Polar Careers: James Dixon, Archaeologist

James Dixon is a professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico and director of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in Albuquerque. His curiosity about ancient peoples and cultures has led to a career studying some of North America’s earliest settlers. Photo courtesy James Dixon James Dixon is a man who wears many hats. Dixon is the Director of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he provides overall direction and leadership for the 80-year-old institution. He’s also a professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico. In that capacity he teachers fellow archaeology and history enthusiasts and conducts research in Alaska and elsewhere.

Dixon’s interest in anthropology and archeology began as a young boy in the Midwest and has grown ever since. Curiosity about past cultures and peoples has taken him across the country over the course of his career piecing together the stories of North America’s earliest inhabitants.

Dixon is currently leading maritime archeology projects in southeast Alaska, as well as projects seeking to unlock some of the secrets frozen in several of Alaska’s glaciers. This month, he kindly shares what started his interest in the field and gives field notes readers a peek into the excitement of being an anthropologist and archaeologist.

1.     What drew you to archaeology and specifically studying some of North America’s first inhabitants?

As a child I was fascinated by archeology and over time my fascination developed into a strong academic interest.

2.     What initially got you interested in archaeology?

As a boy I found arrowheads and other artifacts in the cornfields of Ohio.  Later, as an undergraduate student at the University of Alaska, I had the opportunity to participate in excavations at the Campus Site located on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, at Point Hope on the Chukchi Sea, and at Healy Lake in interior Alaska.  My love of nature and the out-of-doors combined with the intellectual satisfaction that comes from insights about the past.  This made archaeology an excellent fit for my personality and interests.

3.     What would you consider your most exciting find so far in your career? 

It is difficult to rank archaeological discoveries, and sometimes seemingly insignificant finds lead to important conclusions. Some of my more exciting projects include investigation of caves in Southeast Alaska where the oldest human remains from the Northwest Coast were discovered, the discovery of Ice Age animal bones from caves and exposures along the Porcupine River, and finding well-preserved wooden artifacts melting from Alaskan glaciers. However, my most rewarding experiences result from recognizing cultural connections between people that span vast amount of time and across broad geographic areas.

4.     What projects are you working on currently?

Currently I am conducting field research on the continental shelf of Southeast Alaska where we are attempting to locate evidence of early maritime archaeological sites that were occupied near the end of the last Ice Age when sea level was lower. I am also engaged in the archaeology of glaciers and ice patches in several locations in Alaska. At some of these sites we are finding spectacular organic artifacts that have been frozen for thousands of years. They are now emerging from ancient ice that is melting as a result of global warming.

5.     What would you say to aspiring archaeologists?

It has been a great privilege to know so many of the Native people and scientists who contributed to the science of arctic anthropology, ecology, and geology.  As a career, archaeology can provide many rewarding experiences if you have passion and dedication to science, are willing to make sacrifices, and have the desire to share what you learn with others.  —Alicia Clarke