1985 — A Southwestern College Classroom
The professor stood with his back to the blackboard, speaking to two dozen assembled students who were struggling to stay awake.
“In archaeology, it is important to remember that the artifacts that we dig up are essentially worthless. Usually, these objects were trash when the people who made them threw them away. Take a clay pot, for example. We usually find broken pots or just the small shards of pots for the simple reason that the pot was used until it broke.”
Pausing for emphasis, the professor pushed himself away from the blackboard and took a step towards the class. “Archaeologists are quite literally, trash collectors,” he said.
The gathered students were obviously both skeptical and a little surprised. The image of an archaeologist as a trash collector was not at all consistent with the Indiana Jones movies.
“Quite often,” the professor continued, “the more productive places to dig are trash middens. When we did research at the sites of old frontier military forts, we discovered the most productive sites were the old latrines, which the soldiers also used to dispose of trash.”
“What did you find there?” asked a student.
“The most common discovery, other than the obvious, was a small whiskey bottle. There were few places where a common soldier could secretly drink in solitude. What the soldiers threw away, tells us a lot about life in the fort.”
“Remember,” the professor continued. “Once an item is recovered, where it was found and what was next to it often provide more information than the item itself.”
“Artifacts out of context have little value. The object by itself is useless, but the information it can tell us about the culture that produced it is priceless. An artifact becomes useless once we have extracted the data from it and we have learned everything we can from it.”
“What do we do with the artifact once we have studied it?” asked one of the student.
“After a detailed report about the dig has been written up, both the artifact and the report are carefully stored away. Years from now, other researchers can use the data for their own study.”
2018 — A Southwestern College
The van pulled up to one of the storage facilities clustered at the end of the campus near the football field. While the campus was huge, most of the important buildings—classrooms, libraries, and the vast collection of administration buildings—were clustered blocks away, in the center of the university grounds.
The two men got out of the van, one opening the rear doors of the van while the other unlocked and raised the large garage door. Inside, there were tightly packed rows of shelving, each bulging with cardboard boxes and paper bags. One of the two men walked into the large warehouse, looking incredulously at the overflowing shelves.
“What the hell is this?” he asked.
“This is all the shit the archaeologists have been digging up out in the desert. They have three more storage bays just like this one and they fill one up every four or five years.”
“Looks like the rats have got to a lot of these. It’s all spilling out onto the floor and some of the shelving in the back has collapsed. You can’t even read the labels on the boxes anymore.”
“It doesn’t matter,” the other man said while brushing away a spider web. “No one from the department has been in any of the warehouses since I have worked here. I doubt if they know where these warehouses are.”
“Do they even know what’s in here? Is there an inventory?”
The other man pointed towards a large pile of moldy notebooks on one of the shelves. “I doubt it: that’s where all the notes and reports are kept, but after the roof leaked, we shoveled a lot of that crap out.”
The two men unloaded the van, putting new boxes and bags wherever they found room. Finished, they closed the garage door and locked it. It would be a year before anyone else bothered to reopen the door to add more boxes and bags to the collection.
3018 — A Southwestern Desert
“Professor!” called one of the students kneeling in a shallow ditch. “Can you come look at this?”
An older man walked over to the trench, one of several at the site, where his students were carefully excavating in the desert sand.
“What have you found?” he asked.
“I was using my brush to clear away the loose sand like you showed us and I found this,” she said, pointing into the bottom of the ditch where she had been working. “There’s a whole pile of pot shards, but they are all different colors and designs.”
“That’s typical of these sacred sites. The people who lived here placed a variety of offerings at sites like this, apparently as part of religious ceremonies. This is one of several shrines where the people left offerings. Over time, as the sand shifted, the remains mixed together.”
The professor stood and pointed to the large, crumbling concrete ruins at the top of the hill nearby. “We usually find similar shrines located around such temples. The people would drop off their offerings here, before continuing on to the temple, which could hold as many as forty-thousand people, where they would sit in a large oval around a holy rectangle we believe was occupied by their priests.”
“What was so important about the temple?”
“They probably used them for some form of ritual human sacrifices, but we’re not sure,” answered the professor. “We know they must have been important because wherever we find such temples, they are always the largest and most expensive building in the community. Usually, the ruins of such temples are the best-preserved buildings, so they was obviously the centers of community life. We are still studying and researching the remains to try to figure out exactly what they were used for.”
“It’s a real shame they didn’t leave anything written down, explaining what they were used for,” answered the student.
“Yes, it is. But, by studying these artifacts, we hope to understand their culture. That’s why you should be sure to carefully label the paper bag for those pot shards—we wouldn’t want to lose the data.”