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Gary Crawford, a globetrotting archaeologist, on how he got his job

Plus, his most fascinating discovery


Gary Crawford is an anthropological archaeologist at the University of Toronto Mississauga. We spoke with him about how he got the gig and what he’s learned along the way.

Canadian Business: How did you get your job?

Gary Crawford: It took well over 10 years of university education. I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto then headed off to the University of North Carolina for my graduate degrees. As part of my program I spent 12 months doing research in Japan.

When did you know you wanted to be an archaeologist?

I had been interested in archaeology since I was about 10 years old. My family lived in France in those days and my parents loved to drag me around to see historical sites. I remember visiting Rome and seeing the Roman Forum. I could see where the current road surface was and that archaeologists had excavated deep into the ground to expose all the ruins. It connected my interest in science fiction and time travel to reality. By digging into the earth one could go back in time.

What’s the biggest misconception about your job?

That being an archaeologist is romantic and exciting and that we are always searching for important treasure. The research can be exciting, but archaeologists need to be incredibly patient, as do most scientists. It can be hard physical work and quite lonely at times. When I first began fieldwork the only way to communicate with home was through snail mail or the occasional, expensive long-distance phone call.

If you weren’t an archaeologist, what would you be?

I’d still be an academic of some sort. Curiosity seems to drive me.

Do you have a typical day?

No matter the time of year I usually need to work with my graduate students. I usually go overseas to China in the spring or summer for short periods. When I’m abroad my schedule is quite flexible depending on what I’m hoping to accomplish.

What advice would you give your 15-year-old self?

Consider studying a non-European language such as Chinese or Japanese.

Where is the most interesting place you’ve travelled?

My favourite is Japan. I have a decent understanding of the country and its culture and everything about it fascinates me. South Africa is incredible because of the long history of humanity there. The landscape beyond Cape Town is outstanding and one can hike for hours scrambling over rocks, examining rock shelters and caves for ancient wall paintings. In contrast, Cape Town bears the marks of apartheid and its demise. It’s such a rich place for studying both the good and bad of humanity.

Your most fascinating discovery?

Back in the 1980s our team was investigating a ninth century A.D. site in northern Japan. One of our goals was to figure out how people were able to live in a small village without agriculture. The textbooks that documented the history of these people, known as Ainu, told us they were primitive hunters and gatherers. Shortly after beginning work on the site it became clear from the refuse left behind that they were actually farmers who also hunted, gathered and fished. We found the burned remains of nearly every crop plant that people were growing elsewhere in East Asia at the time. It was quite a shock. It pushed me to look beyond Japan and eventually took me to China where I began exploring early agricultural history.