Introducing  Our Midwest Regional Director, Part 2 of  the Midwest Regional Office Blog

By Paul Gardner

Becoming the Midwest Regional Director for The Archaeological Conservancy exemplifies John Lennon’s saying that “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans”.  I grew up in rural North Carolina to parents who each had roots in the state extending to the 1700’s. My father was an aircraft mechanic who ran a small country airport outside of Raleigh, so I mostly grew up in a hanger, gassing and washing general aviation aircraft and serving as a mechanic’s helper. While it was not a particularly formative experience career-wise – other than leaving me with a deep desire to pursue employment that did not require getting greasy – looking back, however, I can see that interacting with the broad range of clientele from farmers to CEO’s was good practice for my current position. Looking back, I can see that I had perhaps a bit more than the typical interest in the past – I was the one who would halt childhood rambles with my friends to look for arrowheads along the creek banks – but I never considered archaeology as a career.

When I entered the University of North Carolina in 1972, it was as a pre-med candidate, but within three days I had realized that the intense competition for grades that consumed my classmates was not for me. Eventually I found my way to the anthropology department and the archaeology laboratory where I found the proper mix of intellectual engagement and camaraderie.  I attended a Texas Tech field school in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas after my sophomore year, then spend the next series of summers excavating in the North Carolina Piedmont and along the Chesapeake Bay. In 1976 I was offered a full fellowship to attend graduate school studying African Archaeology at Boston University. While my course work progressed without problems, research opportunities were quite limited, and I was informed by my faculty advisor that I should anticipate being an “armchair Africanist” whose active fieldwork would be in the U.S. As a result, I decided if I was destined to be a North American archaeologist, then I should be trained as one, and since I could get better training for that at much less expense at UNC, I entered the graduate program at Chapel Hill.

Tour group looking at a floation set-up for recovering Archaeobotanical remains.
Tour group looking at a flotation set-up for recovering Archaeobotanical remains.

At Chapel Hill I completed an M.A. and wrote a thesis analyzing late prehistoric pottery then switched my focus to archaeobotany, analyzing and interpreting plant remains from archaeological sites. The 1980’s were a particularly exciting time to be a North American archaeobotanist, as the field recovery of archaeological plant remains had surged in the 1970’s following the “flotation revolution”, the discovery that carbonized plant remains could be water-separated from archaeological sediments and still retain sufficient integrity to be identified microscopically.

The proliferation of data resulted in major revisions of our understanding of the origin of agriculture in the Eastern Woodlands, as well as the discovery of previously unrecognized Native American cultigens.  In the thick of all was UNC-Chapel Hill, where Professor Richard Yarnell attracted a cadre of talented graduate students that would go on to have successful careers of their own. Among them were Gary Crawford (University of Toronto), Gayle Fritz (Washington University), and Kristen Gremillion (The Ohio State University).

Cast of Plants of Native North America: Sunflower, Little Barley, Goosefoot or Lamb’s Quarters, Marshelder or Sumpweed, Erect Knotweed, Maygrass Gourds and Squashes, Maize or Corn, Beans and Tobacco. Image from
Cast of Plants of Native North America: Sunflower, Little Barley, Goosefoot or Lamb’s Quarters, Marshelder or Sumpweed, Erect Knotweed, Maygrass Gourds and Squashes, Maize or Corn, Beans and Tobacco. Image from

The latter would loom particularly large in my future story, as we married in 1991. At the time I was finishing a research appointment at East Carolina University, where I was completing a project investigating a site that was thought to have been visited by Sir Walter Raleigh’s “Lost Colonists”. Kris, meanwhile, completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution. Kris won the career race when Ohio State made her the first tenure-track job offer. I became the spouse-in-tow and followed her to Columbus. She established herself at university, and I became a contract archaeologist doing archaeobotanical analysis and report-writing from a home laboratory/office. After three years of it, I was growing dissatisfied with writing appendices for site reports for sites I had never seen. I began to look for some way out of the basement.

Serendipitously, one Friday evening I was hanging out with Kris and the other OSU archaeologists when Bill Dancy mentioned that The Archaeological Conservancy was advertising for a new person for the Midwest office. I had long been aware of The Archaeological Conservancy, but truthfully, I had never given it much thought. However, when hearing of the vacancy, I immediately announced to Bill, “I want that job!” It was truly a “road to Damascus” moment in which I saw my new course in life open before me. Over the next couple of days I cut off my ponytail, bought a suit, and wrote a four page cover letter to accompany my job application. The next month was excruciating as I endured two job interviews then a long wait before finally being told that I had the job.

Twenty years later I still do not know why I was so sure that long-ago Friday that I wanted to be TAC’s Midwest Regional Director, but I was quite right. I cannot imagine any career more interesting on a daily basis or offering more of a satisfying sense of accomplishment that saving sites for The Archaeological Conservancy.

Paul Gardner, Midwest Regional Director hard at work.
Paul Gardner, Midwest Regional Director hard at work on his 20th Anniversary date with the Archaeological Conservancy.


Read Part 1- An Introduction to our Midwest Regional Office:  “The Great Mound Builders’ Debate and Origins of Our First Field Office”


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