In the public imagination, the field of archaeology holds a notable amount of intrigue. Through American media such as the Indiana Jones franchise, many people view archaeology as the business of constantly unearthing mysteries and discovering groundbreaking artifacts. Picture classic scenes from this type of media in which the handsome, tough male protagonist comes across a priceless object. The ancient medallion, grail, or whatever it may be glows in his face. It’s somehow perfectly preserved in an upright position. Now, picture a large group of scholars quietly digging their trowels around rocks and occasionally mourning the loss of a worm they accidentally sliced in half. For the most part, that’s what archaeology really looks like, at least here at the Kenyon Archaeology Project. 

This is not to say that archaeology, as practiced in reality, isn’t exciting. I may be biased as an archaeology student, but I think there is just as much mystery and excitement in revealing the mundane parts of the lives of those who came before us. This past Friday’s excavations and the archaeological theory we read as a class bring this excitement to fruition. In Cynthia Robin’s 2020 article titled “Archaeology of Everyday Life,” she discusses how important understanding everyday life in history is to piecing together the broader values and practices of society at the time. Robin writes, “Daily activities can have a profound effect on how households, communities, and societies operate. People’s daily activities and interactions shape their social world and societies,” (Robin, 2020, p. 381). How humans live on the day-to-day scale is ultimately how humans live their lives. Thus, how the early people of Kenyon lived their everyday lives reveals how these people really lived in general, at least during their time at the institution. Artifacts relating to everyday life also remind us of our own humanity, and the fact that humans have always done human things. We’ve always had our trinkets and our tools, and through the practice of everyday archaeology, we can see aspects of the present in the past. 

The artifacts we found during this week’s excavations pair well with this notion of everyday life in archaeology. In my excavation partner and I’s unit, we found remnants of the mundane. We found ceramics with floral decorations, but our most exciting find was the engraved stem of a smoking pipe. While neither of these examples glowed in our faces or revealed some kind of groundbreaking mystery (we can’t all be Indiana Jones), they did something more important. They showed us what people were really doing at the time of Kenyon’s founding. It’s important to note, too, that we don’t know who these objects belonged to. The history of Kenyon is so caught up in the mythologizing of Philander Chase that it can be easy to lose sight of what the students and workers–the average people–were doing at this time. The Indiana Jones movies make it clear that the artifacts the protagonist finds are transcendent, but I think the exact same thing is true of the mundane artifacts we’ve found. Through the material past, even just a small piece of it, we can imagine what life really looked like for people in the past. The objects we find today were used by people who are long gone but who are embedded in the history of Kenyon. The pipe stem was once part of someone’s daily ritual. These artifacts belonged to real people, and some were even sentimental knick knacks that took on a transcendent quality in the mind of their owners. Upon closer inspection, we can now see that what looks like a mundane piece of trash can become a sublime window into the past.