Sunday, January 3, 2010

Q&A: Archaeologist Julie Schablitsky

I recently began watching a great program on PBS called Time Team America, where a team of archaeologists goes tripping round America digging up historical sites. Julie Schablitsky is one of the three female members of the Time Team along with Meg Watters and Chelsea Rose. I think Julie and Meg are the most interesting members of the Time Team to listen to and watch on the show. I contacted Julie and to my surprise she agreed to a Q&A!

Q: What got you interested in archaeology to begin with?

Julie: Looking at the fossils left in the gravel of my driveway in Minnesota when I was 7. This is where I became interested in what life was like in the past.

Q: What sort of archaeology do you specialize in and why?

Julie: I am proficient in the study of prehistoric (American Indian) and historic-period (Euroamerican) sites, but I prefer the 18th and 19th century. I enjoy studying this period since we have maps, sometimes photographs, and diaries to help guide us in our search for what life was like over 200 years ago. I am also interested in the material culture from these periods....the objects are familiar....porcelain dolls, broken plates, and buttons.

Q: How did the Time Team America show come about and how did you get involved with it?

Julie: The creator and producer of the show, Tim Taylor, walked into a professional archaeology conference in York, England looking for archaeologists to participate in Time Team America. There is a Time Team UK that just finished its 17th season, so Tim felt it was time for a United States version. He found me by asking other archaeologists who might be good on camera.

Q: Is it odd to see yourself on television?

Julie: Not really. I was out on the shoot so I know what scenes would be in the show and what I said. It is not that enjoyable to watch myself since I am hyper critical about how I sound, what I say, and how I look. I had a baby just 2 months before I began filming so I felt a little subconscious about being in front of the camera.
For this type of series, I have learned to be as relaxed and unscripted as possible. In traditional documentaries, it is easy to sit there and talk very concisely about your subject matter and sound smart. In the Time Team shows, I need to be more relaxed and sound less like a professor...this is hard, since I spring right into my talking head role.

Q: How much footage did they have to condense for those shows? I am assuming you were all out there much longer than the show made it look like.

Julie: There were three camera crews out there for three days, filming for at least 11 hours. So that is 33 hours of footage condensed down into 55 minutes! The impressive part is that almost all of the scenes shot made it in to these shows!

Q: What do you like about educating and teaching, and lecturing? Would you rather be out in the field?

Julie: Educating, teaching, and lecturing allows you to talk about your favorite subject and sometimes inspire others to follow in your foot steps. Every archaeologist would rather be in the field digging. In fact, many of us in management roles complain how we never get in the field. I spend about 25% of my time in the field, while the remainder is spent managing the cultural resources program at the Maryland Sate Highway Administration. I also really enjoy that aspect of the job since it allows me to influence and direct a successful program that is integral to the building and maintenance of our highway system, which is the largest land developer in the state and largest funder of archaeological research in the state.

Q: What are the pros and cons of being out in the field? Most people have no clue what that experiance is like. Walk us through typical challenges you face in the field.

Julie: This all depends on where you work. The biggest complaint will be the bugs and the weather. In Oregon and Scotland it is hard digging in the rain all of the time due to wet paperwork and screening mud..not to mention just being plain miserable. In Maryland, we have the humidity, mosquitos, and ticks. The ticks don't really bother me, it is the lyme's disease that I am VERY worried about. About 20% of the archaeologists that I know have had lyme's disease...some of them twice.
The great thing about being in the field is that you are outside, you have a picnic everyday for lunch, and sometimes the views are outstanding. You don't need to work out at the gym. Views from mountain tops are the most beautiful. The work we do in the field is much like playing in a sand box, but you find things. It is a very comfortable environment where swearing and off color comments are okay. Although we are no good at it, sometimes we pass the day singing songs......not in a Mary Poppins way. Just enough lines to make the song stick in your dig partners mind for the rest of the day.

Q: Where would you like to go if you had unlimited backing to start up digs? What sort of projects appeal to you?

Julie: Our Scotland project has unlimited backing. We found a funder who supports our excavations at John Paul Jones' birthplace in southern Scotland. We finished off digging around John Paul Jones' cottage and now we are off to excavate the estate house....which is a mansion that still stands today. If I had unlimited backing to choose another site, it would have to be a brothel in New Orleans. I have always wanted to dig a brothel.

Q: When I was a child I was fascinated with archaeology- Egypt and central America held such fascination with the pyramids and such. There wasn't much in the way of television programs then, but in recent years, we've had shows like "Digging for the truth" that makes it look like a blast to go adventuring and exploring. How do you think these shows and channels such as PBS, History channel and Discovery channel are helping bring attention and funding to your field?

Julie: The problem with these shows is that the public expects archaeology to be all about Egyptian pyramids and golden idols with ruby eyes. Sometimes archaeology is not as sexy, especially in the US, but it does not mean it is not important. I think these shows actually negatively effect the way people view our own history, insinuating that it is not as important or worthy of preservation or financial support. Hopefully Time Team America will help change this perception.

Q: Would you like to see more government monies put into expanding research? How do you feel about increasing classes at early ages to get kids more interested in this sort of thing?

Julie: More money into research is a great thing, but I appreciate we are in a recession where health care and jobs are much more important at this time. I do think education should be a priority and introducing children to archaeology earlier would be great!

Q: how does Oregon compare both as a state and in other ways with other states in it's museums and archaeological fare?

Julie: Every state is different, and each has a unique history. Oregon has some beautiful collections from dry sites from the eastern half of the state. I think their prehistoric history is amazing and the preservation of fiber sandals, for example, is outstanding!

Q: Alot of girls would probably like to know what do you pack when you go out in the field? How do you stay looking great when you're out there in the elements? Do you have any beauty tips or secrets?

Julie: The number one beauty secret is sunscreen and a hat. When I was younger I loved to lay in the sun and get a great tan.....I know better now and it is never too late to start lathering on the 40 SPF. I do prefer the spray sunscreen for my body. Before I head out in the field I use a face cream with SPF 15 already in it. The outfit includes think cloth baggy pants with lots of pockets (for cell phone, sharpie markers, artifact bags, etc.) and a thin cotton T-shirt. Sometimes I leave the hair down since it keeps the bugs away from my neck. Other times, it is best to put the hair in braids or pull it back.....especially when camping.

Q: Are you a bag lady? I mean, do you have lots of handbags and if so, do you have any favourites and why?

Julie: I do have a special black glam bag. It is a love-hate relationship. I love that I can throw all of my junk in it, but I can never find any of it again. If you looked into my purse all you would see would be crumpled sticky notes, receipts, business cards, and coupons. I have tried to semi-organize by clipping them altogether.

Q: What about shoes? What do you pack to go in the field, and what do you like wearing regularly? Are you into heels?

Julie: I wear flip flops to the field and change into my boots once I get to the site. I use to wear a lot of heels, but have transitioned into lower shoes ...anything that looks unique, yet not to crazy. I like boots, alot. Sometimes I wear boots with depends on how long my pants are. When I feel in a feisty mood I put my REAL cowboy boots on. My most recent shoe purchase was yesterday....I bought a pair of red low top Converse.

Q: Do you take music with you out in the field? What music helps inspire you?

Julie: I do not take music in the field with me since I like the sound of nature and quiet. I do listen to music when traveling on planes and on my hour long commute to work or to a site. I like all music, except for Jazz (the Spyro Gyro type--not Billy Holliday, love her)

Q: Are there any particular bands or artists you're into these days?

Julie: I like alternative rock best. Anything with some power behind is great. I like Lady GaGa, Gwen Stefani, and Pink. I also like Cold Play and other similar groups.

Q: Do you think there will be guitars and electric instruments left from this time period for archaeologists of the future?

Julie: If you put them in the ground now, I am sure they will eventually find them. We do find violin tuning pegs, brass instrument parts, mouth harps, and tons of harmonica parts.

Q: What's your take on that? It appears to me we do not create anything modern that will stand the test of time and that perhaps 1000 years from now, there may not be anything left to represent humanity at this juncture. What do you think would be left to dig up?

Julie: The cities. Remember Planet of the Apes?

Q: Ground penetrating radar is mystifying to me. On the Time Team programs, it didn't look like there was anything to be made of on the radar results. How do you realyl know what's there, how do you decide where to dig? What's the process and how long does it take?

Julie: GPR works much like Superman's x-ray vision. Radar waves are sent through the soil and then bounce back. The signal that bounces back from regular clay soil will be different than the signal from a rock foundation, for example. Meg does a much better job than me explaining this and you can find explanations on our website.

Q: Most people don't know the extent of DNA markers and DNA in archaeology. What is the latest exciting developments using DNA in helping to trace back the history of humanity and matching it up with other archaeological data to help in creating a complete history of mankind, in a way that regular folks can grasp?

Julie: I think the most exciting thing is that archaeologists are using DNA extraction methods to lift genetic material from objects like syringes and pipe stems. We have all seen forensic shows where DNA is lifted from cigarette butts and drinking glasses. Now even archaeologists can pull DNA that is well over 100 years old from personal objects. Of course, the preservation environment has to be exposure to sunlight and a dry environment.

Q: Do you watch PBS? Or History or Discovery channel? What sort of programs do you like to watch? What are you into and what makes you tick?

Julie: For television series I watch American. I usually find myself flipping to all of the Dateline shows and anything on the crime and punishment channels. If I had a second choice at a career it would have been a forensic scientist.

Q: I have what I call my own "unifying theory" where I take pieces of science, archaeology, religious texts, mythology, hand me down type tales, etc- and piece it all together to create a history of mankind. I truly think it can all work together and if you look at things the correct way it does work. many newer technologies such as DNA advancements seem to be bearing this out, and books such as "The Jason voyage" are a neat way to look at mythology or religios tales as based on something factual but exaggerated and twisted into something unrealistic. However, there seems to be this rift where both religious folks and scientists refuse to acknowledge that you can reconcile many things with each other. What do you think of all this?

Julie: I also think there is truth to be found in all religions and all scientific disciplines. In my 20s I was trying to reconcile my scientific background with my religion....specifically the controversial subject of evolution. Then, I learned that the odds for one species to evolve to another takes a mutation, which is pretty rare. I really liked the idea of scientific creationism. I also became comfortable with the fact that most of the BIG questions in life we are never going to be able to comprehend the truth. I think it is important that you have hard core scientific beliefs and the extreme right wing conservative religious scholars. We need those two camps to move the conversation forward.

Q: What do you think the future of archaeology holds? Do you think there will ever be anything more groundbreaking than simply trowelling aways and finding cool stuff?

Julie: Archaeology is constantly evolving as a discipline, it just may not always be in technological ways. Each generation of archaeologists has a new set of research questions and a different focus. Twenty years ago everyone was really interested in arrowhead typologies or historic artifact dating. We have moved past that and are now looking at different issues in our field....the African American diaspora is really big in historical archaeology right now.

Watch Julie and her fellow team members on Time Team America on PBS. Digging up the past near you.