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Meet the Faculty: Dr. Dennis Sandgathe

Written by: Kayreen Dizon

December 21, 2023


Tell us a bit about your background in archaeology. How did you become interested in archaeology? What inspired you to pursue it? Can you describe the journey that led you to this?

“I’m Dr. Dennis Sandgathe and I have had an interest in archaeology since I was quite young, but I’m not exactly sure where it came from. I grew up in southern Alberta and my grandparents had a ranch in the badlands so as a kid, I would spend a lot of time hunting for fossils and artifacts, so that might be where it started. Before I started university, I volunteered at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump for the Archaeological Survey, doing some digs there. When they finished there and I began my undergrad, I started volunteering for the University of Calgary’s dig at the same site under Dr. Brian Kooyman, so I have been doing archaeology since before I even started university. Throughout my undergrad at the University of Calgary, I also worked for the Archaeological Survey of Alberta, for Parks Canada Archaeology, and did some consulting in the summertime. For three years, I lived on the Blood Indian (Kainai) Reserve in Southern Alberta with the Crop Eared Wolf family, which also overlapped with archaeology. I would go horseback riding around the reserve with Joe Crop Eared Wolf (in his 70s at the time and spoke no English) looking at all the archaeological sites there, and it was pretty amazing. Then I did my M.A. in Edmonton at the University of Alberta with Pamela Willoughby on stone tools from a site in Jasper National Park. When I finished my M.A. and came out to SFU to do my Ph.D. here with Brian Hayden, I wanted to work on older stuff and I had been wanting to for a while. I didn't really care if it was in Europe or if it was in Africa, I just wanted older stuff. The very first place I dug in Europe was in northern Spain with an American archaeologist, Lawrence Straus, but in the course of planning out my Ph.D., I met Harold Dibble, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and he and I hit it off. I started working with him in France and with two other important researchers, Shannon McPherron, who's at Max Planck Institute and Paul Goldberg, a very famous geoarchaeologist. I started working with them on sites in France and continued to do that right up until just recently, it's been over 20 years that I've worked with them. Harold died a few years ago, but I've continued to work with Shannon and Paul and another colleague, Vera Aldeias, at the University of Algarve in Faro, working on Neanderthals and cave sites. And so that's been my focus: Neanderthals, lithics, fire, and the Middle Paleolithic for the most part."


You mentioned that you found a lot of fossils in your childhood. Why did you go into archaeology and not paleontology?

"I think that I could easily have gone into paleontology, but I wanted the complexity of people. Reconstructing the paleontological past from dinosaurs to the evolution of mammals would have been interesting but I always thought that it might pale a little bit in comparison to archaeology and anthropology because it would be missing the complexity of humans."


Now, I know that you’re very knowledgeable in lithics, so how did your interest in this come up?

"I actually started doing faunal analysis first when I was working for the Archaeological Survey of Alberta. When I was working at Head-Smashed-In, I started to analyze all the bison bone assemblages and I really was interested in it, but I was working with another fellow who was doing lithic analysis, and that for some reason just got my attention more than the bones. In fact, at the time I was thinking I would really like to learn about both of them. And I had a good background in bones, so I wanted to get more of a background in lithics. Having a good zooarch background and a good lithics background has been so beneficial to my career over the years."


With your current work, is the focus still on Neanderthals, cave sites, and lithics?

"Yes, for the most part, but there's always been a few other things. I started working in Europe, initially in Spain, then mostly in France, and a few years in Morocco with the same crew and the places are beautiful, of course, but the archaeology is amazing. In southwest France especially, the caves are just chock a block full of stuff, just tens of thousands of lithics and tens of thousands of bones. It's really quite amazing archaeology to work with. There are no temples, there's no pottery, there's nothing like that. It's just quite basic stone tools and butchered animal remains. But there's just so much of it, it's pretty impressive."


How would you say working in caves differs from traditional, open-air sites?

"It doesn't differ that much but in the nature of the archaeological record in caves. Caves that people were using in prehistory tended to be used for a specific reason. People would come back to that cave over and over again because of that reason. So, the caves accumulate way more stuff than open-air sites do, and you’re left with huge sequences."


Is your current position exactly what you hoped to be when you first started university?

"I'm a senior lecturer, and I'm doing what I've always wanted to do and what I had dreamed of doing when I started university. Teaching archaeology courses in university and interacting with students—I enjoy that a lot—and the research. There's also the intellectual gratification that comes with the research. It's also just the people. The colleagues that I work with regularly, I'm good friends with, but also the dozens and dozens of other colleagues that I've met and worked with over the years."


What do you consider the best part of your career as an archaeologist?

"There are the easy things, like the travel. I've worked in amazing places; in caves in southwest France, caves in northern Spain, caves in Morocco, in East Africa. I've worked in fantastic places and I love travelling but that's actually a minor component of it. The thing that I've enjoyed the most is the people. The students, of course, when I'm teaching here, but I've also got these fantastic colleagues and some of them have become my closest friends. Over the years I’ve worked with incredibly smart people, incredibly hard-working people, but also very nice people. So, I have to say the students here and the colleagues that I work with in the field are by far the best part of my career."


What are some things that you didn't expect when you first became an archaeologist?

"There's always a little bit of competition inherent in academia, for positions or grant money, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that it isn’t a big part of it. The biggest, most pleasant surprise for me was discovering how important collegiality, friendship, and cooperation are with other researchers and with your colleagues. I don't know if it's the same in other disciplines, but in my experience in archaeology, the people are just really good to each other. The most important part is the people."


What advice would you give to archaeology students?

"There are a couple of things that came to mind. First, you should try and become a good scientist. Try to become the best at what you do or at least as good as you can be at what you do. Pick up all the necessary skills and knowledge, even the things that you don't think you need at the moment. Pick them up anyway. You'll never regret learning skills and learning new things. If you become as good as you can be at what you do, it will improve the satisfaction you get from that a thousandfold. You will just enjoy your job and what you do so much more if you're good at it.


The second thing I was thinking about was my strategy over the years. Make friends and establish colleagues who are way smarter than you are (which for me, wasn't that difficult to do). Work with people who are smarter than you, but who also think differently than you. It will constantly force you to think about your ideas and question why you think the way you think. It may reinforce your views but very often it will make you change your views. I would recommend having some colleagues and friends who have different views. If you're liberal-leaning, find friends and colleagues who have more conservative views, and vice versa. It's the best way to avoid one day realizing that you've just been sitting in your own comfortable silo. Your views will be quite stagnant and you'll have never really had to think that hard or heavy about your ideas. Life's just far more interesting if you constantly have to support your views."


What is something that you feel students today have to overcome, that wasn’t as prevalent or existent in your time as a student? And what advice would you give to navigate this?

"There's a lot of rhetoric today about things being so much different and more difficult or easier in some ways for students. I think there are some differences, but I don't think that they're that big. One thing I have noticed, and I don't know if this is a new thing or if it's just me noticing it, but a large percentage of the undergrads are just overly shy about speaking up. There have always been shy people. Most of us are shy to some extent or another but you have to overcome this and force yourself to start speaking up. Asking questions in class, offering opinions in class, speaking up at the department seminar. The more you do it the more you realize the sky’s not going to fall in. You should come out of your university education with the ability to speak up and express your opinions in public, and the only way to do that is through practice. The shyness and the stress may never entirely go away but it does get easier and easier to speak up in public and express your views. So, I'd really encourage students to do that.


The other big thing is that students need to really take control of their own academic future. The university and instructors can't really engage you, being engaged is something you decide to do. How well you do or don't do in a course comes down to how much you engage yourself in the topics. The more you are able to do that, the more you'll get out of your courses and out of your career, and the far better you'll do at it.


The third thing that I want to suggest is never to do the minimum. Never only do what's required of you to get a good grade in a course or anything else, but always do more than is required of you. This is what you should be doing for yourself. Don't ask ‘What do I need to study for this exam?’, study everything for the exam. Don't ask ‘Do I need to know this? Do I need to know that?’, just learn as much as you can. Also, learn and become good at things that you don't anticipate needing. One of my big regrets was not spending more time learning math and I wish I was better at math than I am now. It's not something I need regularly in my research, but it does come up. Coming back to a point I made earlier, pick up skills and pick up knowledge as much as you can right now, even if they don't seem like they're that pertinent to where you think you're headed."


Has there ever been a major discovery in your career that has amazed you?

"The sort of archaeology I do doesn't really lend itself well to that. The sites that I'm working on always have the chance that you could find human or Neanderthal remains. I've found occasionally, a Neanderthal tooth, but no intact skeletons. That would be the one big thing because otherwise, we don't really have amazing artifacts, no paintings, no pottery, no giant handaxes. It's just kind of the same thing over and over again, which is not a bad thing. I can't say that I have made any one major discovery but the most satisfying kind of aha moments are figuring out the puzzles. Imagine a big, complicated archaeological site where the stratigraphy is complicated, and you're trying to figure out the story of how the site formed. It can take working at a site for several seasons before you start to get an idea of what is going on. It’s very satisfying to see how all these layers fit together and how they formed, but it's not as exciting as finding a pyramid."

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