It’s International Women’s Day today, and I thought that to celebrate I would bring you the first Women in Archaeology post about a living woman!
K. Kris Hirst was kind enough to let me interview her, and I know she’s busy, so this was extra nice of her. Hirst is a content provider over at About.com, where she writes the Archaeology section of the site, and is a science writer and editor for a variety of journals and books. She’s been at it since 1997, you know, when the internet got big. I have to admit, I’ve been to this site more then once looking up hard to find facts, I’ve been pretty impressed. Her site covers concepts, careers, human history, sites of interest and more. It’s a pretty solid site, and that’s Hirst ‘s contribution to the field.
Archaeology isn’t immune to the new information age, and trust me, there is lots of bad information out there, but this site does a great job of putting things back into perspective and answers questions. Our problem is, until recently , the people who know the most about archaeology, apparently didn’t know much about the internet or social media, Hirst knows both. Hirst ‘s site works to provide information to the curious and educate those that want to learn. She puts it all out there and makes it accessible to the public. Something the field is still struggling with, in my opinion. Hirst has been doing this for 15 years now, she may not have been the very first, but she is certainly one of the best.
So lets get to the intervew!
I really toiled with this, I wanted to edit it and make it more like the formats of my past posts, but Hirst has such a great personality, I was afraid that it would get lost in my editing. So I decided to go a minimalist route, here with minimal editing is the full email interview with K. Kris Hirst:
AF: Where and when were you born?
KH: I was born in a little log cabin—oh, no, that’s Abe Lincoln. I was born in Illinois, on Abraham Lincoln’s (and Charles Darwin’s) birthday. I’m not as old as those guys—I was born in 1954.
AF: Do you have any interesting childhood stories pertaining to archaeology?
KH: The earliest I can remember knowing about archaeology is when my parents took us to Dixon Mounds, a Mississippian burial mound that was open to the public. The burials are now closed, of course, and there’s a terrific museum, which is better for all concerned. You learn more now about the people and how they lived—but I have to admit I was fascinated by human bones. I also had a junior high school pal who knew she wanted to be an archaeologist even then—Linda Derry. But basically I was a moony introvert who kept her nose in books and wandered around the scrubby suburban woods, with no thought to future careers—besides writing, of course.
AF: Where did you go to college and when did you graduate?
KH: I went to Illinois State as an English-Education-Theatre major, and graduated in 1978 with a BS in Education with three majors and five minors. I took an MA in Anthro from the University of Iowa in 1985. Started a PhD at University of Wisconsin, but bombed out, for a variety of reasons some of which have to do with being an inveterate generalist.
AF: Do you have any interesting stories about your time in school?
KH: My favorite thing about undergraduate school was I had no clue what I wanted to do, and ISU was big enough that nobody was watching me, so I could and did take courses in everything (except, oddly enough, archaeology or journalism). I remember sitting in a graduate level classroom at Iowa when one of the students perked up and said he got into archaeology because of Indiana Jones—that was right after the first movie came out (and no, I don’t remember if he actually followed through with his career). I remember pronouncing Oaxaca “Wox-a-co” in a graduate level theory class, much to the amusement of my classmates. Since I didn’t have a single course in archaeology before embarking on my MA, I spent every waking hour in the university library, reading all the current journals and going back some 20 years. I really liked doing that, total immersion type study, and I still keep current with about 80 journals a year.
AF: Do you have any suggestions for students who might be seeking a degree in Archaeology?
KH: Yeah, don’t do what I did. Pick a subject and learn it in depth. To be a successful archaeologist, you need to specialize: I’m a writer.
AF: Can you tell me a little about your professional career?
KH: My first excavation was at Plum Grove, the first territorial governor of Iowa, my first advisor was the Mesoamericanist Tom Charlton. He was wonderfully supportive and I’m grateful to this day for his belief in my weird turn of careers—not all my advisors were happy that I left archaeology to work on the Internet. I met Lewis Binford once (he was rude to every graduate student in those days); I met Sandra Olsen and briefly entertained the notion of specializing in mussel shell research (following along in her footsteps in usewear on bones); I embarrassed myself in front of George Quimby by meeting him once and having complete brain death about his vast and important work (they call it “l’esprit d’escalier” if you’ve been insulted, I was just crazy tired); and I met Ofer Bar-Yosef and just about fainted. As a grad student I loved going to meetings and staying up until 3:00 am singing dig songs. (Do they still do that?) (AF: Yes they do, and they have archaeology themed bands now): I still like going to meetings, but now I go find sessions to kibbutz on subjects I know nothing about. The SAA is great for that, 17 concurrent sessions! Hoo boy! My favorite conference was WAC in South Africa in 1999. That was flat out wonderful.
AF: Can you tell me how archaeology impacted your life both professional and personal (if you don’t mind sharing).
KH: Archaeology provided me with something to write about. I was going to be a writer, from the time I was maybe 9 and first read Madeleine L’Engle, and I went to undergraduate school with a vague notion I was shopping around for something to write about. I didn’t find anything that tripped my trigger until I got into archaeology: imagine, it encompasses everything, every bit of human knowledge—but they don’t teach it in high school! How crazy is that? But if we’re talking transformative experiences, the opportunity to work at About.com, where I’ve been since 1997, has simply changed everything. If I’d stayed in archaeology (I worked in the field for 20 years), you wouldn’t be asking me these questions.
AF: Do you think there were and/or are any obstacles unique to women in the field. If so, what did you do to overcome them?
KH: Where I went to school there was a famous woman anthropologist, and I went to her to talk to her about how you overcome those issues. She threw me out of her office: she was of the school that said, if I did it by myself, so can you. I think that’s wrong, but, she was, like me, ensconced in her own era. I bombed out of Madison, but not because of my gender. It was a tough time for graduate students there. I sort of regret not moving to another school and trying again—but I just didn’t have the money and I was pretty disheartened. I got passed over for promotion a couple of times when I was working in CRM, and I was disappointed at the time, but I think if all of these less-than-ideal experiences had any effect, they kept me from being “just” an archaeologist. Don’t get me wrong—I loved being in archaeology, but I needed to write.
AF: Can you tell me a little about what made you chose to leave the field and become a science writer? How has that affected your life?
KH: In 1995, I was already fascinated by the Internet. I remember I was in my boss’s office at the State Archaeologist’s Office in Iowa, and he showed us the website for Lascaux Cave. I started working on the OSA’s nascent website, writing and designing webpages (I’m not visual, so that didn’t go too far). In late 1996, I heard through the CNET grapevine that there was this new company called “the Mining Company” that was planning on hiring a bunch of specialists to “mine the web” and find the best resources available in their areas of expertise. I was pretty interested, but also pretty skeptical (as somebody once asked me, suspiciously, why would a mining company be interested in archaeology?) But in March of 1997, the site went live and it was wonderful, and so I signed up to be the archaeologist, and went through a rigorous training schedule. My site went live on July 9, 1997.
At first, we were just supposed to write about what other people were doing on the web, but it soon morphed into writing about our topics. We changed our name to About.com, went public and were bought by the New York Times Company in 2001. I love working here, even after nearly 15 years. I was really lucky to find a place where I could write on anything I wanted to, and have a substantial audience, with somebody else doing the marketing and site design for me.
AF: How did your training as an archaeologist prepare you for the challenges of science writing?
KH: To some extent, it ruined me as a science writer. I’m truly fascinated and want to learn everything I can about archaeology and the history and prehistory that you are all researching and reporting on, wherever and whenever in the world that might be. But, there are very limited openings for “archaeology writer” in science writing, for the same reason I got into it—the things that really sell well in mass markets about archaeology are the very oldest stuff or the richest find or the spookiest, nuttiest theory about aliens or end of the world fantasies. None of that interests me. If you’re smart as a science writer, you write about archaeology but also about biology and chemistry and botany and physics. I’m at once too narrow and too broad to be really successful as a science writer. Plus, I split infinitives. But, I found in my archaeology studies a wealth of nuance and so many interesting science-based stories that to this day I write something like 60,000 words a month, at least, and never, never, never run out of ideas.
Another truth about science writing: many, many newspapers and magazines have ditched their science writer staffs, and a lot of really terrific science writers who once had staff positions are now scrambling for freelance jobs. It’s not a good economy for anyone. I’m very fortunate to be doing what I love and getting paid for it.
AF: Do you have any interesting stories about being a science writer?
KH: I was at an SAA meeting once, wearing my About.com name tag, when somebody came up and said, I know About.com, what do you write for them? I said (duh) archaeology, and the guy pulled away from me like I’d told him I was running for political office. I turned around and there was Jerry Sabloff, president of the SAA, and he said “Hi Kris, what are you writing these days”. That’s kind of the life I lead, shame and glory, glory and shame, closely intertwined <grin>. I’ve met a lot of really great science writers, including of course the fabulous Brian Fagan, but also more generalist science writers who are all my role models, like Nicholas Wade and Heather Pringle and Ann Gibbons and Michael Balter. Lots of others.
AF: What’s your next step in your career?
KH: In 2005 I quit my day job to become a fulltime freelance writer, and in 2009 I had to go back to work because of the economy (George Bush has a lot to answer for). I want to go back to being a fulltime freelancer. The day job (which isn’t in archaeology) puts a crimp in my ability to do anything but write—I have no social life, except my husband and I go out for pizza occasionally. No time for social networking, either: I’m hideously in arrears over my Twitter and Facebook responsibilities, and worse—I can’t keep up with anybody else who is writing for the web. Sorry! Someday, I’ll be back there. In the meantime, I still get to write, and my productivity and traffic are satisfyingly huge, so I’m pretty happy, by and large. I’d like to travel a bit more than we have in the past, but career wise, I like being a freelance writer best of all. Of course, if somebody would offer me an endowed chair in public archaeology at Oxford, I’d probably accept. Or at least mull it over. Carefully.
AF: Do you have any publications in your name that you would like me to mention?
KH: I edited a collection of quotations for Left Coast Press a couple of years ago (The Archaeologist’s Book of Quotations), and I recently had a gig on the advisory board of the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Archaeology (2nd edition), for which I also updated an article on PreClovis. I wrote a biographical sketch of myself (hmm) for the SAA Record a couple of years back, and some pieces for Science and Archaeology magazines. But, by and large, I write on the Internet.
AF: Is there anything else you want to share?
KH: I have a great recipe for Greek chicken, but… another time. Two words: sun-dried tomatoes.
Again, I want to thank Hirst for her time, check out her site at http://archaeology.about.com/. Next time we’ll be getting that Greek chicken recipe.