David Robinson

Archaeologist, Carolyn Chouest, NR-1

Expedition Role: David Robinson is an archaeologist at the The Public Archaeology Laboratory, Inc. He is helping out with all of the archaeology goals of the expedition. He will be looking for ancient shorelines and landforms. He will also help to identify areas that might have been attractive to any humans living in the Flower Garden Banks area 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. 

On Your Career…

How did you end up in the field you are in today?
I’ve had a life-long interest in history and the ocean. I’ve had a desire to work on or under water since my early teens.

Who or what inspired you to pursue this career?
Several things led me to pursuing my career as a marine archaeologist.
Beachcombing with my grandfather, George Hughes, watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, and going on trips to the New England Aquarium in Boston with my Great-Aunt Helen all got me interested in the underwater world and diving at an early age. I began diving in the ocean with a mask when I was four years old—before I knew how to swim!

Working with my neighbor, Gerry Carvalho, on his inshore commercial fishing boat convinced me to make the sea my “office.” I was totally hooked! (Ooh…bad pun!)

Getting an “A” on a 10th-grade U.S. history project that involved diving on, mapping, and researching the history of a steamboat wreck taught me that it was possible to get good grades for doing do things that I loved (diving, reading, and drawing).

Getting Peter Throckmorton’s book, The Sea Remembers, as a Christmas present from my father-in-law, Carroll Harrington, right before my senior year of college was also important. It made me realize that I could actually go to graduate school to learn about and get an advanced degree in marine archaeology and that I could make a career out of my lifelong interest in history and the sea.
How and where do you conduct your work?
I do the majority of my work at the computer, on the telephone, in a library, or in a museum. Most people think of doing work in the field when they think of marine archaeology, but that is actually just a small part of my work. It takes much more time to prepare to go into the field—and understand and communicate the results of the field studies—than it does to actually do the fieldwork.

When I am in the field, I’m usually working from a ship or a boat that is towing survey equipment to map the sea floor. Occasionally, I also work with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to study deep-water archaeological sites. Sometimes I dive to inspect or excavate sites that are in less than about 100 ft (30 m) of water.

What tools and/or technologies do you use in your work?
Although I work with lots of different kinds of advanced diving and surveying equipment as part of my job, the most important “tools” that I use in my work are my mind and my mouth. In order to succeed as an archaeologist or other kind of scientist, you have to use your brain. You need to think of and recognize good research questions. Then you need to think of ways to answer the questions through investigation and problem solving—often using different kinds of technologies. Also, scientific work doesn’t mean much if you don’t communicate the new knowledge that you gain from your research to other scientists and the public. So being able to speak and write well to a variety of audiences is very important.

How does math factor into your work?
As well as being an important factor in everyday life, math is an important part of my work. Archaeologists use geometry to map sites and algebra to perform statistical tests.

What research projects are you currently involved in?
I’m involved in this deep-water project and professional archaeological research that I do as part of my job at The Public Archaeology Laboratory. I’ve also been working in the shallow waters of southern New England and Denmark conducting research for my doctoral dissertation. The focus of my dissertation research is to disprove two long-held myths:

  1. that all paleolandscapes (and any archaeological sites in them) that were flooded by post-glacial sea level rise were destroyed and
  2. that it’s too expensive, difficult, and dangerous to locate submerged settlements.

I’m also working on two underwater archaeological site mapping projects. One is in Rhode Island where a lighthouse was washed into the sea by the “Great Wave” that accompanied The New England Hurricane of 1938. The other is in Connecticut at the wreck site of the Aunt Polly—the 144-ft (44-m) steam-yacht of “Sherlock Holmes” (the late actor William Gillette).

What have you learned so far?
I’ve learned that portions of paleolandscapes and their archaeological sites did survive the flooding process, that it’s possible to predict where these places might be, and that it’s possible to find and excavate them.

What do you like the best about your job?
I get to travel to places for archaeology that I’d probably otherwise never visit. I also get to meet and work with really amazing people.

What do you like the least about your job?
Being away from my family while I’m working in the field.

What are the most common misconceptions that people have about what you do?
That I dive a lot as part of my work and that archaeology is about looking for gold on the wrecks of pirate ships; I don’t and it’s not!

Some people also think that anyone who works underwater or dives on shipwrecks is an underwater archaeologist, but that’s not true. Archaeologists are people who have earned college degrees in history or anthropology, have gone to a field school to learn about archaeological field methods, and who use archaeology as a means of answering research questions based in history or anthropology.

Where have you traveled for your work?
In the United States I’ve traveled to California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia. I’ve traveled abroad to Canada, Denmark, and Sweden (and I’m going to Portugal this summer). I’ve also worked on or in dozens of rivers, seas, lakes, and other bodies of water.
Where’s your favorite place that you’ve been to so far?
My favorite place to work is right where I live here in southern New England. As far as being abroad, I liked working in Denmark the best.

What is the most incredible thing that has happened to you while conducting your work?
There have been many incredible experiences during my 15-year professional career as an archaeologist, but excavating an intact 6,500-year-old Mesolithic stone tool-making feature under water in Denmark—and finding an arrow head and chipping debris from the tool-making process—was pretty darn cool.

What are some of the different career opportunities that are associated with the work that you do?
Museum archaeologist or curator, artifact conservator, educator (teacher/professor), cultural resource manager (state or federal agency archaeologist), contract archaeologist

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in studying archaeology?
Feed that interest by reading as much as you can about archaeology in books, in magazines, and online. Borrow videos about archaeology from your local library, visit museums, and volunteer on archaeological projects.

On Being a Kid…

What was your favorite subject when you were in middle school?
History and science—especially anything to do with oceanography.

What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a kid? Why?
I really liked National Geographic, as well as Jacques Cousteau’s series of books on his diving expeditions of discovery. I also liked the Time-Life series of books about space, marine life, human evolution, and American history. The articles were short and the books had lots of really interesting photographs and drawings in them. I also really liked reading comic books when I was a kid. The Amazing Spider Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Mad Magazine were my favorites!

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
Oh, I was going to be lots of things! A pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, an astronaut, an entomologist (I was fascinated by ants), an oceanographer, and a commercial fisherman (like some of my friends’ dads).

I ended up being a commercial fisherman for a short while, then an underwater archaeologist and a certified aquanaut (which is almost as good as being a baseball player and an astronaut…right?!?).
What advice do you wish that someone had given you when you were a kid?
Three things:

  1. Work as hard as you can to learn math, because you will need it every day for the rest of your life in ways you can’t yet even imagine. (If nothing else, you’ll need to know it just to help your kids with their homework someday!)
  2. Find out what it is that you really love doing most, and then figure out how to make that your career.
  3. Ignore people who doubt you.

On the Rest of Life…

Who are some of the people you look up to or admire?
My wife, Hayley—she’s wonderful in every way a person can be wonderful.
Dr. Kevin McBride—his intelligence, kindness, patience, and generosity make him a great man.

When you are not working, what do you like to do for fun?
Play with my kids, work in the garden with my wife, and hang out with my family and friends.

Do you have any final thoughts or words of advice that you would like to share?
Be kind to others and be persistent in your goals and you will succeed. And no matter what you do…have fun doing it!


JASON Learning: A Partnership of Sea Research Foundation and National Geographic