To heck with Indiana Jones; archaeologist studies Bedouins and learns from old garbage
Nancy Heiner Austin
Petra, as pictured in an 1830s lithograph. It should look familiar to Indiana Jones fans.
Down a winding and narrow canyon in Jordan lies Petra -- fabulous ruins of a city carved right into the rock. Utah State professor and archaeologist Steven Simms studied in Jordan, close to Petra, but he didn't work in the ruins. Instead he studied the people of the region, Bedouins. To Simms, finding relics and breathtaking remnants isn't the point.
According to Simms, people associate archaeology with "art mongering or some high form of adventure."
Simms said people have an Indiana Jones-like vision of what being an archaeologist is. In fact, the last scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was shot in Petra.
"We could blame it on Indiana Jones, but it didn't start with him," he said.
Simms said the way an archaeologist differs from a vandal is that an archaeologist records the information he gathers in an alternative form (such as written descriptions or maps), but "a digging site still destroys the site."
"Every turn of the shovel destroys," he said.
Simms' office reflects his reluctance to horde artifacts. One might expect an archaeologist and anthropologist to have African tribal masks on the wall or bone fragments on the shelf. Instead Simms decorates with family pictures.
Simms' kind of archaeological work is known as ethnoarchaeology. Ethno-archaeology involves working with living groups to learn to identify things uncovered with traditional archaeology.
For example, while in Jordan, Simms observed Bedouins, pastoralists whose basic way of life has existed for centuries.
Bedouins are often called people without history, because they don't have a written record and they move often, leaving hardly a trace.
Since those traces are hard to find, archaeologists are often drawn to the monumental ruins, such as Petra.
"When you focus only on the civilization, you're really forgetting the underpinning of that," Simms said. "Archaeology, like history, is easily biased toward the rich and powerful."
Studying Bedouins over the course of 10 years, Simms learned to recognize larger patterns.
USU archaeology senior and former student of Simms Aaron Crawford explained how Simms applied what he learned from the Bedouins to other groups.
Crawford said that some groups that move a lot often don't leave remains of home structures, but they do leave their trash. Since people dispose of their trash away from their homes, archaeologists have often not been able to tell where the people were actually living.
Simms observed Bedouins and "studied things like where they threw their trash and how they cut up animals," said Crawford.
From those observations Simms developed a statistical model that helps archaeologists predict where dwellings were located.
Knowing where to look makes it a lot easier to find what remains of brush huts or tents, along with tools or other artifacts that were left at the site. According to Crawford, Simms' model is "about 80 percent accurate."
It's these larger patterns that are exciting to Simms, things that "are transcending culture."
Why look for human patterns?
Simms has heard that people need to study the past so they won't make the same mistakes in the future, but "I've never heard more balderdash in my whole life," he said.
Simms said knowing about the past, what really happened rather than what serves the present, makes the understanding of the present more sophisticated, and promotes a complex and sophisticated discourse. Simms said framing powerful questions is more important than emphasizing answers.
An example Simms sees of people interpreting the past to suit their needs is the environmental debate. Simms considers himself an environmentalist, but gets frustrated when others talk of pristine environments or groups of people in harmony with nature.
"There hasn't been a pristine environment if pristine means free of human hands," he said.
Simms said every group of people that has ever been has impacted the environment. Humans hunt and build structures, they start fires and they put out naturally occurring fires.
On the anti-conservation side of the debate, people justify their damaging actions by remembering how humans have always made an impact on the environment.
Both sides approach the discussion ideologically, Simms said, treating the topic like religion and wanting to "kill the infidels."
"Science is there to transcend the pedantry of religion," he said.
Simms suggests that humans outline their desires for places and manage them accordingly, rather than pretending that wilderness should go unmanaged. "There's this funny idea that nature regulates itself," said Simms. "It doesn't. Nothing is pristine."
Simms cited the large numbers of elk and bison in Yellowstone Park as an example. Indians used to keep those populations in check, he said, and humans are now letting them dominate the park by not intervening.
For refusing to paint the past in idealistic tones, Simms said he has sometimes been "dissed by my environmental friends."
But, Simms said, he's "not toeing the line here, and my voting record shows it."
Simms was interested in the natural sciences in high school in California. He graduated in 1970, then he came to the University of Utah for the desert, skiing, and "getting away from my parents."
He liked how anthropology combined the natural sciences with the humanities, and that's what he graduated in. While an undergraduate he helped with archaeological digs in Southern Utah. He then went to school in Nevada and Pennsylvania, taking a break in between to work in Southern Utah, and finished his Ph.D. in anthropology back at the University of Utah.
Simms pursued a career in academia rather than standard private archaeological work- environmental impact statements.
He worked at Weber State after he graduated, and came to USU in 1988. Simms said that he enjoys the academic environment and working with students who are learning question
He said that if he were independently wealthy, he'd spend most of his time researching and thinking. Since he's got to earn a living, he thinks teaching is "as close as you'll come to being able to live the life of the mind."
With a smile, he said it's "OK for a day job."
Simms has a reputation for being a difficult teacher, said Crawford, with a lot of assigned readings and challenging tests.
Megan Andrew-Hobbs, another student of his, agrees. She said that in a good week, 50 to 100 pages of readings are assigned, and that on a bad week the number's around 200.
Andrew-Hobbs said freshmen often struggle with the reading and writing assigned, but that Simms "just thinks that's what you go to college for."
"He's kind of got a temper, so if his students aren't meeting his expectations he'll just outright say it," she said.
"He's obviously intelligent, and he expects you to come to his level," she said.
It's the same things that make Simms a hard teacher that make him a good teacher, said Andrew-Hobbs.
"Even though you're in the class and you're totally bogged down, you look back and know that you learned more than in any other class," she said.
Along with teaching classes, Simms runs an archaeological field school at the Dugway Proving Grounds, where students learn the fundamentals of digging. He's also the director of USU's anthropology museum.
Andrew-Hobbs is an intern at the museum, a museum that is run almost entirely by undergraduate students. Simms is the director of the museum, so she works with him a lot there.
"He requires a lot of professionalism at first if he doesn't know you, he has certain levels of expectations," said Andrew-Hobbs. "Once he gets to know you and know that you'll follow through he becomes more personable."
Simms takes care of grants, funding, and administration. He helps the students by advising them on problems and directing them to sources.
Andrew-Hobbs said Simms is also a kind of handyman around the museum. She said he has put in lighting and cases, and that in their last meeting he told the museum interns that he had reserved time in his schedule and was available any time they needed help putting up the exhibits.
"He's not afraid to put in elbow-grease with his students," she said.