The last time I saw Rebecca Sgouros she was sitting across from me with an eclipsing pile of barbecue and crumbly cornbread in front of her.
She had just gotten back to the United States after spending a year in the very gray Sheffield, England becoming an even better archaeologist. Even though she looked tired from travel, I recognized what I saw the first time I met her: she’s always thinking. And though she might not speak, something, you can see, is always smoldering. That, and that she managed to fit an amazing amount of barbecue into a very small body, I’ve always respected. Here’s more:
Tell me about yourself. What do you do?
I am an archaeologist! I graduated from Boston University and have just completed my Msc in Environmental Archaeology and Paleoeconomy at the University of Sheffield in England. I grew up in New Jersey but have been a traveller since before I could walk. I recently moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming where I live with my fiancé, co-archaeologist, and partner in crime, Matt. We’re living on Matt’s family’s Dude Ranch, the R Lazy S Ranch and it’s definitely an adventure getting used to the extreme cold and all the wildlife. In addition to archaeology I’m an avid foodie and yogi.
Archaeology; that’s the study of old people right?
Yes, it is! Most people don’t exactly know what we do and think that either we’re real-life Indiana Joneses scouring the most remote corners of the world for treasure, or that we study dinosaurs. Archaeology isn’t dinosaurs, and it isn’t as glamorous as Indie makes it seem. We spend a lot of time in doors studying and researching and writing articles or reports.
There are actually quite a lot of sub-fields within archaeology too. Because I’m a foodie, I am fascinated by past diets. What were the ancients eating? How did they prepare it? Why did they eat some things and not others? My area of focus is actually zooarchaeology: the study of animal bones. Animal remains can provide us with SO much information about husbandry practices, trade networks, dietary choices, butchery and culinary preparation etc. I dunno, some people think it’s weird that I study animal bones, I just love it though. It’s hard and takes a lot of study to identify not only the body parts, but the species and sometimes the age of the animal too! It’s really changed the way I eat now. We’ll be having dinner and I’ll look down at my meat and think “Oh, femur!”
What is the best part about doing archaeology?
The best part about doing archaeology is probably the traveling. It’s great to be able to spend summers outside doing field projects. After we graduated from undergrad, Matt and I took a year off and just found work wherever we could. We spend the winter in Athens, Greece, and then ran off to Belize for the spring! I’ve had the opportunity to be on projects in absolutely stunning locations. I’ve gotten to work at Mochlos, a little tiny island off of Crete where we had to take a sailboat to the site (and after the long hot days we could swim back to shore). I’ve lived in a house in the middle of the Belizean rainforest with all the monkeys, lizards and creepy-crawlies you could imagine!
Also, archaeology is such a stimulating field. It’s like solving mysteries! You have to find the clues and see what you can make out of it. It’s a great combination of science, humanities and adventure. Really it’s like playing all the time! I know that a lot of people feel like archaeology is really specialized and usually you study a very specific thing in only one part of the world your whole life, but I haven’t found that to be true. I love that I can work in Europe, Central America and North America all at the same time!
Have you always been adventuresome?
You know, I didn’t know I was an adventurer until Zoe asked me to contribute to this magazine. I guess it makes sense, considering my career, how much traveling I do, the places I’ve been, and the things I’ve seen. It’s definitely not the first adjective I’d use to describe myself. My mom always tells the story of when I was 3 or 4 and we were in Nova Scotia at my grandfather’s house on the lake. The water was SO cold, and I was just learning to swim. One moment I’m standing on the sand, wearing swimmies and contemplating the task at hand, then, all of a sudden they hear me yell “If it can be done, it SHALL be DONE!” and off I went into the water and didn’t look back once! So, while I’m definitely not the bravest, most thrill-seeking person, I haven’t let fear stop me from taking advantage of great opportunities.
What was your first archaeology project?
The summer after my freshman year at Boston University I found a field school in Connecticut working on a Native American Reservation. It was 5 weeks, I think, and we lived in the dorms out of Connecticut College. It was one of those eye-opening experiences for me learning the politics and history of reservation settlement. Everyday we went and surveyed and excavated in the forest. It was really strenuous work and we happened to be digging through poison ivy. Everybody was covered with it, itchy and miserable, but I was immune and didn’t get it. Not until the last week we were there. It turns out that I was so covered with the poison ivy stuff that eventually my defenses broke down, and when I got it, it was everywhere! I even had poison ivy on my lips and in my mouth. I think my parents were pretty nervous/suspicious when they sent me off to the project and didn’t know how I would manage. When they picked me up and I was all excited and couldn’t stop talking about the project despite being covered in hives, I think they knew that this was the career for me.
During your travels when have you felt the most out of place?
Definitely my first trip into the mountains with Matt. I’m not one for heights, and I wasn’t the biggest camper, but we were going on a survey project through the Absaroka Mountains in Wyoming. It was one of those crazy trips that you never forget involving fording rushing semi-frozen rivers on horseback and by foot and wondering all the time when and how it will feel to be eaten by a grizzly bear. I won’t say anymore now, because it’s just the perfect short story for another time. I’ll just say, I’m still happy I did it, and now, I’m a much better camper, hiker and adventurewoman-archaeologist extraordinaire!
Describe a moment when you’ve felt unexpectedly in-place.
I have spent a lot of time in Greece during my life but it wasn’t until 2010 that I lived there for any extensive amount of time. That was at the beginning of the economic crisis there and tension was building. That was the first time I had participated in a Greek protest. When Matt and I were living and working in Athens in 2012 we started going more regularly to the protests. They’re crazy. I had been raised knowing all about Greek political culture and their strong feelings towards their right to protest and challenge their government. It is really neat to see. People of all ages come out and enact this elaborate sort of dance with the Police. Eventually, the tear gas starts and after everybody has had a few good rounds and their eyes are burning things disperse and people go home. In theory, crowds of violent protesters, dumpster fires, molatov cocktails and policemen throwing tear-gas is extreme and terrifying. In practice, its kind of fun. Even when things go wrong, and you’re trapped in a hotel with your fiance’s Mom and Aunt during their visit to Greece, surrounded by thousands of angry anarchists (a story for another time). I dunno, maybe it’s because I’ve grown up hearing stories about the Greek protests, or its genetic, but either way it isn’t one of my bad memories.
You arrive in a new foreign city, what is the first thing you do?
Easy. I start canvassing the area for the best restaurants and café’s. We basically eat our way around a city. Even when I’m on field projects we eat well. It’s all about knowing where to go, trying random places, particularly the hole-in-a-walls, and asking locals where they go.
What does it feel like to be a female adventurer?
I think it’s great! The more the merrier! It’s definitely not the easiest being a woman sometimes but it’s definitely amusing. You get to learn a lot about gender-roles all over the planet! I used to have really short pixie hair. When I was in Belize we had a field-worker from the local village actually ask me if I was a “she”. He recognized my name was female, but couldn’t understand where my hair had gone!
You really just learn how to work around things. Sometimes, on archaeological projects in Greece the local workers will get really protective over me. They would absolutely refuse to let me use a pick-axe or push the wheelbarrow. They can’t allow me to jeopardize the future Greek children I might bear! It’s really crazy and you just kinda have to fight them on it. Archaeology is a fairly female-dominant profession actually. I’ve worked with women who are stronger and better at using a pick or a shovel than men. One woman I knew actually put a pick into her boot and she didn’t cry about it. She just kept on working! Probably the best part about being a female archaeologist adventure-woman is that I’ve met some truly inspiring women through the journey. And I don’t think that they know or care that “adventuring” is supposed to be a Man’s world.
What are you up to now, and what are your future plans?
As I said earlier, I have just recently moved to Jackson with Matt. We’re enjoying being done with graduate school and have started to volunteer with the JHHS Museum in town. We’ve been organizing their archaeological collection and will be cataloging them this winter. We would like to set up some local public events and educational programs in the area. We’ve also got an ongoing relationship with the Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in Maine (an incredible place everybody should visit) and we’re working on promoting the local archaeology and setting up new programs there too! Oh, and we’re planning a project to go up into the Grand Teton National Park and do some archaeological survey this summer. We’re really enjoying being settled and tucked in for winter after having finished such a grueling year of school, but it won’t be long until we’re sniffing around for some more projects.
Since you define your travel and adventures by food and culinary experiences, what is the most outrageous food you’ve eaten?
Outrageous? I don’t know; that’s tough. I haven’t really eaten any super crazy things like insects or dog or anything. I’ve had bear and porcupine and things like that though. I guess the most memorable food experience would involve something that seems quite ordinary to us: corn. When we were living and working down in Belize at a local Maya school we had several meals cooked and prepared by the students. It was incredible how many different ways you could have corn. I remember one time, we started off with a hot corn drink, had corn tamales and finished with a sort of corn-stew/soup. That was a lot of corn. It really should the versatility of the product but also how important corn is to the local maya community. Talk about staple crop!
So your fiancé, Matt, is also an archaeologist, how great is that?
It’s really awesome having someone who knows the lifestyle and has the same interests as you. We’ve been so lucky to be able to find opportunities for two archaeologists in a field with so few jobs. But it has been hard too. We’re not always on the same projects at the same time. Sometimes we have to spend the summers on opposite ends of the planet. When we both have these crazy schedules and sometimes little to no internet/phone access it’s hard to keep in touch. But definitely it’s a good thing that we’re both archaeologists. It’s extra-convenient because we both have different but complementary interests and experience; I study animal bones, Matt does plant remains. I’m more of a science-y type person where he’s definitely more theory driven. It makes us much more marketable as a pair. “Oh you need public-outreach and archaeological photography experience? Let me introduce you to my other-half!”