By Published: March 29, 2024

CU Boulder archaeologist Sarah Kurnick addresses some common myths about archaeology at the 50th anniversary of the discovery of China’s terracotta warriors

March 1974 was particularly dry in China’s Shaanxi Province, so at the end of the month a farmer named Yang Zhifa and several brothers who lived near Xi’an began digging a well.

For two days they hacked into the hard, red earth, and on the third day, March 29, Yang struck something terracotta in the soil. It would eventually be discovered as one of the greatest archaeological finds of the century, and arguably of the modern era: the ancient tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor, guarded by thousands of life-size terracotta warriors and horses.

In the 50 years since its discovery, the terracotta army has captivated visitors to what is now an archaeological complex in Xi’an and, perhaps less thrillingly, contributed to one of the enduring myths about archaeology: that the main goal of the field is to make huge discoveries like the terracotta warriors.

Sarah Kurnick

Like many archaeologists, Sarah Kurnick, a CU Boulder assistant professor of anthropology, often encounters common myths about the field and science of archaeology. (Photo: Conrad Erb)

“I think it’s common for people to assume we’re only interested in the very distant past and only interested in things that occur in exotic locations—deserts and jungles or in places like China or Egypt,” says Sarah Kurnick, a University of Colorado Boulder assistant professor of anthropology and an anthropological archaeologist who specializes in ancient Mesoamerica. “What you tend not to hear as much about are historical archaeologists—people who are studying plantation sites in the American South, for example—or even projects where people are doing archaeology of the contemporary world.”

Thanks to swashbuckling characters like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft and the broad attention given to just a small handful of archaeological discoveries—the terracotta warriors, King Tut’s tomb and Machu Picchu, for example—archaeology has become a field in which myth and reality often dramatically diverge.

At the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the terracotta army, Kurnick addresses some of the most common myths about the field and science of archaeology.

Myth: If you’re not hacking through jungle vines with a machete, you’re not doing archaeology

People don’t really think of archaeologists teaching classes or doing research in libraries, doing data analysis. There’s the idea that it’s all field work and that field work is entirely excavation. I don’t think it’s commonly known how much technology has changed and advanced the field. There’s ground-penetrating radar—which doesn’t work in all environments, but it can find anomalies—and a whole bunch of aerial survey methods. LIDAR is a big one. The idea is to rent a plane and fly over a survey area back and forth in straight lines while you’re sending a laser down. That creates what are almost photographs of the topography, and it’s a way of looking at large swaths of land and getting rid of levels of trees, essentially.

But field work, if you’re a field archaeologist, is just part of it. Archaeologists work in labs, they write code to analyze data, they do text-based research. Unfortunately, that’s not very glamorous.

Myth: Archaeology is for men

I do think there’s a common misconception that archaeology is this masculine endeavor—that archaeologists are men and it’s all hardship and ruggedness and strength and alcohol. There’s a famous archaeologist, Alfred Kidder, who said in the early 1940s that there are two types of archaeologists in popular imagination: the hairy chested and the hairy chinned. You’ve got the hairy chested, rugged explorer with his shirt unbuttoned, with the pith helmet and bullwhip—the Indiana Jones type—and then you think of his father, an older gentleman with a beard and a jacket with elbow patches, decoding ancient texts. Those are the two types—or myths—of archaeologists people think of, and they’re both men.

Archaeologists hike through jungle in Mexico

Sarah Kurnick, left, and colleagues hike to the Punta Laguna archaeology site in Mexico's Yucutan Peninsula. (Photo: Conrad Erb)

Although much has changed since the 1940s, women in archaeology still deal sometimes with this macho, masculine feel to archaeology—this sense that archaeologists are the cowboys of science and it’s not a field for women because we can’t carry buckets of dirt or cut vines down with machetes, which is obviously not true.

Myth: Archaeologists deal in the supernatural

There’s a lot of pseudo-archaeology stuff out there—this notion that the past was significantly influenced by aliens or people from the lost city of Atlantis. If I meet a random person on a plane sitting next to me and they ask what I do and I say I’m an archeologist, a lot of the time they’ll start talking about something related to pseudo-archaeology. Almost everybody gets information about archaeology from television and movies, and if you look at the types of movies and TV shows, you’ve got things like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, and on TV there’s “Ancient Aliens” and “America Unearthed.” You’ve got “Ancient Apocalypse” listed as a documentary on Netflix.

There’s this disconnect between what archaeologists are saying and what people want to know. In some instances, I do think people might be geared toward the wrong questions, but on other hand, I think archaeologists do a pretty poor job of communication and are not really meeting people where they’re at.

For archaeology, like most science, it’s still the 'publish or perish' model, and generally the peer-reviewed publications are considered much more important than public outreach. There’s still sometimes a stigma associated with public outreach. But it’s important not to turn people off. We need to do a better job of engaging people in the science in a way that’s interesting and relevant.


Myth: Archaeologists are treasure hunters

Unfortunately, this is something that’s still being perpetuated by the History Channel, National Geographic and other organizations. There was a documentary several years ago that was all about LIDAR—which makes sense because LIDAR is awesome and the images it produces are amazing—and they interviewed real archaeologists who work in Central America. But whoever wrote the narrative for the documentary kept talking about LIDAR-facilitated treasure hunting and about how you have a map and X marks the spot and LIDAR shows you where that X is.

Also, I think there’s not a great understanding of what happens to artifacts once they’ve been excavated—how complicated and difficult and ethically fraught the next steps are. The notion of who owns the past is a huge question. I also think people assume that archaeologists pocket some things they find, or that they’re insisting everything belongs in a museum. Archaeology has historically been a colonial endeavor, and we’re doing things very differently now than in the past. I’m on the Society for American Archaeology Decolonization Task Force, and part of our work is recognizing that yes, our past is problematic, but we’re working to do things differently now.

Sarah Kurnick and Punta Laguna residents

Sarah Kurnick (seated left, blue shirt) discusses the Punta Laguna archaeological project with residents who live near the site. (Photo: Conrad Erb)

Myth: All archaeologists want to work in Egypt

Ancient China, Egypt, ancient Maya—these are the things that people assume archaeologists should do and want to do. But it would be so disappointing if that was all we wanted to do. There’s so much exciting historical archaeology and contemporary archaeology happening. There’s a famous archaeologist named Bill Rathje who said we should be looking at trash to learn about ways of life and suggested excavating landfills in the present. Because of his work, we learned all sorts of insights about consumer habits, about what people recycle and don’t recycle, what does and doesn’t degrade in a landfill.

There are really cool historical projects in Colorado—one that Bonnie Clark and her colleagues are leading is learning more about a Japanese internment camp at Amache, and I don’t think people commonly think of doing the archaeology of World War II. Another project by Dean Saitta and his colleagues is looking at some of the early labor movements and the violent interactions between labor and capitalists in the region, and an aspect of that is looking at the Ludlow Massacre and the history of miners.

One thing that’s really exciting about archaeology is it’s in many ways democratizing. If we look at history, oftentimes the people we know the most about are the most elite—the 1%. When we have the extraordinary finds—the terracotta warriors, King Tut’s tomb—we’re learning about the top echelons of those societies. But for a lot of archaeologists, we’re interested in the 99%. Finding these aspects of daily life in households can be just as exciting, if not more exciting, than the huge discoveries. We’re finding out about how things were for most people, rather than just the upper echelons. There’s an emerging field of household archaeology that’s excavating houses and figuring out what daily life was like, how did people interact. We’d be getting a really warped picture of the world if the only things we knew about our past came from royal tombs.

Myth: Archaeologists look for dinosaur bones

No, that’s paleontologists.

Top image: Terracotta army in Xi'an, China (Photo: iStock); Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones (Photo: Paramount/Everett Collection)

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