The value of doing what you love

Joshua Wentworth bottle

detail of glass blob seal with Jos a Wentworth 1773

Oprah Winfrey gave the commencement address at Harvard this year, and she quoted theologian and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman:

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs.  Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

That statement had resonance for me, because sometimes I wonder about what I am bringing to the world through archaeology.  Folks ask me why bother looking at the past, especially when it appears that archaeology stands in the way of progress (archaeology doesn’t really do that, of course, but clients might view us as impediments, sometimes).  When I think of doctors, or volunteers in Haiti, or therapists, or teachers, I can easily imagine that they are contributing to the good of humanity.  I don’t always get that same glow of appreciation when I consider my job as an archaeologist.

The thing is, a good archaeologist is a systems analyst, who can tell you how things worked, or better, why things didn’t work, in the past.  We can take small bits of information and create a vision or a whole worldview of how people used to do things.  And though it may not seem so in the first light of our telling, those stories about the past can inform the present and our future.

It turns out I really love my job.  I thrive on the research that gives us a starting point for anticipating what we may find when we dig in the earth for answers.  I am in my element in the field, observing the layers of soil and artifacts that come out of them, noting the lay of the land and organization of foundations, cellarholes,  and privies, and arranging all these data to complete a 3-D puzzle.  Archaeologists will dig lots and lots of holes, and every once in a while, they will happen on a treasure.  Not one with high monetary value, but one that transports you to a place and time that has gone by.

This bottle is one of those special finds.  The impression in the glass blob reads:  Jos a Wentworth 1773.  For history buffs, you will recognize the name as one of the young Turks who spurned his family connections with the Crown and served in the Revolution against the British.  Joshua Wentworth distinguished himself, serving as a naval agent and head of the Portsmouth commissary.

I was the one who pulled the bottle out of the excavation trench.  I was the one to wipe the sediment and debris and exclaim with surprise the name and date pressed into the glass.  I experienced a shiver, wondering whose hands had touched this bottle, the very one I was holding in my own?  Did this bottle sit out on the table at a meeting of revolutionaries as they discussed their plans to rebel?  Did the bottle pass from hand to hand among those who joined in allegiance with Joshua Wentworth?  And whose hands were they that brought the broken bottle out to throw away in the privy, rediscovered some 247 years later?

Finding those tangible bits of history makes me come alive.  And I move forward with confidence that I have found my purpose in life.