Megan Lickliter-Mundon is an archaeologist and museum professional with a broad range of experience in the heritage sector. During the course of her archaeological career, Megan has directed or participated in terrestrial and underwater projects in the United States, United Kingdom, Mediterranean, and the South Pacific. She volunteers for and has served on the board of several non-profit museum organizations and is dedicated to museum development. Next month, she’ll graduate with a PhD from Texas A&M University’s Nautical Archaeology Program where she specialized in underwater aviation archaeology. TSIBV caught up with her to learn more about archaeology, how she wanted to be a spy, and why Indiana Jones and Lara Croft should be in jail.
When did you decide to become an archaeologist, and what was the path you took to make that a reality?
When I was young from about 11 or 12 to about 20 (and honestly even now), I wanted to be in the CIA. Total spy stuff. I even applied for an FBI internship right out of high school and was an international business major when I first went to the University of Georgia, specifically to concentrate on joining the CIA. I thought it was just like in the movies. I would learn Russian and Chinese and be a super secret spy. I didn’t get the internship, and at UGA when I started taking all my marketing, economics, really boring classes, I started making poor grades.
For one of my humanities electives, I took Anthropology 101. I know this sounds kinda pathetic, but it was like a light bulb turned on. I just felt like I knew this stuff right off the bat. Everything made sense, and I could follow the points really easily. I was taking split undergrad/grad level courses in Anthropology within a year, and I changed my major after that. I did summers abroad, interned at history museums and finished in three years.
Like History or other “silly” degrees, I learned that you can’t just do an undergrad and expect to go out and get a job in your field. I asked my mentor professor, Dr. Ervan Garrison, what he would suggest, and he said I could begin my grad “career” by going to Texas A&M University or University of Edinburgh to get a Master’s. He was an underwater archaeologist, and both of these had really good underwater programs at the time. I had spent summers looking at underwater sites in Europe, but I didn’t have anything more than a slight interest in being an underwater archaeologist.
UGA focused on ecological archaeology, Mesoamerican, and linguistic anthropology. I thought I was all of those things, but I took Dr. G’s suggestion and in 2003 went to University of Edinburgh (a year living in Europe- duh!), where the program focused on Near-Eastern and Mediterranean Archaeology. I knew I was not those things, but I was drawn to one professor’s work on iron age settlement sites in Scotland lochs (lakes). The houses were on stilts in the lochs. I had studied something similar with Dr. G in summer courses during undergrad, and it felt like I knew what I was talking about. Additionally, this professor had gone one step further and reconstructed one of these houses as a heritage site, which got tourist traffic, similar to a museum. It was perfect for me to combine my interest in archaeology to museums, and ‘experimental archaeology’ is a huge deal over in Europe. I studied iron age metalworking on the house sites and got my Master’s in a year.
One of the advantages of this crippling loan-based opportunity was that when I graduated January 2005 with my Master of Science degree I was ahead of my peer group in terms of marketing myself for jobs. That was the plan. Meeting my husband Tim in Edinburgh and staying on in the UK on a work visa ruined that plan, and I worked in the UK courts system for about 2 years.
Fast-forward to coming back to the US in 2008. We moved to Texas for Tim’s job, and I ended up in exactly the same place that Dr. G had suggested I get my PhD anyways. Texas A&M has the nation’s best underwater archaeology program for PhDs. It was in the back of my mind to get it one day, but I wasn’t ready just then.
I felt like the time in the UK needed to be tempered with actual real career-type work, so I began looking for a museum job in Houston. I interviewed with a few places, but I was very impressed with a small, local history aviation museum in a historic building. It was a beautiful art deco building that was being restored, and the collections were all about vintage aircraft and the Golden Age of Aviation in passenger flight. I ran that museum with volunteers for about three to four years while thinking about returning to school.
So for my PhD, I thought that I would be doing iron age metalwork analysis or something similar, but being away from the UK and not really spending time developing the thought, it became a very stagnant goal. On the other hand, aircraft and aviation history was turning out to be more than just this thing I did for work. I knew what a radial engine sounded like coming down the ramp, I appreciated the beauty of vintage aircraft lines, and I knew how important the history of flight was in our collective human existence as well as local history. Around 2009 I heard the term aviation archaeology, and to me it was again like a light bulb or a click. I could do both!
I asked Dr. G what he knew about aviation archaeology, and he sent me a photomosaic picture of an underwater site with four biplanes sitting pretty on a mound of wreckage. It was almost electrifying. I just remember thinking, this is me. This is important. So I began looking into the field and wrote my program application asking the Nautical Archaeology Program if they would let me come in and do only aircraft underwater. I began in 2011 and will graduate this August.
If you had to describe a “typical” day on the job, what would it be?
Hard, hard question. I have no “typical” day! I work from home or on projects for two different firms with two very different focuses.
On the museum side I work for a design firm, and I specialize in aviation museums. We offer strategic planning, exhibit content & design, and build services. So for example, I’ve had days where I sit in a conference room running workshop sessions with museum employees, and then I did a project where I assessed a collection, which had me climbing around aircraft parts in a dusty hangar. I’ve spent days building exhibits and putting labels in cases and then days sitting in front of my computer researching and writing content. Ugh, and all the days flying…
For archaeological work I contract with a group that surveys aircraft sites abroad that still have Missing in Action (MIA) air crew associated with them. This group has volunteer divers and archaeologists map a site underwater and then gives the information to the government so they can excavate to bring the remains home. They are then DNA-matched to surviving families and buried with honors in the US. A typical day means getting on my dive gear and doing multiple dives to photo and map an aircraft or debris site. Or it could mean researching parts either online or in a museum. Or processing a 3D model of the site and writing the report at home. I’m a dog mom, and sometimes I get to just go for walks, spend time in the park, or garden.
What are some of the highlights you’ve been involved with?
I got to co-lead an expedition aboard the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus (which is under the direction of Bob Ballard who found the Titanic) to remotely map and survey the airship wreckage with the four biplanes again in 2015. We made a map that was 100 times better than the one I first saw in 2009, and the expedition really brought that project full circle for me.
Megan in the control cab for the E/V Nautilus’ ROVs Hercules and Argus. She’s telling the ROV pilot where to look next. They’d just finished measuring the depth of the sediment layer on the site of the USS Macon. It was over 1,500 feet deep.
Megan sampling metal and sediment from the Macon wreckage.
I lead a mapping project on a B-24 in Croatia which held three MIAs that was selected for excavation in 2017. The team found one of the missing crew men, and the families were really great to hear from. I met and talked to one of the survivors of the wreck before he died, and it was very much a pleasure.
Megan in the retina-burning pink fins (everyone knows where she is underwater). She’s laying a meter square box with the help of another diver at the site of The Tulsamerican B-24, Croatia.
When you’re in the field, you work collaboratively in a team setting. How are those teams set-up, and how do you contribute within that structure?
On the museum side I am a curator working within a firm with designers, architects, and project managers. I work closely with the education staff, curators, and archivists in the museum to get their stories, artifacts, and archival material so that our designers can use everything the best possible way. I’m like a middle-man in these situations. Mostly we work with museums to be almost a part of their staff — another reliable person who knows what needs to be done and just does it. So I kind of just fit in to a team and hold whatever role they need. I worked with a museum recently where I came over to facilitate a meeting between staff and outside conservation consultants. I came a day early so I could work their gala the night before, talking to patrons about donation money usage.
For archaeology, I am normally the lead archaeologist or co-PI to a project, so I direct the volunteers on diving activities in order to get the information and measurements I need from a site. I work pretty collaboratively with divers who are also performing sonar searches, interviewing locals, or anything else. The project directors and I decide on how much time to spend on a site and when we feel like we’re done. We have logistics people who take care of the ins-and-outs of travel. I also work with researchers who help get background info together.
What traveling have you done, and where do you hope to go in the future?
I have been on projects in the UK, Mediterranean, Adriatic, Israel, Solomons, Fiji and US, and to museums as far as Australia, China, and everywhere in between. I have not been to New Zealand yet, and I must say that that’s my main goal. Lord Of The Rings & Hobbit tour, and I am happy.
Diving on a Japanese H6K Flying Boat in the Solomon Islands.
What are some of the major differences in doing archaeology on land versus the sea?
Terrestrial archaeology is like how you’d expect archaeology to be with grids and structure and order. Underwater archaeology can be like that, but the obvious added elements are danger and unpredictability. Scuba diving is dangerous, and most times the fact that you’re searching for remains makes you subdued and respectful. In the water, and especially with aircraft, there’s more of a challenge to get the results you need due to limitations with your tools and movement (and air!).
What’s the process of getting your work into a museum exhibit?
An example of a project that I incorporated into my dissertation is of a PBM-5 Mariner sunk in Lake Washington in 1949. In 1996 the US Navy tried unsuccessfully to raise it but broke it instead. The broken section is on display at Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona. The rest of the plane is accessible to scuba divers, but Lake Washington is extremely dark, making it impossible to see more than a square foot of the wreck at a time.
One of the tools we have been developing for archaeological use is 3D modeling from photos, or photogrammetry. Volunteer divers from Seattle’s Global Underwater Explorers took around 4,000 photos of the site, and I made a 3D model of it. Working with the museum, we created an exhibit to tie in the wreckage to the model. This combination showed where vintage aircraft come from and how most are restored. It gave a point to the display and told the visitor something they might not necessarily see when they just look at a restored aircraft.
An example of Megan’s work in the Pima Air & Space Museum, Arizona. The 3D model of the aircraft is in the kiosk, and the text panels talk about recovering and restoring the aircraft.
You’ve given some presentations in the past. How do you like educating others, and how would you like to see your field presented differently to the general public?
I am still nervous giving presentations. I am not a huge fan of the idea of being a professor, but hypocritically I push educating hard. Anthropology and archaeology in the 1990s and early 2000s was worse about this than today, but I feel like archs and anthros sometimes created site reports and articles specifically for other archs and anthros and then just stop there. I don’t agree with that at all. If the public isn’t interested or aware of your project, you’re failing them. In the end it’s everyone’s history, and it can be explained in a way (or multiple ways) so it’s relevant to everyone. I would like to see more archaeology in museums, but not the archaeology that’s sterile and behind cases. Teleprescence-enabled ships are putting the practice of archaeology in museums and in front of people, so it’s not just the results anymore. It’s the process. I think tech tools and museums, where people are already primed to learn, are the way forward for archaeology.
What’s your advice to a young person who may be interested in this field?
Don’t be afraid to tell your parents you want to pay $30,000 to work at a courthouse after university.
You know, I find it very hard to advise people growing up and going through college now because the way I did it seems frighteningly old-fashioned, even 15 years after. I think the way colleges, paying for colleges, and what you expect after that is all changing rapidly, and I can’t predict what it’ll look like. Best advice is to begin your Masters ASAP and network, network, network. Ask to go on projects, get some skills, make some friends, and then you can figure out what your track will look like.
What do you ultimately want to accomplish by the time you’re done with archaeology?
It sounds a bit soap-boxy, but aviation archaeology is not well accepted in the field because it’s so very close to contemporary time. There’s a lot of stigma that comes along with designating an aircraft as an “artifact” when you still see them flying in airshows. (By the way, I don’t think all vintage aircraft are artifacts.)
I hope by the time I’m done people realize aviation archaeology is a legit science that is useful and has provided insights that we otherwise wouldn’t get. There’s a few really good stories about WWII aircraft from people who’ve taken the time to do archaeology-like study on them, one of which was the discovery of a rock inside of a prisoner-built German aircraft. The rock was placed perfectly to create problems for the plane once in-flight which might cause it to crash. Stories like this aren’t possible without detailed study and documentation.
Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider?
Okay, this is going to make me sound like a real asshole, but both are actually looters. I think the only kudos can go to Indy for punching Nazis and yelling that things should be in museums. However, in the non-movie world he’s basically stealing high-value artifacts without any documentation and taking them away from the countries where they came from. He’s unilaterally deciding that those countries aren’t good enough to deal with their own heritage. This was a common viewpoint up to the 1800/1900s. The British museum stole a lot of Greek artifacts ages ago (stuff from everywhere else too). Tomb Raider is essentially the same thing, but then she sells them, which is a huge problem.
Thanks for making everyone hate me now.