Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Ron Charles (Tom Fougerousse)

For 17 years, Ron Charles has been a police officer in Louisville, Kentucky, working drug busts and diving for evidence in Ohio River muck. But in less than three years, when he's eligible for retirement, he'll embark on a new career in archaeology. Now a senior at the University of Louisville, Charles spoke with Samir S. Patel about shifting from the mean streets to dig sites.

How did you end up as a cop?

Who doesn't want to be a cop as a kid? I gave it a chance and it stuck. I always planned to finish my archaeology degree, but life got in the way. Two years ago, I finally went back to school, so when I walk away from this job, I can step right into my second career.

Are archaeology and police work related?

Absolutely. As a detective, I work after the fact. I'm looking for artifacts—broken glass or blood or clothing—to reconstruct a crime. It parallels archaeology, especially in underwater cases.

How is that?

I spent four years on the police dive team. One time, we were looking for a murder weapon a suspect had thrown in the river. We didn't have a lot of hope of finding a little knife in a major waterway, but we surveyed and marked off a grid, just like archaeologists. Eventually, we found it under the silt and documented its context for court. There's probably a gold mine of other information down there.

What are you going to take away from your years on the force?

First, I'll have to take a long, deep breath. One challenge will be not suspecting people—not everybody's a dirtbag. But I'm also going to keep my skepticism, which will help with developing theories. I look for only what the evidence is telling me.

Tell me about your first real dig.

I've studied with underwater archaeologist John Hale. He was invited to a Maya ceremonial site in Guatemala. They were looking for experienced divers, so he invited me. For the survey, we swam lines at arm's length, just like on an evidence search. We set down a grid, but the GPS readings were off, so we worked the way I had in the Ohio River—with just a compass. I hope to be invited back.

How was it different from police work?

As a cop, I usually knew what I was looking for and where it would be. But in Guatemala we didn't know what we were going to find. We would see a line of stones and follow it to another line that maybe led to an altar. It was neat not knowing what we might discover.

Do you have any regrets about waiting so long?

I can't think about that too much, but I'm behind the curve. I missed the prime of my archaeology career and maybe the opportunity to live abroad. I'm sure by this point I would be directing my own digs.

What would you most love to work on?

Central America piques my interest. The Aztecs and Maya had gruesome rituals and sacrifices. I've always wondered if we should consider sacrifices murder victims, or if some were selected for more personal reasons. I guess suspicion will always be a part of what I do.