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2011-02-21

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Leah Burgin: I love curating, not digging

By Leah Burgin, Daily Fine Arts Columnist
Published February 20, 2011

Whenever someone asks what my concentration is — whether it’s at extended family events, during small talk or awkward ice breakers at the beginning of every semester — I always sigh and mentally prepare myself for the following stream of conversation:

“... I’m studying anthropological archaeology.”

“What? What is that? How is that different from archaeology?”

“Well, Michigan has two archaeology departments — classical archaeology and anthropological archaeology — and classical archeology focuses on Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Middle East, while anthropological archaeology focuses on everything else. I don’t really want to study just ‘classical’ stuff, so I decided archaeology under the anthropology umbrella was a better fit.”

“Huh. So, how in the world did you become interested in that? That’s so bizarre/interesting/fascinating/insert-your-own-similar-adjective-here.”

And then I launch into the following story: When I was in fifth grade — knock-kneed, bespectacled in thick, large nerd glasses, metal-mouthed and keen on wearing the weirdest clothing — my dad took me to several National Geographic lectures. They ran late on school nights and I felt super cool going “out on the town,” even though I brought the average age of the audience down a considerable amount.

I don’t remember every person who spoke, but three individuals stick out squarely in my memory: Dr. Paul Sereno, a paleontologist, Dr. Bob Ballard, an oceanographer and Dr. Zahi Hawass, an Egyptologist. These three men were to very quickly become my heros.

Among other accomplishments, Sereno discovered a mammoth ancient crocodile he named “Super Croc,” Ballard found the Titanic (yeah, the Titanic) and Hawass has unearthed more things under the sands of Egypt than some archaeologists could find in ten lifetimes. It didn’t help that I discovered the “Indiana Jones” series at about the same time, but these men influenced me profoundly. I thought they were the coolest people in the world. I wanted to grow up to be like them and marry Sereno, who is very, very attractive. Google him.

Usually my answer happily ends there, cutting off before I admit the rather embarrassing extent of my obsession with these men. I used to fantasize about working in the dirt alongside them. I did several school projects on Hawass, became obsessed with underwater archaeology, earned my SCUBA certification and applied to the University of Chicago, where Sereno is a professor. I was preparing myself to be best friends with them, and sit around talking about things like radiocarbon dating and how awesome fedoras are.

Though the sparkle and pizazz of Sereno, Ballard and Hawass had my younger self transfixed, as I grew older I began to see through the shining exterior and realize that my heroes, like everyone else in the world, have flaws. Sereno and I can never be together. Ballard, though having a considerable amount of panache and fame, is regarded as an unprofessional hack by some archaeologists. And Hawass — well, he has a lot of issues ranging from his controversial domineering personality to the degree of control he has over Egyptian antiquities to his anti-Semitism.

And these faults still crop up. When the Egyptian Museum was looted during the recent uprising, I read an article that featured a huge photo of Hawass’s angry face. Eighteen artifacts were stolen from the Egyptian Museum, and many displays were broken and trampled by a few protesters who gained access through the building’s glass roof. Not only was I sad because of the looting — which breaks my heart — but because I realized Hawas made some very pro-Mubarak comments surrounding the protests. It was jarring to fathom that one of my childhood heroes is wrapped up in the same pettiness — politics, drama, arrogance — that engulfs the lives of us mortals. It’s during these times that my disenchantment with past heroes comes back with a vengeance and reminds me of the good ol’ days, how I’ve grown out of them and how I wish, every once in awhile, that I could go back to those times I pretended to discover lost civilizations and fantasize about Milo Thatch from “Atlantis.”

As I began my first year of college, I — somewhat surprisingly for my parents — realized that field archaeology was not the place for me. While this decision was somewhat rooted with the demotion of my heroes to “human” status, it was more a realization that digging endlessly in the dirt while painstakingly collecting data that may or may not ever reach the larger public is not something I can devote my life to. Archaeology, like my heroes, can’t be romanticized: I can’t just don a fedora and whip, call myself an archaeologist and find amazing, earth-shattering artifacts every day. It’s much more complicated than that.

My love for the past is in the stories and the multiple ways those stories could be told and shared with the world. I believe it’s more worthwhile to help share the art and artifacts found by archaeologists than to dig them up myself. So I decided to continue pursuing my lifelong passion through an anthropological archaeology major while shifting my future career goals into the infinitely more exciting and fascinating spectrum of museums. And I haven’t looked back.