Really. No joke. Once in a great while, a modern-day university archaeology student (age 18-24) will cross my path. We will chat nicely for a couple of minutes, and inevitably a question comes up. It goes something like this:
“Gosh!!! Wow!!! You worked on some of the greatest archaeological projects in Tennessee history!!! What was it like to be a part of something like that back in the old days?”
This question is usually asked with the same wide-eyed wonderment and enthusiasm as: “Wow!!! What was it really like to work in the studio with Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe?” Yes, one feels like a celebrity for a brief moment, but it is also quite awkward for me. The first thing that pops into my mind is, “Well, heck!!! I don’t know!!!” However, I do not respond to the students in this way.
Retrospectively, what apparently seems like ancient history to the modern archaeology student seems like just yesterday to me—nothing at all deserving of such wonderment and curiosity. Then one day, I realized something important. The displacement in time between the beginning of the Tellico Archaeological Project, Nomandy Archaeological Project, and Columbia Archaeological Project and the present day is 40-50 years. Counting back in time from the beginning of my own archaeology student days in 1974, an analogous displacement of time for me would be the year 1924, which was only about 1 or 2 years after the death of William Edward Myer and only 12 years after the death of Gates P. Thruston. I then recalled my own archaeology student days and thinking about how neat it must have been to work on those old archaeological excavations. What would it have been like to actually talk to people like W.E Myer, P.E. Cox, William S. Webb, or T.M.N. Lewis? What pearls of previously unknown archaeological history and wisdom might they have deposited in my hands as a result of such a talk? Looking at it from that perspective, I can then understand something of the wide-eyed wonderment that some these archaeology kids have today. Of course, I was just a student back in 1974—not one of the archaeological greats of that time or any subsequent time.
So, what was it really like to work on some of the greatest archaeological projects in Tennessee history? Well, I usually just say, “It was interesting, fun, and exciting.” I know there is not enough time in a short chat to say anything profound. Furthermore, I realize that it might disillusion the poor student for life if I gave him or her the true flavor of what field camps and field archaeology were like in the 1960s and 1970s. However, for all of you modern-day college archaeology students who are full of wide-eyed wonderment and feel you have the mettle to endure it, I am going to risk it tonight and answer your questions in full.
I was cruising around the worldwide web tonight and quite by accident ran into some extremely rare homemade movie footage (now transferred to video format) that is stated to be archaeological field excavations at site 40MU408 near Columbia, Tennessee, in 1984. I do not know any of the people shown in this video, nor do I know with any certainty which institutional entity was performing these excavations. It may have been the University of Tennessee (Knoxville) because they had projects in that area at about this point in time. However, that is not the point. The key point is this. In my opinion, this is an approximately accurate and faithful representation of what field archaeology camps and field excavations were really like in the 1960s and 1970s here in Tennessee, and it should answer all of your questions about what it was really like to work on some of the greatest archaeology projects in Tennessee history. This may seem like an attempt at comedy on my part, but it is actually quite serious. If you feel brave enough to venture back in time and get your questions answered, then play the You Tube video below, which dates to about the year when the first Indiana Jones movie premiered.
Warning: The film clip shows some minor nudity and free-spirited behavior that may be offensive to some, so please retreat now if you are offended by such things because what you will see is pretty much the reality of how life was in an archaeological field camp decades ago. Here is the film clip: