Digging Up the Past

Anthropology doctoral student and Dean's Scholar Sam Lin describes life as an archaeologist in the field.
March 1, 2013

Sam Lin was seven when he told his father he wanted to dig up the mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. Lin, now an anthropology doctoral student, has transitioned from digging for lost treasure in his backyard to conducting major excavations worldwide. We catch up with him below to learn more about what life is like in the field, and the challenges an archaeologist can face in interactions with local communities.

Describe your research focus.

Currently I work with stone artifacts from the Middle Paleolithic period in southwestern France. These artifacts were made by Neanderthals and date to around 90-70 thousand years ago. The question with Neanderthals really comes down to whether they are like us or not: Do they have language, culture, art, and symbolism? Did they make and use stone artifacts the same way we did when we were hunter-gatherers? What did they eat and how did they acquire these resources? These questions are quite important when we start thinking about what makes humans different from other animals. What are these features and why do we have them?

Aside from the Middle Paleolithic, I am interested in stone artifacts in general because they are one of the most ubiquitous material remains left by past humans. I am interested in using stone artifacts and other material records to understand how humans interacted with the environment through time.

What was your first field experience?

In 2006 I got to work in the Australian outback in New South Wales. We spent a month walking around a river catchment recording stone artifacts that had been exposed on the surface due to erosion. The experience was absolutely amazing and is one of the main reasons I stuck with archaeology. Working with indigenous aboriginal members from the local community opened my eyes up to traditional ways of thinking. Everything on the landscape has a story and is interconnected through stories of creation and kinship. It really got me to think about the relationship and deep history between people and the land. On our day off we would roam around the desert chasing wild goats and looking for rock art and engravings. The endless presence of stone artifacts on the surface kept reminding me that people have been here for a long time, and I am simply one of many who walked across this land.

What challenges do you face in the field?

While there have been some political issues with collaborators, mostly relating to authority and publications, the interactions with local communities and researchers have been quite positive in most cases. That said, I think that the relationship between archaeology and the public is a very important issue. There is increasing awareness in the archaeology community towards issues of ethics in research practice and how archaeology impacts other groups of people. It is important to think about how we interact with and are accountable to the public—not just the general public but also decedent communities, land owners, park services, and other interest groups. Our research practice affects real world things like preservation and management policies, land claims, and rights of ownership.

In some places, archaeological research relates to politics of nationalism and identity issues, and archaeologists need to pay extra attention to the consequence of their practice. My work experience in Australia gave me a strong perspective on this—that archaeological research can and should be integrated with local or indigenous communities as much as possible. Instead of taking stone artifacts back to a lab or a museum after recording and analyzing them, we left them where we found them, because the local aboriginal community feels strongly about these artifacts—they belong to their ancestors and should be left there. We shouldn’t make the past more important than the present. Instead, understanding the past should be a goal shared by both archaeologists and the various interest groups. The way to do this is through continuous communication and transparency in practice.

Is it common for archaeologists and local communities to disagree on certain aspects of excavation?

Conflicting beliefs and agendas between researchers and communities can lead to challenging situations, but it doesn’t have to. I witnessed this while working in France with my advisor, [anthropology professor] Harold Dibble. The French collaborators we work with have a complete opposite perspective on the interpretation of Neanderthal burial at the site of Roc de Marsal. They see the remains of a Neanderthal child at the site as an example of intentional burial by Neanderthals. Other Anglophonic researchers see it as accidental burial. These two opposing views have quite significant implications regarding Neanderthal behavior and cognition. But despite this critical difference in their intellectual opinion, the research team still works extremely well together. This is something I am quite impressed with. Respect and communication is the key.

What can archaeology teach us about human behavior throughout history?

One of the most important aspects of archaeology is that it provides a record of human-environment interaction through a long time span across different regions. Archaeological remain are one of the most direct traces of human behavior through time. You see patterns of change that would be otherwise invisible at a short-term time scale of our daily lives. The deep-time view and the notion of change and continuity through time also make us rethink many things, including some hotly debated topics like climate change, environmental preservation and management, and cultural heritage. Understanding the past is not simply to write history and put panoramas in the museum. It’s for us to think critically about who we are, how we got here, and our place in the world from a deep time perspective. Without this, our conception of the world and our identity would have to depend on politics and media. This is not unique to archaeology but relates to all liberal arts.

Where do you hope your research will take you next?

I hope to expand this work through carrying out large scale comparative studies using stone artifact data from different parts of the world and different time periods to examine large scale processes of human-environmental interaction through time. This summer I will be travelling to Brazil and South Africa to begin working towards this goal. I also hope to begin working on issues relating to heritage management and public archaeology. I think this is one of the important ways archaeologists can contribute back to our society.