Frequently asked questions #1

Training and working as an archaeologist can be an interesting experience, not just because of the work we do, but thanks to the preconceptions and opinions of the people around us. Like so many other professions, archaeology is an extremely broad field of work and study, encompassing all manner of skills, time periods and subject matters. It’s also one that is misrepresented enough in the media that people often have a skewed notion of what it is that we actually do.

So, this week on the blog, we thought we’d have a go at answering some of the more frequently asked questions that have been posed to those of us working here in New Zealand. It will be the first of a couple of posts, since, as it turns out, there are quite a few questions we face on a regular basis.

We’ll start with the big ones:

1)      You’re an archaeologist? Like Indiana Jones*¹?

Actually, no. Not really like him at all. There have been many, many discussions of this in popular culture over the years (including this memorable letter). It’s generally agreed that Indiana Jones is a terrible archaeologist and most archaeologists would make a terrible, and very probably dead, Indiana Jones. The main differences are in comparative methods and objectives: archaeology is ultimately about understanding people in the past, collectively and individually, through ALL the physical traces they leave behind, while Indiana Jones is about the finding and collection of precious objects with little regard for their surrounding context.

Actual archaeology: less whips, pistols and mystical artefacts and more just a whole lot of digging. Image: H. Williams.

Actual archaeology: less whips, pistols and mystical artefacts and more just a whole lot of digging and recording. Image: H. Williams.

2)      That’s so cool! What’s your favourite dinosaur?*²

Similar questions to this include, “Were there many dinosaurs in New Zealand?”, “Oh, cool, like Ross from friends?” and “Found any dinosaur bones lately?”

As many of you will know, palaeontology and archaeology, while they do share some methods and a predilection for physical remnants of the past, are not the same thing. Put very simply, archaeologists focus on the human past, while palaeontologists work with fossils, including dinosaurs, from the more distant past.

Although, it should be noted that the difference between our professions doesn’t mean that archaeologists dislike dinosaurs. My favourite is Archaeopteryx, for the record, followed by actually-not-a-dinosaur Quetzalcoatlus.  A quick survey of the rest of the office tells me that archaeologists are fans of Triceratops, Velociraptor, Saurolophus, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus rex, Deinonychus and also-not-a-dinosaur Megalodon.

T-Rex: not the purview of archaeologists, but still awesome. Image:

T-Rex: not the purview of archaeologists, but still awesome. Image: David Monniaux

3)      Archaeology? That’s like rocks and pyramids and stuff, right?

Er, sort of. There’s a bit more to it, really. As those of you who read this blog regularly will know, archaeology is far more varied and complex than just pyramids and rocks. Egyptology is just one small part of our profession and rocks (usually stone tools) are just one of the materials we deal with.

It’s one of my favourite things about archaeology, actually: that it covers all of human history, and thus anything and everything that people have done in the past, be it constructing massive monuments to gods and kings, making important advances in industrial technology, or figuring out how to make better toothbrushes. The infinite variety to be found in people, past and present, will never ever cease to amaze me.

Some of the artefacts found in Christchurch this year. Less pyramids and rocks and more remnants of everyday life. Image: J. Garland.

Some of the artefacts found in Christchurch this year. Less pyramids and rocks and more remnants of everyday life. Image: J. Garland.

4)      What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever found?

Variations on this include, “have you ever found treasure?”, “found any gold?” and “what’s the oldest thing you’ve ever found?”

I’d say that this is probably the question we hear the most. The problem with answering it is that in the course of their careers, most archaeologists will have found a LOT of things, many of which are cool and interesting. Picking just one can be a bit like asking someone to choose their favourite dinosaur (see what I did there?). It’s made even more difficult to answer by the fact that what is amazing to us is not always amazing to other people. The explanation of why an otherwise unremarkable object (like a brick, or a sherd of pottery) is so interesting is usually far longer and much, much, drier than the questioner wanted.

It may not help that, in my experience, this question is usually asked in bars or in the small-talk associated with first meeting someone. Very few people want to hear about the socio-cultural implications of changes in brickmaking in the 19th century in that situation. Or that most of the artefacts we deal with in Christchurch are less than 160 years old and we pretty much never find gold.

As a result, some of us may or may not have taken to answering this question with “a unicorn skull.” Another quick survey of the office suggests that other answers may include “a harmonium”, “a crystal skull”, “lots of stuff”,  “this [insert object] that someone else actually found but I am pretending that I found for the sake of this conversation” and the phrase “well, it depends…”

Moving on to more serious matters…

5)      There’s not that much archaeology in New Zealand though, is there?*

This is one of the more frequent questions asked here in New Zealand and it can be a little dispiriting to be reminded of how many people don’t realise what a rich, interesting and unique archaeological record we have in this country.

From the very first Polynesian settlers, arriving here c. 1300 AD (Jacomb et al. 2014), through to the most recent periods of immigration and settlement, New Zealand has a fascinating and globally significant archaeological record. It may be short, compared to other places in the world (such as our neighbour, Australia), but that lack of time depth is part of what makes it interesting. Archaeologists have used our relatively condensed archaeological record to look at the impact of human settlement on the environment, to better understand patterns of settlement, migration and  trade, motivations for warfare, the processes of social and cultural change, and how people adapt to new social and physical environments (among many, many other things).

Excavations at a 14th century archaeological site in the Catlins. Image: K. Webb.

Excavations at a 14th-16th century archaeological site in the Catlins. Image: K. Webb.

Archaeology in New Zealand is protected by the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014, which “defines an archaeological site as a place associated with pre-1900 human activity, where there may be evidence relating to the history of New Zealand” (Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga 2014). The modification or destruction of any such site, which includes standing structures, requires the permission of Heritage New Zealand, and usually involves one or more archaeologists recording and salvaging any archaeological features or material found during that process.

As those of you who follow our work here in Christchurch will have realised, this means that there is in fact a lot of archaeology in New Zealand. Even more than that, the wide scope of the work that is being carried out throughout the country has huge potential to add to our understanding of people in the past and their influence on the world around them.

6)      Who pays for all that?

Simplified, there are two main types of archaeological work undertaken in New Zealand: research archaeology, or those investigations carried out by the universities and/or independent researchers, and cultural resource management, carried out by consulting or contracted archaeologists in response to the modification or destruction of sites, as governed by the 2014 act. As a result, there are different methods of paying for that work.

Research archaeology is usually funded through the universities themselves or through research grants such as those provided by the Marsden Fund. Cultural resource management archaeology functions as a ‘polluter pays’ system, in which the authority holder covers the cost of recording and salvaging the archaeological information being lost through the modification or destruction of an archaeological site.

Cultural heritage management archaeology in Christchurch. Image: M. Carter.

Cultural heritage management archaeology in Christchurch. Image: M. Carter.

7)      Huh. Why? What’s the point?

To put it simply? Because our heritage is important. Because understanding where and who and what we’ve come from, as individuals, as a society, as a culture and as a country, is invaluable in understanding where we are now and where we may be in the future.  Because future generations deserve the opportunity to explore that heritage for themselves without wondering why we didn’t do more to save it for them. Because the actions and creations and lives of the people who’ve gone before us deserve to be remembered. Because there are things we learn from the archaeological record that would otherwise be lost to us. Because archaeology allows us to expand our horizons, to catch a glimpse of people and places that are so different to our own, yet linked to us through time and across cultures thanks to the things that they left behind.

Because, ultimately, people are important, and at its heart, archaeology is all about people.

 Jessie Garland

*¹ Less frequently, Indiana Jones may be switched out for Lara Croft.
Apparently, palaeontologists often get the same question in reverse and have responded with t-shirts.



Jacomb, C., Holdaway, R.N., Allentoft, M.E., Bunce, M., Oskam, C.L., Walter,
R., Brooks, E., 2014. High-precision dating and ancient DNA profiling of moa (Aves: Dinornithiformes) eggshell documents a complex feature at Wairau Bar and refines the chronology of New Zealand settlement by Polynesians. In Journal of Archaeological Science (2014), doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2014.05.023. [online] Available at