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Profile: Will Geisler, Archaeologist

The day is baking hot, even in the partial shade of the trench, and the archaeologist's shirt is sticky with sweat. It's almost lunchtime, and his thoughts are on the jug of cool water waiting for him back at camp. He shifts his grip on his trowel and chips away at a clump of tightly packed topsoil. Then he feels it: a faint tickle on his neck, barely noticeable.

Just a drop of sweat. He ignores it. 

Then he feels it again.

Annoyed, he glances down—just in time to see the black widow crawl onto his shoulder.

At this point in the story, Will Geisler pauses. He leans back in his chair and takes a sip of coffee, waiting for my reaction.

So? I ask him. What happened next? What did you do?

Geisler spreads his hands.

"It doesn't make any sense, but I remember thinking that if I yelled for help, it would get scared and bite me. So what I did was, I just started humming, really loudly." He demonstrates. "Hmm! Mm."

I chuckle along with him.

"There I am sitting in the ditch, humming like an idiot, hoping someone will hear me, and this spider decides to just take a nap on my shoulder. I must have sat there for half an hour before it crawled off."

It's a typical Will Geisler story: a small dash of excitement with a bigger splash of self-deprecation. 

Geisler has had his share of adventures. Over the course of a career that has spanned five decades, he's come face-to-face with bears in Alaska, rattlesnakes in the Midwest, and once—memorably—two men in the Maya city of Copán who he says were drug smugglers. "Not everybody realizes, but almost all of the cocaine that enters Mexico passes through Copán." 

Geisler is quick to downplay the danger of all of this. "Most of that stuff sounds more exciting than it actually was. I'm not Indiana Jones."

I write that down in my notes: NOT INDIANA JONES.

Will Geisler doesn't look like Indiana Jones. At sixty-five, he's handsome but heavy-set, with pudgy red cheeks and thinning gray hair. 

On the other hand, his study looks like it could belong to Indiana Jones. His desk is piled high with old papers, faded maps, and expensive-looking leather-bound books. His shelves are decorated with arrowheads, obsidian knives, china vases, and even a tiny jade jaguar. 

Perks of being an archaeologist, I say. Did these all come from your digs?

He blinks at me.

"What? No, I bought those." He points at the jaguar. "That's from a gift shop in Guatemala City."


He laughs. "You can't take artifacts as souvenirs. That's a big-ass felony."

Geisler's laugh is infectious, even when it's aimed at you. Despite being one of the most famous archaeologists in the country, a man who's been quoted in Forbes, The New York Times, and more academic papers than you can count, he responded to my request for an interview with the air of someone amazed that anybody would want to write about him.

He's not without his quirks. He drank three mugs of coffee over the course of our hour-long conversation, and after he made each one, he plunked in a piece of butterscotch candy and stirred it in with a metal spoon which he kept on his desk for specifically that purpose. 

When I pointed out that he could have just bought butterscotch-flavored coffee, he scoffed. "This tastes better."

It's hard to say whether this quirk is real or an affectation. Geisler, who showed up to the interview wearing faded blue jeans and a NASCAR T-shirt, seems to delight in being just a little bit weird. 

He's full of stories, many of which are embarrassing. Once, he says, he was out in the field and had to blow his nose. He didn't have a tissue, so he used a leaf. It turned out to be poison ivy.

"I had a meeting with my boss the next day," he says. "You can imagine what that was like."

Geisler, who is retiring next year, has spent the past two decades as the head of the National Historic Preservation Office (NHPO), overseeing the dozens of private archaeological firms that are active in the country. Archaeology is unique among the social sciences in that the vast majority of its graduates are employed not in academia but in the private sector, thanks to the 1968 Historic Preservation Act, which requires real estate developers and other companies to take "all reasonable measures" to avoid damaging historic sites and artifacts when they build.

"Suddenly in '68, you had the government telling these huge construction companies, oil companies, no, you can't build there, that used to be Sioux land. You can't build there without hiring an archaeologist to do an excavation first."

Private archaeology firms came to the rescue. Since 1968, more than thirty of these companies have sprung up. They compete with each other for contracts to perform the excavations. 

Particularly in the beginning, some of these firms were more scrupulous than others. Somebody had to watch them to make sure they actually did the work they were hired to do. 

"It's not like the oil companies care. They just want to see the work get done as cheaply as possible, so they can go to the government and say that they've done it. There has to be some kind of oversight."

It's a difficult, stressful job. It was hard to find anybody qualified who wanted to do it. None of Geisler's predecessors lasted longer than five years. 

In 1981, they offered the position to Geisler. 

"I wouldn't have been hired if there was anybody else. I don't even have a degree." 

It's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's true that Geisler, who holds a BA in Medieval Literature from Temple University, has never formally studied archaeology.

Accepting the job meant taking a substantial pay cut. But Geisler, who was working as a field crew chief, saw it for the opportunity that it was.

"No, it didn't seem like a great job. Actually, it seemed like a [expletive] job. But I could tell it had a future."

Geisler succeeded where his predecessors had failed. He brought something—a certain kind of energy—that kept him going, let him shrug off the stress and gave him staying power.

The job took him to dozens of sites all over the country, which he gamely points out on the map pinned to his door: pioneer-era sites in Illinois, Pueblo cities in New Mexico, colonial forts on the East Coast. 

In the early days, Geisler says, private archaeology was a bit like the Wild West. 

"There were times when I had to call up companies like Amoco and tell them, look, you need to shut down this excavation. The guys you hired are just digging up artifacts and chucking them in a pickup. I'm talking Navajo pottery here, five hundred years old. Sometimes even bones."

Wait, I say. Human bones?

"Oh yeah. A big part of my job back then was tracking down human remains that weren't being properly handled. We still get John Doe skeletons turning up in somebody's private collection every now and then."

Due in no small part to Geisler's work, most contract archaeologists now follow a strict code of ethics. Under his watch, the field has grown enormously. Today more than 80% of the archaeologists in the US are employed in the private sector.

His job has grown too. He used to visit every site he investigated personally. That would never be possible now. His office employs more than a dozen archaeologists—all of whom, unlike him, actually have degrees in the subject.

The irony isn't lost on him.

"I would never be able to get this job today," he says, a little wistfully. "The next person to sit in this chair will have a PhD. When I was starting out, you had crew chiefs who had never even been to college. You're not going to get anywhere in archaeology these days without at least a master's, and there's thousands of other grads competing for the same jobs."

So what advice would he give to an ambitious young archaeologist? Someone starting out where he was forty years ago?

"Study something else," he says. "Study finance. Study accounting."

It sounds like a joke, so I laugh. Geisler frowns.

"Actually, I'm serious. If you love archaeology, study something that will actually make you money. Then use your vacation time to volunteer at digs. It's not a good career to get into, these days." 

I frown back at him. He's not kidding. It's a surprising statement from someone who has been so instrumental in shaping the field. 

Geisler broke ground in more ways than one. When he rocketed to prominence in the early 80s, he became by far the most well-known archaeologist in America to be openly gay.

He never faced any real prejudice in the workplace, he insists. "Archaeologists have always been pretty progressive." He acknowledges that things were sometimes different in the places where he worked, particularly in the small towns he visited in the Southwest and Alaska.

Geisler, usually so quick with a story, seems less interested in talking about this. "I don't think people disliked me because I was gay. They disliked me because I drove up and told them, if you don't start cataloging your artifacts properly, we're going to shut you down."

As he finishes his last cup of coffee and our time comes to a close, I ask him one more question. As one of the most important archaeologists of his generation, someone who made history in a field that usually only studies it, he has to know that hundreds—maybe thousands—of young archaeologists have looked up to him over the years.

Would he ever consider himself a role model?

I expect him to snort and change the subject, to deflect with another funny but irrelevant anecdote. Instead he goes quiet. His eyes cast around his office, touching on the books, the old maps, the souvenirs from his decades of traveling. 

Finally he looks back at me.

"Nah," he says, with a hint of a grin.

Note: This interview is fictitious, as are all names, characters, and incidents referenced therein. This includes Will Geisler, although he shares certain traits with many of the archaeologists I've been lucky enough to meet in the past. Private sector archaeology does exist, but functions somewhat differently than as described here.