ExplorersBio

Christopher Begley

Archaeologist

Waitt Grantee

Picture of researchers in a cave

Photograph by Joshua Howard

Picture of Christopher Begley

Photograph by Drew Kung

Current City: Lexington, Kentucky

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I always wanted to be a field scientist of some sort. As a kid, I did not realize you had to specialize. I also wanted to be an explorer, like Jacques Cousteau, going out and exploring the world. Archaeology attracted me because of the unique combination of activities involved, from library research to trekking through jungles, from excavating with simple tools to using the latest technology. And, of course, I love solving a mystery. In some ways, my wish as a child to be a scientist/explorer/detective is reflected in the work I do today.

How did you get started in your field of work?

First, I read everything I could find about archaeology and paleontology as a kid. When I went to college I found a group dedicated to connecting amateurs and professional archaeologists. I began to volunteer on archaeological projects and arranged a couple of internships. That experience and those connections have been very important for me.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to archaeology?

The vast majority of human history is accessible only through archaeology, and we are losing that history all the time. There is an imperative to study the past, and to make every effort to preserve and protect it. I am inspired by the fact that I am able to bring a previously unknown past to life, to discover a human story that has been lost to the tides of time.

What's a normal day like for you?

Sometimes I feel like I lead two lives. One is at home in Kentucky, where I teach and write. Then I have my life in the field, which varies with the project. I mainly work in the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, so a typical day could involve anything from hiking all day to excavating to mapping newly discovered sites in the jungle. Most of my projects involve living in the jungle for weeks at a time, camping and traveling by dugout canoe or on foot. I also do underwater archaeology in various parts of the world, and those projects involve getting gear ready, going out in the boat, diving and working, then getting it all squared away again. In many ways, that is more exhausting than the jungle. I love the balance that archaeology provides between life in the field and life back in the lab or library. It´s very physical as well as mental.

Do you have a hero?

The closest I come to having a hero would be Jacques Cousteau, I suppose. He made scientific contributions, but his greatest accomplishment was sharing and spreading his passion about conservation and the protection, and he recognized the importance of educating the public and sharing that passion. He also brought the excitement of discovery to people everywhere, and it certainly inspired me.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

My favorite and most challenging experience has been working in really remote, difficult places in the jungle and finding wonderfully preserved archaeological sites, so far away from any people that they have been almost undisturbed for centuries. Getting there is always a challenge, but one that I really enjoy. Sometimes we walk for a week or more to access some of the most remote locations, carrying heavy packs with all our gear for work and for living in the jungle. In the midst of one of these expeditions, it can be really miserable, but once you have accomplished your goals, it is incredibly satisfying.

What are your other passions?

I am passionate about sharing my experiences with people that do not normally get to have such experiences. I try to make my projects accessible in a number of ways, including bringing non-scientists along to help. I lead adventure travel trips that combine the excitement of a trip through the jungle, whitewater rafting, or mountain climbing with a scientific and educational component. These can be life-changing trips for the participants, and I love helping that happen. I also teach wilderness survival courses, and I love sharing that knowledge, knowing that it could save somebody´s life.

What do you do in your free time?

I have three young children, and most of my free time is dedicated to them. I do spend a lot of time training in one thing or another related to a project I want to do, which in the last few years has involved training as a scientific diver, as a white-water guide, and training in technical mountaineering.

If you could have people do one thing to help save archaeological resources, what would it be?

Making your passion for protecting archaeological resources known to community leaders, at every level, is perhaps the most important thing you can do to help us preserve the past for the future. This could take many forms, including calling and writing legislators and other decision-makers, and we can support the groups dedicated to presevation, such as local historical societies or international organizations like the Society for American Archaeology.

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In Their Words

I am inspired by the fact that I am able to bring a previously unknown past to life, to discover a human story that has been lost to the tides of time.

—Christopher Begley

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