Chris Carter

From intelligence analyst to archaeologist

Chris Carter holds a PhD from Australian National University and is an archaeologist turned tour guide. Chris tells us what makes archaeology special to him and we learn more about how he discovered his passion and how that rubs off on others that travel with him.

1. Why do you do what you do?

I’m an archaeologist with the Australian National University but my real passion is raising the public’s awareness of archaeology and I’ve been doing that for a number of years.

I’ve always been an advocate of teaching in the field and not out of books. Students challenged me to walk the walk, so I started running trips, initially weekends away but that’s grown into an almost fulltime career.  

I like to introduce archaeology as the study of what people left behind in the past: landscapes, cities, settlements, not just tools etc. We don’t just have to dig holes as there is so much to discover by just observing what is around you. It’s a struggle to find any landscapes that haven’t been altered in some way by humans.

2. What first got you into archaeology?

It was a fascination about what people do. I spent ten years in the police force as a criminal intelligence analyst. In my police job, I wasn’t looking at hard and fast evidence, that was left up to the detectives.

Our job was to look at patterns in evidence, put together a story behind that evidence and postulate theories about what may be happening.  

Early into WWII, when the British were establishing the intelligence section, they recruited archaeologists from local universities to do analysis such as interpreting aerial photographs.

I came to archaeology from the other direction, as my police work led me to take more of an interest and my first international job was to look at the cocaine trade in South America. I fell in love with the place.  

3. What still fascinates you each time you go into the field?

I’m always learning and the best way to learn is to teach.

When you go to Maccu Pichu, for instance, the standard tour sees only an individual element of the place without any meaning. When we end up there, we are not surprised by what we see. That’s not to say we’re not overwhelmed by the place. it is one of the most incredible places on Earth. It’s absolutely breath-taking.  

But it’s not that unique. There are many other sites that are just as spectacular but they can’t be reached without a five day tough walk.

By the time we reach Maccu Pichu, we’ve learned the context behind the story of the civilisation. It makes sense because we’ve already seen so much of the system that put it there, how it fits in and becomes part of that continuum.

While most tour groups come and go in a couple of hours, we spend time discovering it for ourselves. Having some knowledge to start with and a group of people with which to discover things, reveals a complexity and story that you don’t get from a sightseeing trip. Travelling all that way, it makes sense to make the most of it.

4. Why does archaeology matter anyway?

It may seem flippant to say, but how do you know where you’re going when you don’t know where you’ve been? If we don’t learn from history, we can keep moving backwards. Archaeology is about reading landscapes and shows us how important our environment has been in the human view of the world.

Maccu Pichu is a really good example of a place that was situated to focus on and learn from both the Earth and cosmic spheres. Even though it was a highly religious doctrine, we are really talking about science. Even in fairly recent times, science and religion were one and the same - only recently have they become untied. That makes sense when you consider people who knew the seasons had some power and authority because they could advise on when to grow crops and the like. The forces that regulated these changes weren’t understood and were ascribed to a higher being but this made their observations of climate and seasons no less important.

In our current situation, we are facing major climatic shifts and negative changes to our landscape and oceans. What archaeology shows us is that humans have negatively impacted on landscapes for thousands of years. And what do we learn from this? In the past people didn’t take any notice and whole cities collapsed. Perhaps the Mayan civilisation disappeared because the most informed people didn’t have the political clout any more, to convince people to do the right thing. Or maybe sacrificing people to appease the Gods just didn’t do enough to help ... in the same way as rebuilding sea defences against rising sea level and storm surges doesn’t seem to always help us protect coastal towns.

Humans always seem to think we know best and can control nature but archaeology teaches us that’s never been an effective policy.

At a site we visit in Australia, the first settlers built houses on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River … even the local Aboriginals said they shouldn’t, the white fellas new best and ultimately their houses got washed away. They even built a wooden school and it got washed away, so they replaced it with a brick building and it still washed away. What I’ve heard from Aboriginal friends is that the Bunyip story was made up to keep people away from the rivers, a cultural disincentive to live near or put oneself in danger from flooding.

5. What’s one of your most memorable discoveries?

It’s not so much what I discover myself these days. What really gives me a buzz is when I get other people excited.

A few weeks ago we toured the Murrumbidgee and up the Darling. I simply picked an area off Google Earth because I thought we could find an Aboriginal site. No sooner as we arrived, we found tools, fireplaces … and then we found a burial area. It was more exciting for me, because I saw the reaction of other people. Just seeing them respond to what they saw was fantastic. That’s where I really get my enjoyment.

It’s those moments when, on instinct, you find things … when you think “I should find something here because” ... and then it appears.

Personally, one of the most thrilling times in my life was working in the Atacama desert in Chile. I climbed a hill and there was a mound. On top was a circular fireplace with a pot sitting in it. It’d probably been sitting there for more than 1,000 years. It wasn’t anything special but it was sitting there in the fireplace and it had been used. Perhaps I was the first person in a thousand years to see it.

6. What do people discover about archaeology on your tours that surprises them most?

We don’t realise what’s out there around us and that we can virtually go anywhere and see things. Once we understand this experience, we see things through different eyes.

Archaeologists aren’t treasure or jewel hunters, we deal with simple things. The stories can be complex … but people come away with a sense about the way our ancestors survived.  

It’s a true mystery. We know it’s evidence of something but we don’t know what. If you’re investigating a crime, you know what it is but we don’t have that evidence in archaeology. We can only guess as to what the evidence indicates may have happened.

It’s like fashion or abstract art, both of which have been around for thousands of years - why do people where the things they wear or paint pictures? Sometimes there is no practical purpose so if we discover a garment, we will never exactly know its full story. We look at the basics … what people ate, hunted, the climate they lived in and how they survived.

And it doesn’t take much training to discover things either. For anyone, it becomes intuitive after a little while. When people are in the group and start looking, they are surprised how quickly they start to find things out about a place - spot the variations in the landscape or little details of things that are out of place that are a sign of a bigger story.

7. What’s still your favourite place to go to?

The next place! Where I am at one time always seems to be my current favourite place.

8. What do you tell people who say Australia doesn’t have fascinating archaeology?

You’ve never looked. You have to put a place in context. We don’t have spectacular ruins but we do have a fascinating history that goes back more than 40,000 years.

On our Australian trips we look at landscapes and how Aboriginals perceived them and worked in the landscape. There are big differences to be seen, to the trained eye, once you’re tuned in.

Last tour, we looked at the ecological and cultural history of the region. We also took a look at the palaeontology and geology of the area, how Aboriginals used the landscape and how Europeans have since used it.

There is so much to see and you can do hands-on archaeology. As was proved on our recent trip, it was enough to identify a prospective patch of land on Google Earth and that revealed a previously undiscovered Aboriginal burial ground.

9. What do you hope people get from spending time with you?

I hope people come back with a more enquiring mind. Archaeology reveals questions about the past and about us. It gives us a new sense of how we have always lived and our connection to the landscape.

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