Exploring Different Careers and Digging It
Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // Submitted
As a child, did you ever imagine that you were an archeologist digging for mummies in your backyard or a geologist hunting in local creek beds in search of “crystals” (geodes)? Two Zionsville High School graduates have spent their college careers and recently their summers doing what many of us only imagined doing as youngsters. Now they are preparing to make honest careers out of digging in the dirt.
Jack Miles is attending Miami University of Ohio and majoring in geology. Like many high school students, he was unsure of what his course in life would ultimately be, but what he did know early on was that of all of his classes, he thoroughly enjoyed his geology class.
“In high school, the only class that I really liked was geology,” Miles said. “But when I applied for college, I listed ‘business major’ because I still didn’t know what I wanted to be. Then at my freshman orientation when I was picking my classes, I remember asking a professor there what kind of classes I should be looking at signing up for, and the professor suggested that I pick whatever interested me. There are pages and pages of classes to pick from, and I was overwhelmed.”
Miles said he saw a class on natural disasters, and it interested him. He remembered enjoying his geology classes, so he signed up.
“I asked one of my professors what I could do with a degree in geology, and he said, ‘You can go into the oil industry, fracking, construction doing site surveying, or you can work for the government. Oh, and you get to spend a ton of time outside.’ And I said, ‘I’m sold.’ And that was when I knew I wanted to go into geology. In geology, there is a lot of reading and developing graphs. Being dyslexic, graphs and I just jive together. I can look at a topographic map and make complete sense of it.”
One of the requirements for graduating with a major in geology at Miami is for students to complete a field camp that takes the students to various “mapping” sites in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho where they put their knowledge to the test.
“We learned so much,” Miles said. “When we first arrived, we started with the basics, and by the end of the trip, we were like masters. Miami is well-known for this camp to the extent that other students attended from other colleges from all over the U.S. It [field camp] is like summer camp, only with beer, but it really does prepare you for the ‘real world.’”
Miles, his fellow students, professors and their teaching assistants drove out in the middle of “nowhere” to where the “big rocks” are.
The group’s first stop was in Jackson, Wyoming. “In Wyoming, there is active orogeny unlike Indiana, which is super flat,” Miles explained. “I probably said ‘wow’ 10 times each time we went somewhere, looking at the mountains. I tell everybody that the sky looks bigger out in Montana and Wyoming.”
At the start of the course, Miles said they covered the basics, such as identifying salt and honing their mapping skills.
“About a week and a half in, we started doing the real purpose of the course where we use GPS and blank topographic maps. Mapping is done by hand,” Miles said. “The professors would take us to different outcrops in mapping areas; most were on steep cliffs. We used HCL (hydrochloric) acid that when poured onto a rock, it gives us different characteristics, so we can identify different rock formations. For example, if you put HCL acid on limestone, it fizzes.”
Miles described the daily routine as starting the day at 5:45 a.m. and working in the field until 4:30 p.m., mapping with a partner most of the time and averaging 12 miles of walking on inclines. The students had to “map” a predetermined percentage of their maps by the end of the day. Their equipment would include GPS, walkie-talkie, rock hammer and a geology loupe.
“You use a rock hammer to bust open a rock and get the fresh surface of it,” Miles said. “Most rocks have been eroded, and like a geode, there’s cool stuff on the inside. We saw exposed Jurassic age rock that, by the hands of fate, had never been covered up by dirt. That’s what makes areas like Montana, Wyoming and Idaho special. They’re on active orogeny.”
Orogeny is the process in which a section of the Earth’s crust is folded and deformed by lateral compression to form a mountain. “The oldest rock we saw was formed in the Cambrian Period,” he said. “That was about 540 million years ago.”
The group traveled on unpaved roads in rented vans, slept in tents for the most part, did their best to evade wildlife, such as rattlesnakes, and made the most out of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and scrambled eggs for breakfast. But when asked if the education and experience were worth it, Miles replied, “Wouldn’t you rather be doing something you love than not?”
Miles is exploring his post-graduation options at this time but expressed a serious interest in working for a national park. “Wherever I end up, as long as I am outside, I’ll be happy.”
Lauren Phillips has been studying the field of anthropology at Bryn Mawr College. As a young child, she recalls having a genuine interest in science and cultures.
“I’ve always had an appreciation for researching cultures,” Phillips said. “I remember once when I was little, we went to the Children’s Museum. In the Dinosphere, there was a window where you could talk to a paleontologist. I spent a long time there asking questions and listening. I think the researcher was surprised that a little girl had such a long attention span. I realized early in high school that anthropology was the field that I wanted to go into because I love history and literature. I’ve always been into sciences but have always loved humanities even more.”
When Phillips entered college, she wasn’t quite sure what her field area would be, so she took classes on classical studies: Roman and Greek. “I soon realized that North American archaeology was more of the field that I wanted to go into,” Phillips shared. “Thankfully, one of the heads of the anthropology department specializes in North American Archeology. I’ve been able to get into my little niche, thanks to Professor Barrier.”
Over the summer, Phillips was presented the opportunity to travel to Quinhagak, Alaska, and participate in an excavation at the Nunalleq site. Nunalleq means “old village” and is part of Yup’ik culture. She spent her time in Quinhagak along with her fellow colleagues, immersing herself in the “living culture” and discovering artifacts on a site that were once homesteads that date back to 1540.
“It was amazing,” Phillips said. “This site is really unique because the melting permafrost has revealed these sites and artifacts that were preserved in cold marshy conditions. There were a lot of organic materials that we found like wooden artifacts, furs and hides.” The excavation has been hosted by the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. The Nunalleq artifacts are sent to the university’s lab for specific work and preservation, and then they are shipped back to Quinhagak.
She described the Nunalleq site as eroded and dangerously close to being swallowed by the Bering Sea as a result of global warming. The site has been an active excavation site for more than a decade as archaeologists and locals have been discovering, preserving and cataloging artifacts for the Nunalleq Cultural and Archaeology Center that just opened its doors August 11. The center is owned by Qanirtuuq Inc., Quinhagak’s village corporation, and contains over 60,000 artifacts that have been found on site, some of which Phillips found with her own hands.
“After nearly a decade, the center has opened, and the artifacts are there for the younger generations to learn and reflect upon,” Phillips said. “I love working with North American archaeology because I get to work with living cultures. The locals were very nice, and when we brought in artifacts, they would provide cultural information about the things that we would find. It was fantastic.”
Phillips and her fellow archaeologists would work a six-day work week with Sundays off to rest and/or immerse themselves in the local culture. They traveled primarily via four-wheelers as the ground is marshy most of the year.
“Quinhagak is very rural,” Phillips added. “It is so marshy that I once sank knee-deep in the ground. It was a good thing that I had on boots.”
Phillips spent her “work” days sifting through dirt with screens, discovering many buried treasures throughout her stay. “One of my favorite artifacts was a toggle that was made for harpoons,” she shared. “They [Yup’ik] are very artistic. They often carve animals to show respect for hunting and believe that everything has a spirit.”
When asked what she is considering doing after graduation, Phillips said, “I still have to make decisions about what field I want to go into because there are subdivisions of anthropology like archaeology, linguistics, cultural anthropology or biological anthropology that I can go into. I love excavation, but I also love working with museums. There are so many different things you can do in museum work: collections, conservation, curation but also public programming.”
Phillips added that there are areas outside of academia that need anthropologists, such as the film industry and tech companies like Google who need cultural anthologists for representation on search engines.
Phillips concluded, “There are so many options that are outside of the academic field, but I kind of want to stay in academia because it is fun.”