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Fall 2000 The Big Dig
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The Virtual Archaeologist is one element in a broad-scale effort by the Cotsen Institute to connect with the larger community. The Friends of Archaeology, for example, is a support group of more than 300 members and volunteers, many of whom assist in the laboratories and on digs. Funds raised through Friends of Archaeology dues provide grants and fellowships to UCLA graduate students.

The Cotsen Institute has also launched the Archaeology Outreach for Educators program. The program, a joint project with the Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School with funding from the Ahmanson Foundation, brings as many as 200 K-12 teachers to UCLA each year for in-depth archaeological training that they can then impart to other teachers and their students.

"Kids are drawn to the allure of going to some exotic location and digging up tombs filled with gold objects," says Julia Sanchez Ph.D. '97, the Cotsen Institute's assistant director. "Of course, that's not really what archaeology is about. We care more about what the objects tell us about people and the way they lived. So although students are drawn in for these other reasons, we're able to build on that excitement and make it even more interesting for them."

"Essentially, we're explaining that archaeologists are looking at the broken bits that people have left behind," says Rita Shepard '83, M.A. '88, Ph.D. '97, the institute's outreach coordinator. "We piece together clues, along with what we already know, to paint a picture of how people were living."

While the end result of archaeological pursuits is often fascinating, the process is far less glamorous than suggested by popular depictions. Far from the romantic, action-packed treasure hunt of the Indiana Jones films, real-life archaeology is slow-paced and often tedious. Researchers typically spend two to three years formulating their questions and then a season or two poking around to determine where they can best hope to find answers. The excavation itself can take years, requiring huge teams and buckets of sweat, not to mention dirt. Using tools that can be as delicate as dental picks, team members carefully dig down a few centimeters a day, bagging all conceivable artifacts for laboratory analysis. Every sample must be documented in three dimensions, and the running narratives that comprise the field notes create mountains of paperwork. Once the excavation is complete, archaeological researchers may spend years analyzing, comparing and interpreting their data.

The moments that make it all worthwhile are the discoveries that unlock previous mysteries about ancient societies, or rewrite existing interpretations. "I'll be testing an idea and nothing is making sense," says Stanish. "Then, after being stuck for weeks, it all starts to come together. It's like having trouble with a crossword puzzle, and then solving one clue helps you solve the whole puzzle."

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