Final Say: Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni
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Nicholas Bellantoni, 62, serves as the state archaeologist with the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History and Archaeology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Connecticut. He lives in Newington.
How often are you asked if you carry a whip and a pistol?
[laughs] Back in the ’80s when the movies first appeared, I got a call from the Associated Press asking what my opinion was of the Indiana Jones concept and I was a bit hard on it, saying it was more treasure hunting than the science of archaeology, which is what we really do. Unfortunately, that went across the nation and the next thing I knew NBC was asking me to go on “Today” to debate Harrison Ford ! I said, “No, no, no!” Fortunately, Harrison also said no, so it never came to pass. Seeing Indiana Jones and wanting to be an archaeologist is like watching Luke Skywalker and wanting to be an astronaut—no connection to reality. However, we love the adventures, the movies are a lot of fun. My kids when they were little were upset that I left the house without a pistol and a whip, but it wasn’t necessary, believe me!
What inspired you to spend your life digging in the dirt?
I’m a late bloomer. It took a while for me to get going. I was very immature in high school and as a grammar school student. My poor parents—I can’t remember a parent-teacher meeting when my mother didn’t come home crying, I was such a problem. Barely graduated. But in the mid ’60s after I graduated from high school, I did go into the service and served four years in the U.S. Navy, and was a bit more mature when I came back as a result. I just want to make it clear, I wasn’t in Vietnam; my service was aboard an aircraft carrier with NATO—we were up in the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic hunting Russian nuclear subs, playing war games, really.
When I got out of the service, I had no skills and needed to make something of myself. I used the G.I. bill to go to college. No college would take me because I had such poor grades in grade school, but Middlesex Community College in Middletown took me in as a returning veteran and gave me a chance. I did well there. I took a course and anthropology and it was like a light switch went on. I went like, “Wow!” The next thing I knew I transferred to Central Connecticut State University where I majored in archaeology and anthropology, the next thing I knew I was in grad school, the next thing I knew was I graduated with my doctorate, the next thing I know they gave me a job. So I was a late, late bloomer. I didn’t even think of being an archaeologist or even think it was feasible, until I was 25 years old, which most people say is kind of late.
What’s the biggest challenge in teaching archaeology to students?
I think the challenge right now is keeping their attention, even outside of class. There’s just so much going on in their world, so much technology in the palm of their hand, that they’re easily distracted into other things. We like to think that we multitask—can they be doing other things while they look into a lecture—but the human brain just doesn’t work like that. We may fool ourselves into thinking we’re multitasking but you can only really concentrate on one thing at a time and you lose other aspects.
I think the issue is keeping them with you, and also stressing the significance of archaeology and archaeological sites. We live in such a future-oriented culture where we’re trying to keep up with the latest technology, the latest computers and all, we lose the past very quickly. Why does it become old-fashioned or irrelevant? Why is it important to know how they lived here during the Colonial era or how Native Americans adapted to changing environments thousands of years ago. Why is that significant to them today. You have to make cogent arguments to make them understand that the science of archaeology has a role in the contemporary society in terms of understanding these things in the past. I think that’s a hard message, too, because we and they are so future-oriented.
What role does archaeology play in a growing technological world?
Archaeology teaches us about how humans have adapted and changed their behavior for thousands of years. The concept of sustainability, of how we make decisions today on how we live on the land and manage food resources—people have done this before. Only they’ve done it at different levels of technology at different times, and we can learn from those decisions. Humans are humans, whether they occupied the planet thousands of years ago or they occupy it today in the 21st century.
Does that fly in the face of the old axiom “History teaches us we don’t learn from history”?
You know, you could say that. [laughs] We tend to make similar mistakes over and over again, so I’m not sure we learn those lessons even when we know that. I think Americans, especially with their frontier spirit and the concept of progress, we tend to fail to look at the past as models for the future because we don’t trust it.
I grew up in the south end of Hartford in the 1950s, and my grandfather, who lived in the same building as us, was born in the late 19th century in Sicily. His world—they didn’t have automobiles, they didn’t have indoor plumbing, they basically lived kind of like Julius Caesar did, except they had the railroad. I remember growing up, I had a hard time understanding, “How can he help me understand my problems growing up in a city during the 1950s?” because he came from another world, and now I look back on that and I say, “Gee whiz, I wish I had taken more advantage of talking to my grandfather because he would’ve given me insight that I could not appreciate as a young man.”
Even when we learn about history, we make the same mistakes sometimes because we don’t appreciate the solutions of the past as being applicable in today’s world, although I’d argue they are.
What exactly does the state archaeologist do?
One of the nice things about my job is that every day is different—I don’t have a normal week or sometimes even a normal month! My position is mandated by state legislation in terms of responsibilities, so my teaching of anthropology at UConn is kept to a minimum. My real job is historic preservation. I work with all 169 state municipalities on land-use issues—subdivisions, shopping malls—things that might affect archaeological sites, so the majority of what I do is on-the-ground preservation before those sites are destroyed. I also work very closely with the medical examiner’s office and police departments whenever human skeletal remains are uncovered. I maintain an office of archaeology, review development projects and am with the State Museum of Natural History and Archaeology at UConn, so I also do public outreach. I do more teaching in a town office or a construction-site trailer than I do at the university itself. I wear a lot of hats.
Where’s the line between archaeology and forensic police work?
As archaeologists, we’ve developed skills in how to get from a skeleton the age and sex, degree of exercise, degree of nutrition, cause of death, trauma, diseases . . . That old saying “Dead men tell no tales” is absolutely wrong. Dead men tell a lot of tales. We’ve been trained to do that for historic reconstruction, but it’s applicable in the modern world in terms of forensic analysis, trying to determine identification when all we have left of a victim is skeletal remains. We’re trained to get the most minute piece of bone out of the ground and analyze it.
Is there a cut-off in terms of how old something is in regard to you examining it?
Actually what we use is the criteria based on the National Register of Historic Places so that I have the authority for the preservation of archaeological sites that are 50 years old or more. The scary part of that is that 12 years ago, I became eligible for the national register myself. [laughs] In fact, sometimes I wonder if you’re older than the sites you dig. Fifty years is the criteria.
Most important tool an archaeologist uses?
Oh, the archaeologist himself. We have various analytical techniques we can use in the laboratory, we have certain tools that we use for recovery in the field, but in the end, I think it’s the archaeologist themselves who are the main instrument because the development of hypotheses, the development of solutions for problems that come up out in the field in recovery, or is potentially analytically accessible and practical in a particular case. We have all these tools, but it’s the archaeologist themselves who are the most important instruments. Individually and collectively, and I should emphasize collectively because we don’t work individually, we work in multidisciplinary teams, we bring in other scientists, we work collectively to solve problems. It’s gotten to the age, with the scientific specialization, the concept of the Renaissance Man is gone. There’ll never be another Thomas Jefferson who delved into a billion different things. It’s so specialized today that we, as individuals, can’t have all the knowledge that we need to bring to understand. We need to bring in and collaborate with other scientists. But that’s a lot of fun, by the way, to bring another specialist from other fields and have them work with you, from historians to biologists to geologists to geographers. It’s so cool to work with others to solve a problem, even if the problem is archaeological.