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So, You Want to Work with the Ancient and Recent Dead?

Unearthing Careers from Paleontology to Forensic Science


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About The Book

Have you ever been excited by forensic science or psyched to dig up fossils? This comprehensive guide reveals a whole host of careers in the underrated world of the no-longer-living.

Covering everything from well known jobs like archaeologists, morticians, coroners, and forensic scientists to the not-so-well-known professions like studying dead stars and planets to playing a zombie on TV, So, You Want to Work With the Ancient and Recent Dead? uncovers a treasure trove of occupational opportunities.

In addition to tips and interviews from professionals in the industry, So, You Want to Work With the Ancient and Recent Dead? includes inspiring stories from kids who are working toward an exciting career in the area of “dead things” as well as activities, a glossary, and resources to help you unearth your interests and discover a successful career.


So You Want to Work with the Ancient and Recent Dead? 1 Choosing a Career Working with the Dead

Choosing to work with the dead can begin with a fascination with zombies, murder mysteries, or the heavy metal band Lordi. You may be captivated by the macabre, enchanted by ghost stories, or think your Goth lifestyle is a predictor of your future vocation. But choosing a career working with the dead takes some thought and a lot of planning. There are many ways to work with the dead, and a careful review of the careers in this book will help guide you toward the one that’s right for you—or it will help you decide that you’d rather be an accountant or a lawyer!
Reasons You May Want to Work with the Dead A Passion for Helping Others
Is “organ donor” checked on your driver’s license? Do you get teary eyed when you see someone is hurting? Are you the one who likes to organize food drives, mentor younger kids, or collect signatures on a petition to save the spotted owl? If you have a compassionate heart, then working as a funeral director, as a transplant surgeon, or in one of the many organizations that try to save animals from extinction may be the perfect career for you.
A Passion for Justice
Does the idea of a criminal getting away with murder make your blood boil? Does knowing that animals are going extinct every day make you want to scream, “Protect them for my grandkids too!”? Are you a passionate person? If you see injustice and are willing to fight to the bitter end to make things better, then consider a career as a forensic pathologist, coroner, or phylogeneticist.
A Passion for the “Dead” Arts
Do graveyards, ghosts, and cemeteries fill you with wonder? Does pale skin and a vacant stare make you giddy? Do your fingers itch to paint a ghastly scene or write a story about a poltergeist? Is trying to look dead your daily challenge? Is your favorite color black? If you have an artistic bent, but it leans toward the macabre, then finding a career in the “dead” arts may be right for you.
A Passion for Discovery
Does an unsolved mystery keep you awake at night? Are you irritated when the pieces of a puzzle don’t fit together properly? When you discover something new, does it fill you with glee? Does your mind seem to focus on finding better ways to use everyday items? If any of these questions pique your interest, consider a career as a paleontologist, aviation archaeologist, or thanatologist. There are many careers working with the dead where you can unravel a mystery, solve a crime, or even rewrite history.

A Passion for the Past
Would you rub your hands with delight at the thought of spending weeks digging in the dirt? Do you imagine yourself fighting on ancient battlefields, sailing across uncharted seas, or walking in the footsteps of prehistoric man? Does the idea of living when the pyramids or the Great Wall of China were being built send chills down your spine? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then a career as an archaeologist may be right for you. You may also want to consider working as a historian, as a history teacher, or in myriad other careers where you can study the past.
A Passion for Mess, Blood, and Gore
Do you run to biology class so you can be the first to dissect a frog? Does the smell of formaldehyde make you think, This is gonna be interesting? Are you okay with the sight of blood, the smell of rotting meat, the thought of touching something dead, and the idea of handling bodily fluids? If you see yourself saying yes to any of these questions, then you should look into working as a funeral director, a taxidermist, or an embalmer.

As you start thinking about a career working with the dead, it’s important that you understand that many of these jobs will require a lot from you. It’s not easy talking to a woman who just lost her child, working in the desert under a blazing hot sun, or digging through stacks and stacks of paper to find one interesting fact or clue that will help you find an ancestor or solve a crime.

The dead will demand that you study hard, work hard, think deeply, and care passionately. The toll that some of these jobs can take on your time and your emotions can be overwhelming. But if you find a career you love, you will be rewarded over and over again.

Look around. When you are ready to investigate a career, there will be others who have traveled the path you want to take and who are ready and willing, even excited, to give you a helping hand. All you have to do is ask.




When did you first become interested in archaeology and decide to make marine archaeology the focus of your career?

I learned about archaeology in the fifth and sixth grades in school. Then when I discovered that there was a three-thousand-year-old Ohlone Indian site in my hometown that was about to be bulldozed, it led me, at the age of fourteen, to try to rescue it from the bulldozers. I worked with my copy of The Amateur Archaeologist’s Handbook, met with archaeologists, and lobbied my town’s mayor to protect that archaeological site. I remained fascinated by and worked with archaeology on land until 1978 and the discovery of a buried ship in downtown San Francisco. My work for the National Park Service (NPS) on that site led me to ships, shipwrecks, and the fascinating world of underwater archaeology.

What education/work path did you take to get where you are today?

My educational path in terms of standard milestones was a BA, an MA, and finally a PhD. Life, experience in the field, and patient mentoring taught me much more.

At age twenty, I found myself one afternoon standing in the heart of the financial district in San Francisco. There, in the middle of a huge construction hole, I saw the black-stained bones of the whale ship Niantic. I stared, transfixed, at this relic of San Francisco’s Gold Rush, unearthed amidst high-rises after a 129-year slumber beneath the landfill that buried the old waterfront.

The discovery of the whaler Lydia, a few months after Niantic’s accidental resurrection, and the February 1979 excavation of another Gold Rush ship, the William Gray, at the base of Telegraph Hill, firmly set the course of my career.

I joined the cultural resources management team at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) as park historian. The GGNRA was then a 36,000-acre national park, primarily intended to provide natural, cultural, recreational, and aesthetic areas for the people of the city and visitors. My nine years in San Francisco were an intensive lesson in the documentation and preservation of historic and archaeological sites in the park.

I also began to work outside of GGNRA, thanks to the NPS’s growing awareness of a vast array of shipwrecks within the boundaries of our national parks, including the SS Winfield Scott. Diving on the “Winnie” added to my understanding of the first steamers to navigate the Pacific coast, and reminded me of the importance of the Gold Rush to the early history of California’s development.

From Drakes Bay to the warm waters of Pearl Harbor and the battle-ravaged remains of the USS Arizona, to a wreck at the turbulent mouth of the Columbia River, to the atomic-bombed fleet at Bikini Atoll, with interludes in Cape Cod and back home at GGNRA, I was taught how to dive wrecks and how to “do” underwater archaeology.

I took a sabbatical from the NPS and earned my master’s degree at East Carolina University. I enrolled in a relatively new program in Maritime History and Underwater Research, which was one of only two programs in the United States to offer a graduate degree.

Just before I left North Carolina, I got a phone call from Edwin C. “Ed” Bearss, the chief historian of the NPS. He asked if I would like to join an NPS team to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) manage the wreck of the USS Monitor. I served as the project’s historian for the next few years, writing the study that made the wreck a National Historic Landmark. Assessing Monitor, a famous icon shipwreck, was a revealing look at why people think certain things are historic and worth saving.

In early 1987, Ed Bearss asked me to run a new program for the NPS, the National Maritime Initiative (NMI). A large part of my job was to create a national maritime preservation program for the US government, inventorying every known historic maritime resource, from floating ships and shipwrecks to lighthouses and shipyards. I spent nine months of each year in the field, visiting almost every one of our nation’s 330 historic ships, climbing hundreds of lighthouse towers, visiting shipyards and naval facilities, and diving down to see underwater wrecks.

My time in the NPS also included summer shipwreck expeditions, which included dives to the storm-ravaged square-rigger Avanti at Fort Jefferson, Florida, and to the USS Arizona and USS Utah at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where we also searched for crashed Japanese aircraft and sunken midget submarines from the December 5, 1941, attack. I spent my last field season in 1990 leading a team to Mexico to study the remains of the 1846 brig USS Somers.

In early 1991, when my work on the NMI was complete, I left the NPS. The years of travel had left me yearning to focus on one place, one museum, one ship, or one shipwreck. The opportunity came when I returned to the Pacific Coast to live in Canada and work as director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum. During my time with the museum, I’ve learned a lot, especially while working on television documentaries. The fascinating wrecks of the undersea world are a great museum, and I’ve had the privilege of sitting in a front row seat to some amazing displays and galleries.

You have worked on over a hundred shipwrecks. What fascinates you about this work, and why is it important?

Shipwrecks fascinate me on many levels. They focus on moments in time, and act as symbols or icons. They give us the opportunity to reflect on human nature. They allow us, as a society, to discuss how we will deal with them—as objects to be salvaged, as memorials to the dead, as historic sites worthy of preservation. Shipwrecks remind me of why I am an archaeologist: to study people through what they do and what they leave behind.

Why the work is important has many answers—for science, for education, for inspiration. We need to use shipwrecks as a way to focus attention on our oceans, seas, and lakes, to recognize that they are a vital part of this planet. We must understand, conserve, and nurture them, and in doing so, ensure our own survival.

Describe your work as the executive director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

For fifteen years, I worked with a great team at the museum. We organized a three-million-dollar reenactment of the historic Northwest Passage and North America-circumnavigating voyages of the museum’s centerpiece exhibit, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner St. Roch. Serving as a member of the crew of the St. Roch II’s Voyage of Rediscovery meant visiting Arctic ports and connecting with people who remembered the original ship and its crew.

We rescued and reconstructed the Ben Franklin, a historic oceanographic research submersible PX-15. Restoring Ben Franklin meant working with crane operators and volunteers to reassemble the sub a piece at a time, bolting and hammering two stories up, hoping to God that I didn’t fall!

Since the museum is small, I had the freedom to work hands-on with the research, the exhibits, the visitor programs, and the projects. What I learned was that museums are not only repositories of things—they are places where society gathers its collective memories and preserves what it holds dear.

For a time, you were host and team archaeologist for the National Geographic television series The Sea Hunters. Describe your tenure there and what you learned from that experience.

I spent six years working in documentary television with producer John Davis; cohost, novelist, storyteller, and shipwreck-hunter Clive Cussler; master divers Mike and Warren Fletcher; and a great behind-the-camera crew. We traveled the globe, meeting other divers, diving to amazing wrecks, and sharing stories with millions of viewers around the world.

I learned from that experience that people of all walks of life are fascinated with shipwrecks and history. The Sea Hunters reached a lot of folks. It reminded me that what I deal with as a scholar means very little if my intended audience is a handful of fellow academics. My work has to be relevant and accessible to everyone. As scientists, we need to welcome interest, questions, and participation.

As director of Maritime Heritage, describe your work for this government organization and why it is important.

The National Marine Sanctuaries are a precious part of America’s cultural and natural legacy. Today, I am a part of a team that is focused on conserving our oceans by educating people about their importance. We use not only shipwrecks, but also the ongoing story of how and why we as people have interacted with the sea. We emphasize how it has changed us, and how now, increasingly, and not in a good way, we are changing it. We need sanctuaries. We need to preserve them. And we need more attention paid to the 71 percent of the planet that defines not only our past but also our future.

What is the most exciting excavation you’ve worked on, and why was it important to you?

You know what? They’ve all been exciting. It’s not the most famous, the deepest, the oldest, the most artifact laden, or the most challenging ones. It’s the collective sense of all of them that speaks to human nature—to our ingenuity, stupidity, enterprise, greed, self-sacrifice, bravery, cowardice, and all other aspects of who we are as humans. My most exciting projects are the ones that have yet to happen. The most exciting are the ones I get to share with as many people as I can.

What advice would you give a young person who is interested in becoming a marine archaeologist?

Focus on all aspects of archaeology, not just marine archaeology, to expand your horizons and your opportunities. Not all that is amazing is beneath the sea, but a great deal of it is. Find your passion for the past wherever you can. Understand that your career will unfold built on how well you work with others, how much you are willing to share, and how hard you work. Remember, all good things take time. Study hard. Know your math, science, and engineering. Learn art and literature. Learn to write and speak well, and never shy away from showing that you care and are passionate about your work.

What do you see as future trends in marine archaeology?

I see amazing new trends in surveying and documenting wrecks with higher resolution sonars, lasers, and low-light camera systems. New robotic technologies will ultimately survey the 95 percent of the ocean floor that remains unknown. The most important trend, however, is going to be internet driven. Remote access and live interaction technology will allow everyone to go along on the adventure, exploring, learning, and contributing as citizen scientists—or just asking questions—as we go out into the final frontier, the oceans, in search of new life and past civilization.


Its name is Dreadnoughtus schrani, and it was a dreadfully scary creature! Scientists have over 70 percent of its bones, so they know about how big it really was. At 85 feet (26 meters) long and weighing in at about 65 tons (59,300 kilograms), it is the largest land animal ever known to exist, and scientists say it died before it was fully grown. Other supermassive dinosaurs have had their measurements calculated based on only a few pieces, but this one is awesome because it is so complete; it gives scientists a chance to understand dinosaur anatomy and muscle structure. Unfortunately, its skull is missing.

1. I would describe myself as

A. organized, compassionate, hardworking

B. passionate, determined, someone who fights for the underdog

C. unique, quiet, artistic, thoughtful

D. inquisitive, inventive, a problem solver

E. adventurous, someone who likes to get dirty, a role player

F. friendly, never grossed out, helpful

2. My friends and family think I am

A. the one who always tries to help

B. the one with a strong sense of right and wrong

C. the one who thinks and feels deeply

D. the one who searches for the right answer

E. the one who is active, a doer

F. the one who loves disgusting things

3. If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, I’d spend my last day

A. comforting my family and friends

B. protesting that I am too young and demanding another opinion

C. writing a poem or essay or painting a picture to share at my funeral

D. researching ways to extend my life

E. having as many adventures as possible

F. touring the morgue to see what dead bodies look like

4. If I had to write a research paper, my topic would be

A. how to organize a “Save the Whales” campaign

B. how to change opinions or pass new laws

C. how to write a poem or essay

D. defining the main characteristics of an inventor

E. how to write a role-playing game

F. alternate uses for blood, guts, and gore

5. My favorite movies or television shows are

A. cartoons, romance, happy-ending movies

B. crime dramas or spy thrillers

C. independent films

D. mystery or science fiction

E. historical biopics or adventure

F. horror

6. When I’ve had a long day, I relax by

A. organizing an outing with friends

B. going door-to-door collecting clothes for the homeless

C. lying in bed and writing in my journal

D. heading to the kitchen to create a new recipe

E. going for a run

F. cleaning cages at the animal shelter

7. If I was at the park and a little kid fell and started crying, I would

A. rush to the child, yelling, “Oh no! Are you hurt?”

B. approach the parents and scold them for not paying attention

C. watch to see what happens so I can write about it later

D. look for ways to make the park a safer place to play

E. sit down next to the child and start digging in the dirt

F. immediately go and clean up the blood

If you answered mostly

A: Consider a career as a grief counselor, transplant surgeon, or death midwife.

B: Consider a career as a forensic pathologist, coroner, or phylogeneticist.

C: Consider a career as an artist, an obituary writer, or a monument designer.

D: Consider a career as a paleontologist, an aviation archaeologist, or a thanatologist.

E: Consider a career as an archaeologist, a logger, or a ghost hunter.

F: Consider a career as a funeral director, taxidermist, or embalmer.

About The Author

Photograph by Arden Bedell

J. M. Bedell spent her childhood daydreaming in hayfields, talking to cows, and finding her heroes between the pages of books. She is a full-time writer of historical fiction and nonfiction for children. She received her MFA in creative writing from Hamline University in Minnesota. She lives with her husband and two Siberian huskies in Portland, Oregon. Visit her at

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Awards and Honors

  • CBC/NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book

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