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Digging Deeper: Are Archaeologists Legitimate Treasure Hunters?

It rains a lot in the Carpathian Mountains. You can see the storm clouds roll over the top of the hills, threatening any fair-weather archaeologists in the valley where Sarmisegetuza is nestled, far below.

Unfortunately, on several occasions I was part of that group of fair-weather archaeologists. In my second week of digging, we ran for shelter under the tin roof where we ate our meals, and as we dried off the conversation turned to my colleagues’ reasons for being archaeologists.

As I have already discussed in my earlier article, Archaeology is in the ‘maybe’ pile for me, but I have now had some more time to reflect on my experience in deepest, darkest Transylvania and the conversations I had.

Corvin Castle

‘Discovery! Variety! Being outdoors! It’s romantic!’ were just some of the reasons thrown at me when I asked why they chose archaeology. The mixture of practical and intellectual was also pretty high up. Money was mentioned, and the group laughed at the irony; archaeology is a not a profession you choose if you want a swanky city life.

One of the academics supervising the excavation, Dr Ioana Oltean (pronounced Yo-ana), gave me a more in-depth answer by telling me about her interest in stories. ‘Not in the names and dates, but in what actually happened and how people lived in a different era. I wanted to see what was next.’ This I can certainly relate to. I was the nerdy child who was enthralled by history, and took it one step further by writing stories set in the periods I was most interested in (you can tell I was never one of the ‘cool’ kids!).

Ioana then started explaining how she was also fascinated by ‘mysteries, puzzles and detective stories’; she loved reconstructing a picture though finding the right evidence, and the final thrill of solving the problem. It turns out, to be Indiana Jones, you actually need to have a good dose of Sherlock Holmes in you. Who knew?

For Ioana, another major driver was the travel. Growing up in communist Romania with its closed borders, it meant she had only been able to read about going to other countries. In the post-communist era as the borders opened, archaeology gave her access to the world and exposed her to people from different cultures and communities.

Finally, I asked the lead professor of the excavation, ‘why archaeology?’ Prof Diaconescu is a world renowned archaeologist of the Eastern Roman Empire and is the type of person whose very presence commands instant respect. This is a particularly impressive trait, as he looks like the Father Christmas of archaeology - think St Nicholas in Indiana Jones’ clothes. In a slow, rumbling voice he explained that every morning, even after a life dedicated to the study, he still thinks ‘maybe today I will discover something fantastic. Maybe today I will find something beautiful and unique, something that will completely revolutionise our understanding of this topic.’ That hope has kept him going in the years in between those rare finds. This was clearly a person who cannot wait to get up every morning and go and do his job, despite having done it every day for fifty years. That is an exceptional and powerful thing.

Prof Diaconescu at the Roman Spa in Geoagiu Bai

There were enthusiastic nods around the table, all agreeing that this dream of finding something truly spectacular and game-changing drove them every day. This is the feeling of longing for finding buried treasure and that is something that archaeologists (or at least these ones) get to have bubbling inside them every single day. How many people in this world are paid to feel that!?

So does this make archaeologists legitimate treasure hunters? In a word, yes. Treasure hunters with morality and a deep sense of responsibility, but that are still driven by the glamour of the idea of buried treasure (even if they know they can’t keep it).

In the interest of not glamorising archaeology too much, there are some downsides worth mentioning, though many are true for academia more widely. Getting PhD funding can be a challenge and needing to do at least four of five years of further education on top of a BA means that many of life’s milestones are delayed. Getting a mortgage is difficult and many choose to put a hold on having children until they are more financially secure. Academia can also be pretty cut-throat as work is often personally driven and you are in direct competition with your peers, though this varies depending on subject area.

There is also the option of becoming a commercial archaeologist, conducting fast-paced excavations ahead of building projects by private companies. However, I have yet to meet someone who works in this area so I have not focused on it here.

I also touched on how archaeology can make a difference and contribute to society in my previous article, but I think there is more to be said on this. Never before had I considered how widely this profession can impact. Archaeologists often provide evidence in court for helping local communities prove they are native in North and South America, which can grant them a protected status and give them land rights. Archaeology can bring tourism into an area, along with the associated jobs and money as local people help out on digs and provide services to the sudden influx of tourists. This is beneficial to everyone involved as it strengthens community ties as well as increasing the chances of the site being properly protected and preserved for future generations. Then there are the fun things like advising in TV and film productions (or even participating, if you’re on Time Team).

So, tempted by archaeology as a career? If you consider yourself a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones, then this is certainly the career for you.


Find out more about Corvin Castle and the Roman spa at Geoagiu Bai, both featured in the above photos.

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