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Dana Harper

Nevada, USA

How did you become interested in archaeology?

A fourth grade teacher (who I still write to today) is one person in my life who got me very interested in things from the past.  We had to write reports on Mesopotamia, Greece, and Egypt.  So we learned and saw many pictures about these people's past and I was fascinated how civilized their civilizations were so long ago.  Also my parents helped this interest.  Almost every summer, we would drive from Seattle, WA to somewhere in the southwestern United States (Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, or Utah).  We would see the native people at their homes selling their wares or we would go to different archaeological ruins.  It was amazing to see the similarities between their houses now and the ones that were in the ruins.  I also love being outside so this was a great solution (even though archaeologist are not always outside).  I was 16 years old when I was ready to go onto college and pursue my dream of being an archaeologist.

What does an archaeologist do?

Archaeology has changed a lot in the last 10-15 years, even since I received my Masters Degree.  There used to be a lot more money out there for excavations (digging of sites) but it has gotten tighter.  So we spend more of our time doing something called Culture Resource Management or CRM, which means we are working for power companies, water districts and road expansion crews.  We check the land for pieces of the past, called artifacts, so they do not get destroyed when the land gets changed into new power lines, bigger water pipes, or expanding roads.  Once we have walked the land, archaeologists get an idea if there are any artifacts to worry about.  We go back to the office and write up what we found (or did not find) in a report and submit it to the company we did the work for.  If we find artifacts that need to be preserved or studied the contracting agent will let us know and then it goes to a local depository (a museum) to be cleaned and analyzed and maybe show up in a display one day.  However, most those artifacts become part of a collection for future studies.

What were your favorite and least favorite subjects in school?

My favorite subjects in school were history, geography, and English (literature).  My least favorite was math.  I plugged away to work on it until it was done because I knew it would fulfill a requirement some day.  Knowing math has helped me but it is hard to explain how it is used every day on the job.

What subjects in school best prepared you to pursue archaeology?

Miss Marsh, Dana and Dana's daughterIn elementary school, it was my great 4th grade teacher (Miss Marsh).  We had to write reports on dinosaurs, Early Man, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Egypt.  We wrote, drew, made things with clay, looked at pictures and some actual artifacts on museum field trips to make the picture of these past times come alive.  In addition, the excitement and curiosity I received from Miss Marsh was so addictive it has kept me going the last 28 years.  Students need to have time to explore through books too to help these pictures become real.

In 5th grade we learned about Medieval Europe and we had to make 3-dimensional villages.  Unfortunately, there was no more discussion of archaeology for the rest of my school years until I went to college.  So I took as many classes in history as I could because this also taught me about the past.  I had a high school teacher (that previously taught Anthropology and knew I was interested) who hooked me into a summer camp to gain experience as a high school student.  This was good because it provided me with experience and also some very good contacts at the college level.

Did you ever have a fascination for dinosaurs, fossils or Native American culture that fed your curiosity?

As I mentioned, my 4th grade teacher really made the past come alive.  The past is always with us.  Teaching and learning hands-on is so important.  Miss Marsh in Seattle, Washington, did that for me.  In addition, as I said earlier, almost every summer my family traveled to the American Southwest so I was seeing prehistoric ruins.  I also saw modern Native Americans living in similar houses to what I saw as ruins (for example the Hopi).  This continued my curiosity of the past.

Do you pursue archaeology as a profession or a hobby?

Archaeology can be used in many ways, if you're clever.  The most apparent way is working as a professor at a university and doing high profile digs.  My husband does archaeology that is called Cultural Resource Management or CRM.  His job is primarily checking areas before a housing, power line, or mine is put in to make sure there are no remains of people from the past.

Remember, the "past" can be as recent as 50 years ago.  Once he provides a clearance to the area, he is required to write a paper about what was found, or not found, for future work in the area.  Once in six years he might get a chance to dig or excavate a site.  Excavation is so expensive now it is really only performed if an area is going to be destroyed and all the historical material will be lost.  In contrast, I have done CRM also but I would rather teach people about it.  So, I was a National Park Ranger for many years and gave walking tours, evening campfire programs, school programs, and college classes about the past.  I also worked at a Children's Museum where I was their Science Educator and I taught school children about archaeology and also how to do archaeology.

What interesting places have you traveled to because of your interest in archaeology?

Most of my work in archaeology has been in the United States.  As I mentioned earlier, I have walked many, many miles recording sites and documenting them on maps so in the future other archaeologist will know where those sites are.  I have excavated AD 1100 pit houses in New Mexico, an AD 1090 pit house and room blocks in Arizona, and an AD 800-1000 cave in Nevada.  Then in 1985 I was fortunate to be in Ireland studying the culture.  I had a chance to excavate a site in Northern Ireland.  This site was dug at the request of the farmer who wanted to drain his wet land so he could get his cattle to graze on it.  So, we excavated the site and found it was from medieval times (there were homes, storage bins, piles and piles of rocks to remove them out of the fields where they grew their crops, some pottery and iron pieces).  You can find archaeology in your backyard or hiking around.  The best thing to do is to leave what you find right where you found it.  Figure out a way to remember where the spot is, and then if you have a museum or historical society, let them know so they can come out and see it.  Because if we remove the piece of the past it is like moving a piece of the puzzle and the whole picture is not there any more.

Do other fields contribute to your understanding of what happened at a place you are studying?

Science is very interrelated.  For example, when we find an arrowhead (projectile point) is made of a certain rock type.  Sometimes it is very clear that the rock is from close by.  Other times the rocks have been brought in from 100 to 200 or more miles away, because it is rock that is very special.  So we work with geologists to help us figure out where the nearest source of that rock would be to this area.  A real good example is obsidian, which is volcanic glass.  Where we live, in Nevada, there is no real close source of obsidian.  That means the ancient people would have had to walk or traded with other people.  The reason people wanted obsidian, is because it is very sharp and a good working tool.

Botany is important because we sometimes find pieces of sandals, rugs, baskets, and skirts.  The botanist can help us determine what kinds of plants were used to make these objects.  We find many bones when we are digging a site.  The bones belong to animals, and most of the time is what the people ate for food, so a biologist can help us determine what animals were eaten by the people of the past.  All scientists help each other better understand the past.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of a career in archaeology?

Archaeology can be a lot of traveling from place to place throughout the country.  Wherever there is work you go.  One might work for an archaeological firm that continues to bring in work in the local area.  The pay is good.  Many times they are long days and weeks but that keeps you going when there is not a lot of work so you can still pay your rent.  There are many jobs in archaeology but the most important aspect is being a good writer, communicator, and being flexible.  In addition, you must like the working outdoors a lot and then be able to be inside a lot to write up the reports and analyze the work.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in archaeology as a field of study or a future career?

I would encourage children to follow in my footsteps if that is what they want to.  I would say for anyone, when they get old enough, try it out and see if you like it or not first.

Do you have any inspirational quote that you would like to share with the readers of this interview?

"Walk with me, talk with me, and tell me your stories."

The reason I say that is because that is how you learn about the past.  Listening to family and other people talk about the past makes you realize the world is an amazing place.

- 24 August 2003


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Last Updated:
22 December 2003

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