaeological research that focuses on animal bones (called zooarchaeology), I knew that’s what I wanted to do!

What is the coolest thing you have ever found?  One time I found a whole hippo tusk at a site in northern Kenya! Unfortunately it was poorly preserved and completely falling apart, but excavating it was really fun.

What is your favorite part of your job? My favorite part of my job is doing research. I’m happiest when I can sit down with the animal bones that have been recovered from an archaeological site and identify them. It’s always exciting to see what animals we find in archaeological sites!

Dr. Aleydis Van de Moortel is a Professor and serves as Head of the Department of Classics at the University of Tennessee.

What made you want to be an archaeologist? Growing up in Belgium, I was always interested in history and I found it exciting to discover old things such as pottery fragments when digging in the garden. When I was 18 years old, I learned scuba diving, and I thought it would be the coolest thing to find ancient shipwrecks. So I jumped when I was offered the opportunity to come to the United States and study underwater archaeology. I now direct, together with a Greek archaeologist, a dig of a Bronze Age settlement on the small island of Mitrou in Greece (ca. 2500 – 900 BCE). Every summer I take students from the University of Tennessee over there to help us in our work. We are studying the rise and decline of the Mycenaean Greeks, who, according to mythology, fought the Trojan War.

What is the coolest thing you have ever found? Definitely the remains of a wooden boat, 4000 years old, which had been sitting abandoned in an alleyway at Mitrou. This is the oldest seagoing boat ever discovered in the Mediterranean. We have excavated only half of it, and want to go back one day and dig the other half. A close second is a large grave that belonged to the rulers of Mitrou. The tomb had been plundered, but we water-sieved all the earth and found lots of small objects, such as jewelry made of gold and precious stones, tusks of wild boar that had been cut to be sewn onto helmets, and even small bits of human bones. Such objects are described by Homer in his epic of the Trojan War. Equally exciting was my discovery, through later study, that the tomb at Mitrou had become the focus of rituals in later times. Perhaps the dead rulers of Mitrou were venerated as heroes, as were many Greek heroes who fought at Troy.

What is your favorite part of being an archaeologist? It is the thrill of discovering new things that no one has found before. And I mean not only finding new archaeological sites or objects, but also studying them and gaining new insights into people from the past. My work has given me great respect for how clever and organized they were. For instance, the Mycenaean Greeks were able to dig an entire artificial harbor and they thought about leading a small river through it so that it would not silt up. They also drained a large upland plain by digging long canals and building large levees, which must have required thousands of workers. Another favorite part of my job is how we work together with specialists in many fields, such as geology, chemistry, and biology, in order to gain a better understanding of the past. And, of course, I love spending my summers working outdoors with a bunch of fun, adventurous people.

Daniel Brock is a State Programs Archaeologist with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology.

Daniel BrockWhat made you want to be an archaeologist? I wanted to be an archaeologist since I was a young child.  The excitement of exploring has always appealed to me and I was influenced by popular media including movies like Indiana Jones.  I’ve always been interested in our past and archaeology allows people to connect with history in an exciting way.  I wanted to understand what people were doing in the past and had questions like, “What was it like to live without electricity or have fire as your main source of heat?”  Archaeology can help answer questions like these by looking at the artifacts that people left behind.

What is the coolest thing you have ever found? As an archaeologist, I think everything I find is cool.  All artifacts can give us information about what people were doing in the past from a small piece of broken rock from tool production to a plain old nail.  While a nail can provide some useful information, I’d say the most interesting thing I’ve found was a small metal-lined pit cellar.  These pits are often found dug into the dirt beneath slave quarters and were used to store food or personal items.  While they are fairly common features, no other recorded example has had a metal lining making it a unique find.

What is your favorite part of your job? The most enjoyable part of my job is being able to play a role in helping to research and interpret Tennessee’s history.  My job gives me a first-hand look at the past and provides information that will help us interpret it for the history books.  This includes having hands-on access to artifacts which allows us to touch a part of history including finding things that haven’t been seen for centuries.

David G. Anderson is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

What made you want to be an archaeologist? It was an accident. I wanted to be an astronomer, but the math and physics required was not of great interest. I had taken an anthropology course, and decided it was an interesting subject to pursue. I started working in professor’s labs and volunteering on digs, and have been doing archaeology ever since!

What is the coolest thing you have ever found? It is what we find out about past lives that is important, not the neat things we find. But probably the most memorable artifact discovery was from a plantation on an island off of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands that had burned fully furnished about 150 years ago. In one room we found over 170 smashed platters, dishes, and other pieces of china. It took a year, but we eventually glued together most of them. There were also over 100 pounds of melted glass that likely came from drinking vessels the fire had turned to sludge.

Smashed china reassembled

Smashed China , reassembled.

What is your favorite part of your job? Doing something I love every day of my life, and getting paid for it!

David Anderson

David Anderson digging at Brimstone Hill, St, Kitts, 2004.

Erin Dunsmore is a Senior Archaeological Specialist with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Erin DunsmoreWhat 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!Erin Dunsmore-Dig

Dr. Jan F. Simek is President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Science with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee.

What made you want to be an archaeologist? I always wanted to be an archaeologist.  When I was very young (3-4 years old) I used to love to look at books about ancient Egypt.   I ended up working in Europe and in Tennessee, but archaeology and understanding ancient people was always what I wanted to do.

What is the coolest thing you have ever found? The coolest thing I ever found was some of the earliest evidence for human fireplaces found anywhere in the world.  The fireplaces were in a cave in France, and they date to more that 65,000 years old.  They were made by Neanderthals.

What is your favorite part of your job? Working in caves, and exploring the dark underground, is one of may favorite parts of what I do.  I also enjoy working with my research teams in France and Tennessee.

JP Dessel is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

What made you want to be an archaeologist? I love history and I love working outside – archaeology combines both!

What is the coolest thing you have ever found? A completely intact olive press room from the 8th century BCE (almost 3,000 years ago). Excavating that room was an amazing experience – we found over 200 complete pots, olive pressing vats and weights, Egyptian jewelry and figurines, and even the charred beams of the olive press.

What is your favorite part of your job? Watching the sun rise on site and excavating…

JP Dessel

Dr. Kandi Hollenbach in the Curator for Paleoethnobotany at the McClung Museum. She is also an Assistant Professor with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee.

What made you want to be an archaeologist? I was interested in a lot of subjects at school – especially history and science – and I saw archaeology as a neat way to be able to combine those interests.  I was also very interested in Native Americans and learning more about the ways they lived.

What is the coolest thing you have ever found?  A bone needle that’s about 10,000 years old – it was so well preserved that you could easily thread it, even so many years later!

What is your favorite part of your job? My favorite part is being able to tell people something about how intelligent and resourceful people in the past were.  We tend to think that we are smarter because we have so much technology, but we forget that it took a lot of earlier inventions to get to where we are.  People in the past were just as smart as we are, and they made decisions and discoveries just like we do today!

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.

Paige Silcox

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.

Sarah Sherwood

Dr. Stephen Collins-Elliot is an Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Tennessee.

What made you want to be an archaeologist? I always loved history, and when I went on an excavation, I found that archaeologists were rediscovering and bringing new ideas about the past, which could change our understanding of it.

What is the coolest thing you have ever found?  For me, it was the first artifact I ever found: a piece of Laconian pottery dating to the 6th century BC.

What is your favorite part of your job? It is the way in which archaeology brings together the present and the past as well as brings together people and communities. It shows that the past is something we all relate to, and how important it is for each of us.


Dr. Theodora B. Kopestonsky is a Distinguished Lecturer Department of Classics and the Director of Beginning/Intermediate Latin Program & Latin Placement at the University of Tennessee.

What made you want to be an archaeologist? As a child, my father had photographs from his travel in Italy in our home. I remember seeing the image of the Colosseum and marveling at how old and complex that it was. I wanted to learn more about the people who built it. That was a spark for me, but I have always loved history, art, and literature. As a Mediterranean archaeologist, I am able to study all of these fields in the ancient Greek and Roman world.

What is the coolest thing you have ever found? Just being able to handle material that people made and handled centuries ago is a privilege. The oldest artifact I ever found was a piece of Greek Neolithic (c. 5000 BCE) handmade burnished pottery. I think my favorite though was a bone handle of a Roman bronze knife that was carved like an upright panther complete with fangs. Even covered in dirt the fierceness of the feline was clear and it was a surprise find in what was a Late Roman garden in Corinth. I imagine that someone broke it and dropped in the garden.

What is your favorite part of your job? Primarily, I work at Corinth where excavations have been ongoing since 1896! I love looking through all the archives and stored material in the warehouses and in museum. You never know what you will find in the shelves of catalogued pottery, drawers of figurines, containers of small finds, or boxes of context pottery. When I am researching, I will go to a drawer to look at a particular object and then I will be distracted by all the other interesting material. It is like I have found a time capsule/treasure chest (though it is all documented),but it is new to me!

Dr. Tristan Barnes is a Lecturer with the Department of Classics at the University of Tennessee.

What made you want to be an archaeologist? I’ve wanted to be an archaeologist since I was a kid, probably from watching Indiana Jones movies.  That’s not actually what we do in real life, but I always wanted to travel and see ancient places.  Whenever I’m on site I still get excited, and there’s still that part of me that remembers what it was like to dream about finding ancient cities when I was a kid.  That part of me still loves picking something up out of the ground and thinking about how I’m the first person to see it in 3,000-4,000 years.

What is the coolest thing you have ever found? I always think it’s cool to hold something that no one else has even seen for 120 generations, but I have two favorites.  The first was when I was digging under the floor of an ancient shop of some kind, and I found two human foot bones.  Just two, not the whole foot.  At first I thought they might have been from a clumsy butcher, but it turns out the shop builders used soil from a nearby cemetery to make the floors in the rooms.  Just think about that for a minute!  My other favorite is uncovering a metal workshop in a Bronze Age town.  We found all kinds of bronze and copper scraps that ancient people had brought from all over the town to be melted down and remade into tools like chisels, metal pots and rivets, and decorative objects like hairpins.  It was a small operation with a small foundry, but people from all over the town, and even from the nearby palace, came there to do business.  It’s a pretty cool window into the lives of people in that town.

What is your favorite part of your job? My favorite part of the job is finding little connections to ancient people.  When we go to an ancient site today, it’s easy to focus on the buildings and the objects that we find, but all of us do what we do because we’re interested in people.  As interesting as the metal foundry is, and as interesting as the process of making bronze tools is, I prefer to think about the people behind the objects.  The person from the palace who carried a lump of bronze to the metalworker with instructions for what kind of object it should be made into.  The person from the town who saved the pieces of a broken hair pin and brought it in to the metalworker to be fixed or replaced.  The metalworkers themselves, who probably weren’t all that important in the town, but who met people from all walks of life in their day, from fishermen and craftsmen, to palace attendants and merchants.  Finding traces of those individual people across more than 100 generations is my favorite part of the job.