Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A few years ago my husband gave me this button from Cafe Press, a perfect inside joke from one archy to another.  Time after time I have to gently correct the misconception that archaeologists dig dinosaurs--that's paleontologists.  Yes, we use the same methods.  Yes, we dress the same.  Yes, we like the same beverages.  But there the similarities stop.  Archaeologists are only interested in the human past: things made or used by people.  Paleontologists study dinosaurs and animals from the past.

Or so I thought.  Turns out we both sciences have a lot more in common when addressing myths and misconceptions about our respective scientific fields.  At a recent event at MOSH in Jacksonville (see previous post 1 and 2) I had a chance to sit down with an honest to goodness paleontologist, UNF professor Barry Albright, and find out for myself the challenges of public paleontology.  I originally wanted to write this post up as an interview but one year later I don't want to misquote Barry (any mistakes are all mine), so instead I offer up:

Top 5 Ways Archaeologists and Paleontologists Are Alike 

1.  Few people seem to understand what we actually study.

Ask any 4th grade class what we study and you'll get dinosaurs, or artifacts, or things of the past.  The exact definition of what we do is study people of the past, period.  While archaeologists have to overcome the misconception that we dig dinosaurs, paleontologists have to overcome the myth that they all dig up dinosaurs.  Little did I appreciate until talking to Barry that reptiles are just a small part of the large field of paleontology.  Some study vertebrates, like fish and mammals.  Some study invertebrates like worms or molluscs. And not just mammals, but plants and pollen too.  Paleontologists try to pull together all these different data sets to understand the interaction and adaptation of the environment over time.

2.  Both fields are Fantastic, meaning conceived with unrestricted imagination.

Simple truth, people often misidentify objects and when they care so passionately it is difficult to tell them otherwise.  For example, a few years ago at an FPAN outreach event similar to this one someone brought in a skull from a dolphin thinking it was the head of a pterodactyl.  Apparently she could not be told otherwise, even though they showed her pictures to compare the two skulls.  Barry shared similar stories and summed up the issue from a paleontologist's perspective: bones that aren't bones.  At an event like our artifact day Barry met people who brought in rocks, thinking they were bones or dinosaur eggs.  Always dinosaur eggs!  And of course they're just rocks.   Or today someone brought in what they thought was a dinosaur skull and teeth but are rocks.  Sometimes they bring in meteorites thinking they are dinosaur bones.  They're not bones, but they're still really cool! 

3.  Archaeology and paleontology are done all over the world.  Even Florida.

I think another challenge for archaeologists is many people think that archaeology only takes place in the Old World, that because I'm an archaeologist I must study ancient Greece or Egypt.  Archaeology takes place right here in Florida, or anywhere people have lived at any time on earth.  Paleontologists maybe don't have this issue to the same degree, but people expressed surprise when finding out that Barry worked in Utah as well as Mongolia and Antarctica.  Arguably more so than archaeology, paleontology takes place all over the world.

4.  Too often, our data is loved to death.

The illegal collection and trade of archaeological remains a major ethical issue in archaeology, and the same goes for paleontology.  One problem that comes up at public events such as our Artifact ID day is people want to put a price on artifacts.  For both sciences objects are only worth information.  Barry said paleontologists face a similar challenge in dealing with the illegal trade of vertebrates and commercial collections.  I was not aware of the federal Paleontological Resources Protection Act but have since looked it up and found it reads very much like the Archaeological Resource Protection Act.  Permits are required and work conducted by professional paleontologists before federal undertakings.  It is different in that it appears to allow casual collecting of fossils.  For those that abuse the "casual" nature of collection there are stiff criminal and civil penalties.

As an aside, if you find an artifact in Florida and want to report a site, call your local FPAN office and we'll help steer you in the right direction.  What's really cool is if you find a fossil, the Florida Natural History Museum offers a free fossil identification service.  Send them a picture and they'll try and help you out.

5.  We both must share our findings with the public.

In many ways archaeologists could learn a lot from the paleontologist.  Did you know the 3rd annual National Fossil Day sponsored by the National Park Service is in October and has been been a part of Earth Science Week since 1998?  The first National Archaeology Day was sponsored by the AIA (and supported by many professional organizations) just last year and has not yet been officially recognized by Congress.

 Check out the National Fossil Day website.  Holy buckets people, they have a National Fossil Day song, A SONG!!!  Archies, we've got to get on it!  As best I can tell there is no specialization for public paleontologist, but they do have the same ethical responsibility to share their findings with the public and in the national day format they are kicking our trowel toting patooties! 

After the MOSH event where I met Barry I took my family to the Jacksonville Zoo to celebrate my own dinosaur peace accord.  Professionally I still want to grab everyone who walks by and yell, "People!  I study PEOPLE!"  But as a member of the public I can proudly say out loud that dinosaurs are pretty cool too and definitely worth anyone's interest.  We have a lot more in common than I previously thought, and frankly lots we can borrow and learn from an outreach point of view.

 For Fun
Misconception alert: these pictures depict an archaeologist enjoying a paleontological exhibit!

Making peace with the dinosaurs.

Robotic T-Rex nest-- little cuties!

Hilarious- picture shows dinosaur dung with bits of keeper boots and equipment:)


Above and below:  My own daughter, on a dinosaur dig?!?

And we wonder why we're so dino-confused.

The dinos having the last laugh.

Videos- I tried to post some of the ones I took that day but Blogger had a fit, so linking to some taken by others at the DinoAlive exhibit last year.  The sounds were the best part, to hear them huffing and purring.  Misconception alert: reporter mentions "archaeological dig," but we all know better!

Special thanks to Barry for putting up with all my questions and to MOSH for organizing event.
Text and images: Sarah Miller, FPAN staff Dinosaur pin and other amazing archaeology wear available at Cafe Press.  DinoAlive is long gone from the Jacksonville Zoo, but if you hurry you can still check out the Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway exhibit at FLMNH through September 3rd.

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