Digging to uncover our past

  • October 03, 2012

Popularised by Hollywood characters like Indian Jones, most people have the wrong impression of what an archaeologist’s day consists of and how much hard work goes into piecing humankind’s history together.

Morris Sutton’s eyes light up as he speaks about archaeology. Previously in the world of business, it was only in his mid-30s that Sutton decided to pursue his true passion. Having lived in the country for 11 years and being married to a South African, Sutton is part-and-parcel of uncovering The Cradle of Humankind’s mysteries.

On a tour of the Swartkrans Caves at the world heritage site, Maropeng, Sutton spoke to The New Age about what it takes to be an archaeologist. As about 40% of the world’s hominids and artefacts are found in the Cradle of Humankind, there is no better place to be an archaeologist.

What exactly do archaeologists do?

We pursue questions about our cultural past. By studying material left behind such as stone tools, pottery shards and rock art, as well as looking for everything left behind by past civilisations, we can gain a better understanding of what life was like and study their behaviour. We excavate and then study the material we find.

This differs from Paleoanthropologists who focus on ancient hominids in order to better understand human evolution.

How long have you been an archaeologist and how did you get into the field?

I have been an archaeologist since 2001 and am currently working in the field at Swartkrans Caves at The Cradle of Humankind. I did a degree in business and worked in that industry for a number of years but realised it was not what I wanted to do. In my mid-30s I decided I wanted to pursue archaeology on a more professional level. I then did a degree in anthropology. I wasn’t sure what period I wanted to specialise in, but I attended  a field school at Sibidu Caves in KwaZulu-Natal and decided to come to Wits University for my graduate degrees. I began working at  Swartkrans in 2005.

How do you become an archaeologist?

You would first need to do an undergraduate degree in geology or anthropology, then a post graduate honours degree focusing on a facet of archaeology such as rock art, for example. You can then do a masters degree in archaeology. If you want to lecture, you should then do your PhD.

Is archaeology as glamorous as some might think?

No, not at all but it has the perk that no two days are the same. If you’re a university lecturer you’ll do your field work during your holiday breaks. Only about 15% of your time is actually spent in the field, the rest of it you spend in the lab or writing up your findings. Besides having an abundance of artefacts and bones, South Africa has the added benefit that the excavations are close to urban areas so there is no need to camp out in remote locations.

What characteristics must an aspiring archaeologist have?

Archaeologists need to be willing to put in the hard work in the field and spend hours studying material found. There are patches of excitement but a lot of time is spent focusing and researching artefacts. Patience and dedication is key to the profession.

Archaeology is a profession for a person not afraid to get their hands dirty. Unlike other professions where the more you move up the ladder the more you delegate and the less you actually do, archaeologists live for field work.

Sutton said, “To abandon a successful career in business and go into archaeology was a bit of a sacrifice, but one that I have never regretted. Friends often asked me why I did it. It’s not like I am saving the world or curing disease. But for me it was curiosity that got the better of me to want to know how people behaved and how they lived. It’s obviously difficult as we have such a fragmented and incomplete picture of the really distant past.”

The profession has its challenges besides the obvious of trying to piece together events and scenarios from millions of years ago. Funding  is an issue and archaeologists are often dependent on grant money and spend a significant amount of time writing requests for funding.

The ideal type of person to get into archaeology is someone that is patient, naturally curious, focussed, and able to work on their own and as part of a team. The invaluable contribution archaeologists make to helping us understand the past, also possibly gives us an idea of where mankind is heading in the future.

“There is not a shortage of archaeologists internationally, but there is a shortage in South Africa. This could be because most first generation degreed professionals are looking for financial security and archaeology therefore doesn’t appeal to them. This is not a career in which you’ll make a lot of money, but it’s incredibly rewarding work,” said Sutton.

Using a myriad of methods in determining the approximate age of artefacts and bone fragments, Sutton said material found at Swartkrans is as old as 2.2 million years. The Swartkrans cave has an abundance of material that has been found including bone and stone tools, burnt bone and about three different species of hominid. It is thought that Swartkrans may also be the oldest and first use of controlled fire.

Sutton, an American originally from Tennesse, is an avid jogger, cyclist and reader that would choose a secluded beach holiday as his ideal getaway.


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