Q and A with archaeologist Tom Becker

by: L.E. BASKOW, Archaeologist Tom Becker dusts off some finds lying around the office that were recovered in digs around the Northwest. Among his greatest hits: a flattened bugle, Lucky the dog and heads without bodies.

Apparently nobody ever told Tom Becker that digging up dirt is a less-than-honorable profession. And digging up the past? It can lead to no good. You could even stop progress.

Becker, 34, is an archaeologist. Yes, he's been to the Middle East and South America. No, he doesn't own a fedora or a whip. But most of his work is done for Applied Archaeological Research, a Portland-based firm that not only has a lot of vowels in its name, but excavates and maps historic sites in the Pacific Northwest, often days before developers' bulldozers come along.

Portland Tribune: Have you ever stopped a development?

Tom Becker: Delayed but never stopped.

Tribune: What happened?

Becker: I was working on a shell midden site.

Tribune: A shell midden? Is that something sharp you wear on your hands when it gets cold?

Becker: It's a type of garbage heap. It was at the coast, and they were going to build a large condominium complex there. We worked about three months. They quite often put pressure on us to work as fast as possible. In the end the development went on. We excavated a fair amount of it, but there's now a large condominium there.

Tribune: What's the most unusual thing you've found on a dig?

Becker: That probably goes back to when I was working in Israel. We were working on a site that 20 years previous an excavation next door had found 40 skeletons without heads. We came across a layer with nothing but heads.

Tribune: What about locally?

Becker: One of the neatest things I found was a flattened old bugle in a privy. It will end up in the Clark County Historical Museum. We also occasionally uncover people's pets. In downtown Vancouver we came across a skeleton of a dog that still had its name tag on. I believe it was Lucky. We're guessing from the age of other things we found that it was 80 to 100 years old.

Tribune: Is there a dream expedition you'd like to join?

Becker: There's still that part of me that always has that dream of going somewhere like South Mexico or Guatemala or Thailand to be the first one to discover something. Somewhere there's still that big temple covered by jungle. My boss lets me take time off every other year and I go down to Suriname to work on escaped-slave settlements. On Suriname, I get those moments where I think, 'Wow, this is as close to Indiana Jones as I'm going to get.' '

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