I was wrapping up my last trip up to Mesa to visit the grandparents before they chug back to Colorado for the summer, the mental Offensive Comment Bingo card refreshingly under-blotted, when my grandmother said, "You know, I really don't have any idea what you do in your job." That's fine, not many people do. So I launched into my well-practiced spiel about the cultural resource management field, touching on Arizona's historic preservation laws, the rich history and prehistory of life in the Tucson Basin over the past four thousand years, outlining the process we go through in order to get artifacts out of the ground and onto my desk, describing briefly how I look at them and the kinds of behavioral inferences I can squeeze out of them, tooting ever so softly the little horn that plays the song about me managing to have achieved a decent reputation in the field and respect as an expert. It took a few minutes. She absorbed it and paused for all of two seconds before asking the ultimate question.
"But who does it benefit?"
That one stumped me. It's been stumping me for years, as I watch my relatives build meaningful careers in education and health care, as I have watched those same grandparents kick back and enjoy the very comfortable retirement my grandfather accrued through a lifetime of working his ass off. "Uh... I guess it mostly benefits people who are curious about how people lived in the past," I finally managed to sputter out. "So, nosy people, then." Yeah, something like that.
Does that do anything to better the world? I kinda have my doubts. My officemates agree that archaeology mainly functions to keep marginally socially incompetent riffraff like us off the streets. If we occasionally satisfy someone's curiosity about what might have been going on in their back yard in 1800 B.C., I suppose that's nice. But earth-shaking revelations about human behavior that actually benefit modern people are pretty few and far between. Ancient people used tools and generated mounds and mounds of trash. They remodeled their houses and ate dinner. They wore jewelry. They cared enough to bury their dead relatives and even, sometimes, their dogs too. They did things one way until someone came up with a better idea, and then they did them the new way until the next innovation came along.
In short, ain't a whole lot changed in four millennia. Does knowing that benefit your life? I hope so. Otherwise I'm squandering a lot more here than just time.