Photograph by Chandler Prude
Birthplace: Seattle, Washington
Current City: Austin, Texas
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be a scientist when I was young. As I grew older, and by the time I was in high school, I became very interested in history. The really great thing about being an archaeologist is that I get to do both. I study the past by using scientific inquiry and methods.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I took an anthropology class during my first year as an undergraduate and I just knew that I wanted to be an anthropologist. The subject included everything that I was interested in—biology, culture, and history. It took me a few more years to settle on the sub-discipline of archaeology. I was lucky to have a young female professor who was an archaeologist and a great mentor to me. I went on to graduate school a little uncertain of what I specifically wanted to study. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to go to Peru with my advisor and work with her in Nasca. This was another time when I just knew that this was what I wanted to do.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to archaeology?
There is just so much to learn about the past. An incredible diversity of ancient societies has existed and we have only scratched the surface of understanding many of them. My research explores some of the unique aspects of ancient civilizations but also examines the shared nature of all societies past and present. I think it is important for people to understand that we all have a common humanity and other cultures, both ancient and modern, can teach us a lot about ourselves.
What's a normal day like for you?
It really depends on if it is the academic year or the summer. During the academic year I spend most days teaching, meeting with students, serving on university committees, analyzing data collected in the field, writing journal articles, and applying for grants. During the summer I am able to go to Peru and do fieldwork. In the field the days start early because even though it is winter in South America I work in the Nasca desert where it can get very hot and windy in the afternoon. We generally work in the field until about 2 and then return to town for lunch. After lunch we do lab work, which includes cleaning, analyzing, and photographing artifacts, as well as working on drawings and writing reports. We do dinner around 7:30 and after that I usually finish up with my notes for the day, get things ready for the next day, and fall into bed pretty exhausted.
Do you have a hero?
I do not have a particular hero but I am very grateful to, and inspired by, all of the women who were archaeologists back when there were few of them in the field.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
I do not have one favorite field experience but I love the moment of discovery when something new and unexpected is found. The most challenging thing in the field is dealing with looting and looters. Looters are particularly interested in burials because that is where whole pots and other well-made artifacts are found. Burials can take a lot of time to excavate and when we find one it must be excavated entirely even if that means staying at the site into the night. If not, looters will come and destroy the burial looking for valuable artifacts that they can sell. This is a painful lesson that I learned when I was leading my first project in Nasca.
If you could have people do one thing to help preserve archaeological sites, what would it be?
Archaeological sites are being destroyed at an alarming rate through modern development, looters, and disturbance by people who are not aware of the importance of these cultural resources. I would urge people to respect these places and to try and learn more about them if they are interested. It is also important not to buy artifacts that have been illegally obtained from archaeological sites.
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The mysterious lines stretch for miles across southern Peru, spanning the plains adjacent to the bone-dry Atacama Desert, Earth’s driest.
Inside National Geographic Magazine
After a century of speculation, scientists believe they now understand the ancient culture and why people created the sprawling figures etched into the Peruvian desert.
In Their Words
An incredible diversity of ancient societies has existed and we have only scratched the surface of understanding many of them.
National Geographic Explorers Christina Conlee and Beverly Goodman investigate past tsunami sites and save treasures.
Hear an interview with Christina Conlee on National Geographic Weekend.
00:09:00 Christina Conlee Audio
Texas State University anthropologist and National Geographic Expeditions Council grantee Christina Conlee studies the mysterious Nasca Lines. The lines, enormous images and designs etched into the Peruvian desert, are the focus of the March 2010 National Geographic magazine article “Peru’s Puzzling Lines.” Conlee tells Boyd that she also uncovered evidence of human sacrifice at the site.
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