Richard Talbot is the director of the Office of Public Archaeology at BYU. He began working at his alma mater in 1984 right after his college graduation.
You don’t teach classes here at BYU, but you really are a teacher out in the field, instructing the students, right?
Yeah, we pick up where the classroom ends. We see ourselves as the mentoring arm of the Anthropology Department. When the students go to class, they learn as much as they can from the text books and instructors, but then we take them and put what they’ve learned in practice and give them the hands on experience. This is more than what others would consider an internship; we teach them everything that a real archaeologist would do — the boring stuff along with the fun stuff.
I’m guessing this field is really hard to teach in a classroom. Can you do the same things in a classroom that you can in the field?
No, not at all. Grasping the concepts in your mind is one thing but actually doing it in the field is another. That comes full circle, they take that hands on experience back to class and are able to conceptualize what they are learning.
Why is it important to excavate and find cultural items from the past? Personally, why do you do this day after day?
Two reasons I do it personally; the overriding reason, obviously, is to mentor the students and give them the opportunity. In a broader sense, it’s our heritage–it’s everyone’s heritage. The difference between archaeology and say, for example, history, is that we touch the past. It’s wonderful to read about history and lives and what people are feeling and thinking, but with archeology you actually find and touch and study what people touched and what people did.
It connects the past but it connects us with the landscape as well. It connects us with the land the people lived on. It’s sad to see that lost. That’s another reason why we have archeology, to save as much of the heritage as we possibly can. It disappears very quickly.
What is one of the main aspects you enjoy about being part of the BYU community?
I probably sound like a broken record, but for us it’s been the opportunity to mentor students and process of discovery. It’s being able to take students out into the field and together with them discover and learn new things. It’s what I did when I was a young archeologist student, that thrill of discovery continues. Not only do you keep discovering new things, but you see the excitement of the students as they go through that discovery process.
How were you able to help with the Provo Tabernacle excavation?
It goes back to the idea that not only that it’s our backyard here in Provo, but also we were able to get students involved. It’s hard to choose a favorite experience. On one hand, there’s the involvement of so many students. Because it’s so close, they could be in class one hour, and go down and work the next hour and then come back to class. Another aspect is the public involvement was so intense. People wanted to see a part of their history that nobody really knew still existed. But just the experience to dig and see the pieces of the past, the traces of the past that were left by the pioneers was great. It’s putting the pieces of the puzzle back together, that’s basically what archaeology is. You’ve got this massive puzzle and so any of those pieces are lost but when you can find a few pieces that fit, it can tell you a lot more about the past.