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Drawn to Archaeology June 25, 2008

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Heather Pringle on site

Journalist Heather Pringle has been writing for ARCHAEOLOGY magazine for several years, contributing articles such as include "Medieval DNA, Modern Medicine," (November/December 2007), "Profiteers on the High Seas" (July/August 2007), and "Hitler's Willing Archaeologists" (March/April 2006). Now she is the ARCHAEOLOGY website's "blogger-in-residence" with her weekly installments of Beyond Stone and Bone. How did Pringle get her start? ARCHAEOLOGY's Michelle Lessard asked her that, and much more, in a recent interview.

Your first jobs were as a research assistant in the Provincial Museum of Alberta, the poetry/fiction editor of Branching Out Magazine, and a research officer for Alberta Advanced Education and Manpower. What inspired you to change fields and become a journalist with an archaeological focus?
I've been fascinated by the ancient past since childhood. For a time I thought I would become a historian, but the university I attended as an undergrad focused on political history, rather than social history. I found that rather dull at the time, so I switched to English lit and specialized in Victorian novels, which brimmed with portraits of nineteenth-century English life. When I eventually became a journalist, I was drawn almost immediately to stories about archaeology and how people lived in the distant past. I've never looked back.

You've written scores of articles on many different topics. Do you consider yourself to have a speciality in any particular area, or do you take assignments as they come? What topics have you found to be the most interesting?
I pretty much take assignments as they come. I'm very eclectic in my interests, but of course I have favorite subjects. In my early teens, I was deeply fascinated by the Inca, and even wrote a short story about the building of Machu Picchu. I remain especially intrigued today by the Inca empire and its inner workings.

Not all the articles you've written are focused on archaeology--some are on modern issues. Do you find your archaeological background useful when dealing with more modern topics?
Yes, definitely. I think having an appreciation for the past and an abiding interest in other cultures really helps in many ways. To be a good journalist, for example, you need to be able to see the world through the eyes of other people, people who are very different. Archaeologists learn to do that, too--I think it comes with the job.

In your daily life do you find uses for your archaeological background? Do you believe it is useful for everyone to have basic knowledge of archaeology?
Yes, everyone could profit from studying archaeology. I recently came across a wonderful quote from one of Eugene O'Neill's plays--"The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future, too." I think many of the things we learn from the ancient past are particularly relevant today. Climate change is a case in point. The more we learn about how humans adapted to rapid climate change in the past, the better off we will be now.

Were you interested in archaeology as a child? What recommendations would you have for other kids interested in archaeology?
I would recommend that they read a lot. Historical fiction is a superb introduction to the past. I still remember reading Mary Renault's wonderful novels--The King Must Die, The Bull from the Sea, and The Mask of Apollo--late at night when I was young. They fired my imagination about ancient Greece.

Blogs have become popular as a way to share opinions and information, or just to chronicle daily life. What made you want to try blogging? Do you think you will have opportunities with your blog that you wouldn't with more conventional journalism?
I wanted to write in a more personal vein about archaeology and blogging is one way of doing that. I've had some astonishing archaeological experiences over the years, and I wanted to bring some of the insights I've gleaned from that into my writing.

How do you decide what topic you discuss in each blog entry? Is it something you are professionally familiar with, something in the news, or just whatever is strikes your fancy at the time?
I find ideas for my blogs in all three ways. When I'm not at the keyboard, I'm reading about archaeology and talking to archaeologists or emailing back and forth with them. Intriguing new ideas are constantly crossing my desk. Some days it's like a big traffic jam as I try to sort through them.

While doing research for your book The Mummy Congress (2001) you were able to attend the World Congress on Mummy Studies where scores of mummies were displayed. Which mummy did you find the most fascinating in history or appearance? What was the atmosphere like at a convention with so many scientists and mummies all in one place?
The World Congress on Mummy Studies in Arica, Chile, was a wonderful experience--about 200 or so mummy experts all jammed into this little hotel by the sea. What amazed me was that most of them were working on mummy research in their spare time, as glorious obsessions. In their real life they were pathologists, parasitologists, family doctors and the like. Of all the mummies I learned about at the congress, the Chinchorro mummies intrigued me the most. They are the oldest human made mummies in the world--far older than the Egyptian mummies. And the Chinchorro mummies are covered in a kind of body suit made of painted clay. They look like works of art: some are very, very beautiful and haunting.

You have written on several occasions about how the Ahnenerbe, a group of Nazi archaeologists, twisted and misinterpreted evidence from prehistoric sites in order to claim that the ancestors of modern man had founded civilization while in "Greater Germany." Did the limits of archaeological research methods in the 1930s and 40s aid or hinder this fact twisting? How did other countries and other archaeologists react to these skewed interpretations?
Yes, certainly the limitations of dating methods in the 1930s played directly into the Ahnenerbe's attempts to twist prehistory. Radiocarbon dating was still in the future, so archaeologists used relative methods of dating such as stratigraphy and stone tool typologies to deduce the age of a site. This allowed Nazi researchers to play fast and loose with chronologies. By the late 1930s, many European archaeologists were becoming suspicious of German archaeology: they recognized that Nazi politics was poisoning the scientific community in Germany.

So far you have published four books on a range of topics from Nazi archaeologists to Waterton Lakes National Park. Do you have a new book in the works?
I am currently concentrating on magazine writing, but I have several ideas for future books that I am exploring.

What is the subject of the next article you will be writing for ARCHAEOLOGY magazine?
I'm working on a major story on an international team of archaeologists and anthropologists who excavated mass graves in Iraq in order to gather evidence for the trial of Saddam Hussein and others. I think it is one of the most moving stories I've encountered in all of my years of journalism.

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© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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