In this episode of Archaeologists in Action, Julian and Clara of OAS sit down with Christian Bolles, a fourth year Archaeological Studies major, to hear his story of what attracted him to the field.
Christian was first introduced to archaeology while on a trip to Thailand when he was in third grade. He describes how his vivid childhood imagination drew out an inherent curiosity about the people of the ancient world, as he visualized what the archaeological remains might have been back in their time. “I remember walking among the ruins there… conjuring up all these fanciful stories about what they were like” he tells us, adding that throughout his life “that fascination for ancient life was always there.”
As a child, Christian’s interests were many and diverse. As he puts it: “My entire life, I have… hopped from obsession to obsession”. But now that he has chosen one specific field to pursue, he sees archaeology as a culmination of these assorted interests. “Archaeology is kind of the ultimate convergence of… practical real-world work and theory. And that really appealed to me, the ability to use physical evidence to tell stories that actually inspire wonder in people.”
Most archaeologists have a few favorite civilizations that they are most interested in studying. For Christian, these are the Anasazi people in Utah and the Wari in Peru. Both of these ancient civilizations are relatively unknown due to the fact that these areas have been less thoroughly excavated than many others, and are less present in popular consciousness than places like Greece or Rome. This is part of what makes Christian so fascinated with these cultures. “There is so much mystery surrounding them,” he says of the Wari, adding that he hopes one day to go to Peru and help to unravel some of these answers through archaeological research. In particular, he mentions Chavin de Huontar, an ancient civic center of the Wari where he hopes one day to excavate.
[At time of publication, Christian has gone to Peru! We hope to follow up with him about the experience soon.]
Christian explains that at Oberlin a lot of the focus within archaeology is on a subset of the discipline called classical archaeology, that focuses on Greece and Rome. He tells us that while he has enjoyed the courses he has taken on these two civilizations, neither engages his interest as much as the Wari or the Anasazi. Despite the fact that there are no classes taught about his main archaeological interests, he has been learning about the peoples of ancient Utah and Peru independently throughout his time at Oberlin. He advises others whose interests lie outside of Classical Archaeology to do the same, saying that his studies at Oberlin have still given him all of the necessary basics that will allow him to go into the areas of archaeology that he finds most fascinating. To these people, he advises: “Find that place [you want to excavate], and make it your goal to go there, and gather the skills and everything that you need to make that happen.”
Since coming to Oberlin, Christian has had opportunities to gain experience in several areas of archaeology. Last summer he attended the Rutgers archaeological field school in the upper Sabina Tiberina region of Italy. He mentions that “everybody in the area was convinced that the villa we were excavating, which was Roman (1st century BC to first century AD)… was the villa of Horace”. While Christian learned a lot while participating in this dig, it wasn’t his first choice of location. “I actually did try to go to Peru,” he clarifies, “but they canceled [the program] because not enough people applied”. Despite this, he still gained valuable archaeological experience that he will be able to utilize at future digs. “I wanted to learn the basics of archaeology and I did” says Christian.
As we have learned from our previously interviewed Archaeologists in Action, there is a lot more to archaeology than just excavation. Christian also took the time to share with us some of the other experiences he has had with archaeological work. “For winter term my freshman year I interned at a company called Cyark in Oakland” he tells us, explaining “I got to stitch together point maps”. This is one of the relatively new technologies that Professor Wueste mentioned last year, involving the generation of a three-dimensional map of a site using drone imaging. The images are then pasted together to form one cohesive 3D map, this being the part that Christian was involved in. The particular project he was working on focused on a watch tower in New York that was about to be torn down. He was able to help preserve an image of the building that could then be referenced as needed at any point after the original structure was no longer there.
Reiterating an idea that Wueste discussed in her interview, Christian explains that “every technological advancement in the field of archaeology is a good thing,” emphasizing that “the technological revolution in archaeology will make everything more accessible”. In contrast to the handwritten archaeological notes of a century ago, new technologies allow for detailed digital collection of data. Even people who are not at an excavation itself will be able to easily study the data collected and contribute new insights. The precision and efficiency of modern data collection helps to mitigate the destructiveness of the excavation process, by preserving a record of the site and what was uncovered at the site. Using the same technique, Christian was able to help preserve a record of a watch tower that no longer stands today.
Christian feels strongly that archaeology is not as accessible as it could be. He tells us “senior year of high school I had no idea that archaeology was actually still going strong,” adding that “we have this general disillusionment about archaeology that I think needs to be fixed”. He sees a certain “atmosphere of exclusivity” creating a disconnect between archaeology and the general public. “There isn’t even close to enough journalism in archaeology” he tells us, explaining that what exists is sensationalist. He laments the way in which many of those who do write about archaeology, outside of academic publications, have “fetishized and trivialized the essence of archaeological discovery”.
As a student journalist who spent last fall as an arts editor for The Oberlin Review, and is now one of the Editors-in-Chief, Christian has a reasonable amount of experience in journalism. In addition to his interest in excavation and in the technological aspects of the field, he tells us: “I’m also really interested with the convergence between archaeology and journalism,” going on to say “nothing feels quite like good journalism, except for finding something really great on a dig.”
“The archaeological truth is incredibly malleable, but that’s what I love about it” Christian tells us. He emphasizes “I cannot stress how much my interest in archaeology is entirely from a humanities perspective; I have been willing to engage with the science as a means to the end of storytelling through the humanities”. While some might see the field as distantly detached from the modern world, Christian asserts that it is present and connected to humanity. “We build incredible things and we make incredible things with our hands” he explains, “and we tell incredible stories”. These stories are what he hopes to uncover through archaeology in Peru and elsewhere, bringing his findings to a wider audience than academics. He concludes, “I find that the job is at its most satisfying when you are solving a mystery, and also its most impactful”.
Christian was studying abroad with the Oberlin-in-London program last Spring, but is back on campus for his senior year. When asked about his plans for the future, Christian tells us that he plans on a career in archaeology, and is currently exploring his options for graduate school.
For more exciting interviews with the archaeologists of Oberlin, check out our Archaeologists in Action tag!