A Model Archaeologist

Amanda Adams

Amanda Adams wants to tell you a story. That's her job as an archaeologist, she feels, and as an interpretive planner working with parks and developers to find the hidden history of a place and reveal it to the public.

Most archaeologists--and interpretive planners--don't see it that way. "Interpretation and telling stories usually gets tacked on at the end; it's decoration," Adams says. Not so at The 106 Group, the private cultural-resource-management company in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the 30-year-old archaeologist and ethnographer works. "We go out there with shovels and a paintbrush. We literally uncover the stories and find a way to incorporate those stories into the work from the very beginning."

Too often, archaeologists have a sense of cultures as dead, says Adams's boss and friend Anne Ketz, a co-founder of The 106 Group, which was named for the federal law requiring developers who receive federal funding to preserve cultural artifacts. "That's not the case. We walk side by side with each other in the streets. The cultures are alive. The history is alive. Amanda really gets that."

One of Adams's favorite sites is the Spring Lake Park Reserve, a 4800-hectare park along the Mississippi River on the southern edge of the Twin Cities. The site encompasses 8000 years of human history, including a pioneer ghost town and caves with ancient Native American pottery. But most of that history is invisible to visitors, says Bruce Blair, the manager of park development and maintenance for the Dakota County Parks Department. "We turn to the folks at The 106 Group, including Amanda, not only for technical expertise on what we have and how to preserve it, but also for their creative skills to tell the stories," he says.

To ground the site's new visitors center in the spirit of the place, Adams suggested making a cast of the Sorg pot, a famous ceramic artifact found in the park, and incorporating its texture into the building's fireplace, to give a sense of an ancient hearth. Another idea that delighted Ketz and Blair was to place large steel frames in the landscape, engraved with text and large enough for children to climb on and sit in, an idea that arose from discussions Adams had with architects and planners. Like picture frames or camera lenses, the frames will draw visitors' eyes to aspects of the vista, such as an island in the Mississippi that's the site of an early 19th century Native American village, or an oil refinery on the horizon.

"Today I was talking to a Dakota educator we work with, trying to get his blessing to use the Dakota language to write out the cardinal directions on a compass in the landscape," says Adams. In a society that places higher value on oral traditions than on the written word, she won't write a story down if she doesn't have full permission. "I don't want to put words in people's mouths. Instead, I want to prompt them to tell their stories," she says.

The little mermaid

Adams's own story began in northern California, beside the Pacific Ocean. As a child, she was convinced she was a mermaid. As a young teen, she caught the eye of scouts from modeling agencies in San Francisco, who spotted one of her mermaidlike traits: her striking looks. She has appeared in magazines all over the world; as the Buffalo jeans girl on a 21-meter billboard in Times Square; as an archaeologist in a Levi's ad.

Modeling satisfied her "extreme wanderlust," taking her to six continents. "When I think of the things I did back then--let's just say I wouldn't do it now." She traveled unchaperoned to strange cities, took motorcycle rides through the Pyrenees, got on random buses just to see where they went went.

Although she has never modeled as a mermaid, she was called once to work with a famous underwater photographer. "He was trying to get me to look relaxed while holding my breath in his pool. He said--or I thought he said--'You're a flounder! You're a flounder!' I was stoked; my skills were as natural as a fish. Turns out he was saying, 'You're a frowner!' Alas, I didn't get the job."

Distracted by work, wanderlust, and a passion for fine arts, Adams didn't pay much attention to academics in high school. After living abroad for 3 years, she signed up for classes at a community college--the College of Marin--that she chose for its art program. But travel had piqued her interest in world history, and she found herself enthralled by history and literature classes. Suddenly, academics seemed thrilling--even math, a subject she had decided she would never do well in. "I remember the moment I learned to speak math. One day I took the books home and decided to learn it instead of hate it. I went from failing to getting an A+ on the next test. My teacher was mystified: 'What happened?' "

Ancient storytelling

Adams transferred to the University of California (UC), Berkeley, where she fell in love with anthropology, which appealed to her interest in travel, material culture, and art. Her adviser, Margaret Conkey, helped her get a research grant to visit Paleolithic cave sites in southern France.

Lascaux had a "palpable feeling of joy," says Adams. "Maybe it was a place for storytelling?" she suggests. For her honors thesis, she painted a series of canvases reimagining the ancient artists. "Standard depictions of the cave painters all show men in ragged loincloths about to go on hunt. That's a big leap. I wanted to break apart that monolithic idea." Her paintings show women and children--nonhunters--creating the murals. In 2003, UC Berkeley commissioned her to paint a mural replicating the Paleolithic cave paintings of Altamira.

Science and art. Amanda Adams with her mural replicating cave paintings.

After graduating from UC Berkeley, Adams got a master's degree in archaeology at the University of British Columbia. She studied the petroglyphs "written into the landscape" on Gabriola Island in the Gulf of Georgia. She would sit in the one bar on the island and shmooze with the locals. If someone admitted to having a petroglyph in their backyard, she would try to sweet-talk them into letting her take a look. "It was very contentious who owned the art," she says. "Local residents loved the petroglyphs. They used them in their artwork, and they printed them on canvas bags and coffee-bean packages. But the tribe felt these were sacred objects. They didn't think they should be used commercially."

In her master's thesis, Adams traced the history of the petroglyphs by comparing them to portable artifacts with secure dates, but she was equally interested in modern native people's reactions to the petroglyphs and oral traditions about how their ancestors had created them. The tribal people on the island, she says, were generous in sharing their stories with her.

While she was finishing her master's thesis, she began working on a book about mermaid legends from around the world, which was published in November. The two writing projects were very different: a very technical thesis and a book she hoped would appeal to 24-year-olds who like to read women's magazines. Mastering the two styles stood her in good stead with The 106 Group.

Gabriola Island

Archaeology in the real world

In 2004, Adams and her husband moved to the Twin Cities. She answered an ad for an archaeology field technician at The 106 Group, where, Ketz says, "we immediately saw she was capable of so much more." Adams's experience traveling around the world gave her a perspective unlike that of most applicants straight out of school, and her composure, maturity, and creativity helped her meet the challenges of real-world archaeology.

Partly because of laws like the one that gave The 106 Group its name, most archaeology in America is done in the private sector. "We're providing a real product to clients," says Ketz. When a developer or a department of transportation hires a cultural-resources management consultant, they're not doing it out of academic interest in historic sites; they want to make sure they're in compliance with the law. Private consultants are, above all, businesses. They need to meet their deadlines, stick to their budgets, and follow strict business ethics. But many young archaeologists don't understand this, because very few academic programs prepare students for that work by teaching preservation law and practice, says Ketz.

Although Adams came from an academic background, she understood quickly how to work with The 106 Group's clients. "Amanda gets it. She really gets it. Sometimes it's a little unnerving—we have these kinetic rays passing through the walls between our two offices. It's rare to find that in a business setting," says Ketz.

"Before I began working at The 106 Group, I was kind of turned off by the professional field of cultural-resources management," says Adams. "In academia, CRM companies are stigmatized for producing 'gray literature': reports nobody reads or cares about. I decided to try it anyway and see if I could rustle things up from the inside." She loves being able to affect the real world: saving a building, nominating a sacred property to receive federal protection. "In school, I expanded my own mind," she says. "Now I expand other people's minds through the work that we do every day."

If she didn't feel that way, she probably wouldn't stay in landlocked Minnesota. Despite the 10,000 lakes, it's a hard place for a mermaid. In winter months, it's also a hard place for an archaeologist. "You're trying to kick a shovel through dirt, and it's –10 degrees outside," says Adams. "Midwest winter archaeology would put the fear of God in anyone."

Polly Shulman is a contributing editor for Science and the author of Enthusiasm , a novel for teenagers.


The National Association for Interpretation

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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