By Sean Traynor, Editor-in-Chief
Dr. Allen G. Pastron is head of the contract archaeology firm Archeo-Tec, which has excavated numerous notable archaeological sites. He has a unique perspective on archaeology because, unlike digging in barren desert areas that we immediately think of for an archaeologist, Dr. Pastron’s firm operates in a highly populated urban center – San Francisco. He is known for Cultural Resource Management. Cultural resources include both physical assets such as archaeology, architecture, paintings and sculptures and also intangible culture such as folklore and interpretative arts, such as storytelling and drama.
AK: When did you decide that you wanted to be an archeologist and how did you do it?
AP: I have been very interested in archaeology (and related fields like paleontology) since I was in the 3rd or 4th grade. Like a lot of kids, by the time I was eight or nine years old, I was wild about dinosaurs. I remember reading a book by a man named Roy Chapman Andrews that described his incredible expeditions to China’s Gobi Desert in the 1920s and the discovery of the first fossilized dinosaur eggs. After that, I liked to picture myself having similar adventures where I would make amazing discoveries in far-off places.
By the time I was eleven or twelve, my interest in dinosaurs had given way to a fascination with the way people had lived and the things they’d done in the past, and I was always on the lookout for the artifacts they’d left behind. Whenever I was out in the country, I usually had my nose to the ground looking for arrowheads or other remnants of the past. By the time I graduated from high school, I knew that a career in archaeology was for me, and I never really considered doing anything else. So when I entered college, I majored in Anthropology (of which archaeology is a part), and then went on to earn a doctorate in Anthropology at the University of California.
AK: You have done archaeological digs in the Sahara Desert and also in heavily populated urban areas. How are these digs different, and how are they similar?
AP: There are many basic differences between digging in the city and “wide-open spaces” like the Sahara Desert. In the desert, you can dig almost anywhere and you can pretty much choose the sites you wish to investigate. When I was in the Sahara Desert, my professor and I would sometimes walk for miles until we saw something on the surface of the ground (like pottery shards or stone tools) that indicated that an important site might lie buried beneath. You cannot do that in an urban area; most of the time in the city you can only dig in places where a new construction project is taking place. That is the only time that large pieces of land are clear of buildings. If our project is located at the corner of First and Main streets, that is the place we need to dig, and we can only hope that important remnants of the past might lie buried beneath our feet.
AK: What has been one of your most exciting discoveries?
AP: Probably my most exciting discovery was the hulk of the General Harrison, a wooden sailing ship that had been built in 1840. In 1850, at the height of the California Gold Rush, the General Harrison arrived in the harbor of San Francisco. Almost as soon as she dropped anchor, the crew abandoned the ship because they had “gold fever” and wanted to search for treasure in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. A local businessman bought the General Harrison, tied her alongside the Clay Street Wharf at Battery Street, and converted her into a floating warehouse. The ship was soon filled with merchandise that had been brought by ships from all over the world.
A year later, the General Harrison was burned to the waterline in the Great San Francisco Fire of May 3-4, 1851. The hulk was quickly covered with landfill, and new buildings were erected atop the burned hulk of the General Harrison.
In 2001, a new hotel was about to be built at the corner of Clay and Battery streets, in the heart of the city’s Financial District. This was when my crew and I rediscovered the well-preserved hulk of the General Harrison, buried nearly 20 feet below the level of the modern streets. Buried next to the hulk we found some of the merchandise she had contained in 1851: bottles of wine, clothing, stores of wheat, tools, and thousands of glass beads intended for trading with the Native Americans who lived in the “gold country.”
Excavating the hulk of the General Harrison was an opportunity for archaeologists to make an important part of the California Gold Rush live again.
AK: When you do digs, how much research do you have to do about the era you have discovered?
AP: Long before we do any digging, we conduct extensive historical research at the library about the site we are planning to excavate and the era when the site was occupied. The more you know about the people, places and important events you wish to study, the better you will be able to understand and interpret the physical remains that are uncovered.
AK: What skills are required to become a successful archaeologist?
AP: To be successful as a professional archaeologist, a wide array of diverse skills is required. First, and perhaps most important, you must have an active imagination and the ability to see possibilities that may not be readily apparent. This is because an archaeologist is required to take scattered bits and pieces of sometimes seemingly unrelated data and try to recreate the ways in which groups of people lived long ago. Skill at languages is important because you never know where you will be working and because many of the books and articles you need to consult for your work are written in a variety of languages. It is important to be able to read maps, and to create maps when necessary. An archaeologist has to be able to illustrate artifacts and to make accurate drawings of a wide variety of physical remains. An archaeologist needs to be able to write clearly and concisely. An archaeologist always needed to know how to use the library, but nowadays, an archaeologist needs to be able to use a computer as well and sometimes to be conversant with mathematics and statistics. These are just a few among the wide range of skills that a successful archaeologist needs to master.
AK: What are the steps to a typical project for you now? Can you describe what is included in an Archaeological Research Design?
AP: The first step in an archaeological project generally requires detailed historical research in the library. This enables us to produce an Archaeological Research Design, which summarizes the known history of the site in question and sets forth specific questions to be addressed by the archaeological field research. This stage is followed by field investigations – the actual digging of the site – where the archaeologist attempts to answer the research questions that have been formulated. When the field investigations have been completed, the data that have been recovered are analyzed and interpreted in the laboratory. Sometimes detailed scientific studies – like radiocarbon dating or the analysis of recovered faunal remains (animal bones), or the identification of carbonized plant remains – are conducted during this phase of the work. Then, the data and conclusions of the project are all brought together in the form of a written report, or publication. Finally, sometimes a museum exhibit is created using the artifacts that have been collected and analyzed.
AK: When you discover artifacts, who owns them and what is done with these artifacts usually?
AP: This is a complex question, and depending on who you ask, there are many answers to this question. Most archaeologists believe that artifacts should never be sold for profit. Usually, the artifacts are the property of the people or the organization that owns the land where the dig is taking place. Sometimes this is the federal or state government and sometimes it is a private owner. Anyone taking possession of the artifacts must be willing to treat them responsibly and with great care. In cases where the owner is unable to conserve them, I often store them until a suitable facility can be found. As an archaeologist, I believe that the artifacts that are recovered should end up in a museum, library, or other location where they can be housed permanently, studied by future generations of archaeologists and even put on display for members of the general public to see.
AK: How has the new digital age helped your work? How are you bringing your discoveries to the public?
AP: The digital age has brought great changes to almost every part of society, including archaeology. Computers and digitalized library collections allow archaeologists to effortlessly tap into a vast array of data that previously could only be accessed with great difficulty and time-consuming effort. Digital video technology has enabled video recording of sites to be done more easily. Complex graphic reconstructions, statistical analyses and three-dimensional site comparisons can now be accomplished in-house by almost anyone. Complex hypotheses can quickly be tested, discarded and re-evaluated with the use of computer simulations. Remote sensing technology can sometimes help find buried artifacts without having to dig for them. In short, modern technology has opened up whole new vistas for archaeological research and will continue to do so.
AK: What advice do you have for kids that want to be an archaeologist?
AP: I would advise kids to read a lot, visit museums and displays at the university, maybe even try to speak with a local college professor and get a feel for what life as an archaeologist is like. Try to visit archaeological sites and digs in process. There are thousands of fascinating archaeological sites that are open to the public throughout America. For example, take a trip to Mesa Verde or the many other sites in the American Southwest, or, perhaps, the Cahokia Mounds in the Midwest. Ask your parents to take you to Rome, Greece, Egypt or Mexico, where you can see the fabulous remnants of the ancient world. Remember, the world of archaeology is all around you, often closer than you might think.
AK: Have you had a mentor that has helped you achieve your success?
AP: I’ve had many mentors who helped me, but probably two of my professors at the University of California, J.D. Clark and Glynn Isaac, were the most important. These men were among the most important and brilliant archaeologists in the world. When I was a student, both spent many hours with me, teaching me, advising me and inspiring me. The example they set and the training they provided, set me on the path for my future career.