Our guest blogger today is Dr. Barnet Pavao-Zuckerman. In this post, she uses humor to reflect on one aspect of her job. Dr. Pavao-Zuckerman is Associate Curator of Zooarchaeology at Arizona State Museum and recently named Associate Director of the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology.
I admit it, sometimes I cringe before I answer the telephone. My office phone rarely rings, so when it does, it’s often someone calling with a bone or fossil they want me to identify. Why cringe? After all, this is a way to connect with Arizona State Museum’s public, highlight our experts, and get to see some really interesting stuff.
I cringe because I loathe being the bearer of bad news, disappointing and dashing the hopes of decent people. But, nine times out of ten what people bring to me is not a bone, not a fossil, but is, in fact, just a rock. Of course, I never say that. But how to soften the blow? I recently asked some of my friends and colleagues to help me out. Here are some of the more creative suggestions for how to break the bad news:
1) “Ahhh, very rare, a Flintstone paper weight!!”
2) “I’m afraid your specimen is artifactually challenged.”
3) “It’s a geofact!”
4) “It may be a rock, but it’ll make an excellent pet!”
5) “It’s only a rock, but it’s a really INTERESTING rock.”
Every once in a while people bring in something that isreal bone, but that adds an additional level of anxiety. What if they’re hoping it’s something really spectacular and I have to tell them it’s just somebody’s discarded pork chop or chicken wing? A colleague told me that someone once brought in a leg bone with an incised line spiraling up the outer surface. They were convinced that this was some ancient relic with important ritual function. Can you tell where I’m going with this? It was real bone, alright, but from a spiral cut ham. This, folks, is my professional nightmare.
A few times people have brought me items that were “made to deceive” (excuse the Antiques Roadshow lingo). The owners of such objects are usually already suspicious, making my job easier. But, I remember vividly the wood-stained bison vertebra with a modern “arrowhead” embedded in it at an angle that only a hunter ten feet tall could achieve. The arrowhead was so poorly made it would not have cut through a sheet of paper, let alone a bison hide. Whoever “crafted” this object had cut a square hole in the bone and popped in the arrowhead, not bothering to wipe up the excess glue. Diagnosing the artifact was easy, but breaking the bad news was hard.
So, sometimes I have to be the bearer of bad news, but these encounters often bring visitors to the Arizona State Museum who might not otherwise have made the trip, or who have not been in years. They are awed, enlightened, and moved by the real treasures within our walls. They come with rocks, leave with a one-of-a-kind experience, and I keep picking up the phone.