Chris Allen, Archaeologist

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?

Chris setting up a total station, an instrument used to survey land and record sub-millimeter accuracy of spatial locations, at an archaeological site located on University of Tennessee property in Knoxville, TN (Summer 2018).
I am an archaeologist, or someone who studies the people of the past. My work focuses on prehistoric and historic populations of North America. The study of archaeology involves the scientific study of the material remains, or the physical things left behind by past human populations. Archaeologists are interested in all aspects of the people of the past from the tools they used to the houses they lived in, their diets and their beliefs, the way they treated their dead, etc. Archaeologists consider the evolution of the human lineage, the effects of the environment has on different cultures, and the influence of human ideas surrounding things like identity, power, and gender on the cultures they study. Using archaeology and the archaeological method is a great way to explore any question that pertains to the past and the people who lived in it.

Archaeology is an important scientific field because for most of the human past it is the only record of who we were, how we lived, and where we came from stored in what we call the archaeological record, or the material remains our ancestors left behind. Even for the more recent human past that has a written history, many aspects of a person’s daily life are never recorded but these can be observed through thorough scientific study.

An archaeological site in the process of archaeological excavation. This photo was taken at an archaeological site located in South Carolina (Summer 2017). The project uncovered a large area and included many more team members than pictured! Archaeology is a true collaborative scientific endeavor.
Archaeologist use a systematic methodology, called excavation, to accurately record information from places where past people performed various activities, called archaeological sites. Archaeologist tend to become specialized in various aspects of the archaeological record from the study of lithic technology (how people used stone tools) to settlement patterns (the way people move and lived on a landscape). My research is focused on two parts; first is the applications of technology in archaeology used to better recognize how information recovered from archaeological sites relates to the interpretations we archaeologists make about past human behavior. Secondly, I am additionally interested in all aspects related to foodways of past people which includes activities, rules, and meanings that surround the production and consumption of food.

Chris and Danielle (a field student) screening dirt through mesh to recover small artifacts. Artifacts will have three stages of identification attached to them. They are; the site number, the unit number, and the level of that unit. This information helps archaeologists reconstruct exactly what happened at an archaeological site when all the materials gets back to the lab.
An archaeological excavation can take on many different forms depending on the environment and questions asked by the researcher. It can be terrestrial or underwater, it can be large-scaled with multiple teams, or just one or two people, it can last years or a few days. Archaeology can and does happen practically anywhere and everywhere.

My current research is focused on pottery from a Historic Cherokee site located in Eastern Tennessee. I am using spatial technology to document how pottery from the site was distributed amongst households to understand how the community formed. Additionally, my research utilizes X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry to analyze the elemental composition of individual ceramic sherds. By studying the elemental variation of pottery, I am able to differentiate between the manufacturing processes used by various Native Peoples and make stronger conclusions about how Cherokee communities organized themselves during this time period. Archaeology is often approached as a scientific form of storytelling. By collecting data from the materials past people left behind we can perhaps tell their story and record it for future generations to learn about our shared human history and experiences.

A ceramic sherd recovered from a 2017 Summer field school in South Carolina. Small details like the pattern on the surface of the sherd help archaeologist determine the age and culture the ceramic belongs to. This ceramic was likely made by someone during the Woodland period (2,500 BCE – 1,000 CE).

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
My favorite part of being a scientist telling stories from the past! Like many people I grew interested in science at a very early age, but the number of scientific fields overwhelmed me. I was undecided about which field I wanted to pursue until I was partway through my undergraduate degree. It was then that I took a few anthropology courses and went on my first archaeological dig. I was hooked and continued taking anthropology courses, changed my major, and I am now working on obtaining a Masters degree in the field of anthropology. Being a student for so long I have discovered that life is much better when you enjoy the work you do. I decided to follow the lesson and make a career out of a scientific field I love.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Science has the great potential to take you to new places and explore research areas not yet discovered. This is why I got started in a scientific field, but I have stayed because I found and surrounded myself with wonderful people who support my academic ideas. I would say to aspiring scientists to seek other folks who support their academic goals and interests and talk to scholars (both students and professionals) that are currently in the field! If you are interested in learning more about archaeology I would recommend finding an archaeological field school near you. Most universities with an anthropology program will have a yearly field school!

To learn more about Chris and his work check out his website by clicking here!

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