Dr. Kirk French: Penn State’s Own Indiana Jones
Anthropology professor Dr. Kirk French isn’t your typical professor. When he’s not lecturing in the classroom, his adventures seem straight out of an Indiana Jones movie — though he swears the comparison isn’t accurate because he doesn’t have the hat. Still, whether it’s charting Mayan ruins, drinking moonshine with rednecks for his own TV show, or exploring outrageous claims of buried Knights Templar treasures in rural Pennsylvania, Dr. French’s experiences put him in a league of his own.
During his senior year of college French began charting the ruins of Palenque, a Mayan city near Mexico City. With only a small portion of the city cleared out for tourists, there was a lot of work to be done.
“Even though the surface structures are standing, it’s very thick jungle. You’re usually with some locals and you’re using machetes to cut lines so you can use the surveying equipment,” French explained.
Mapping the city was no small feat. There were thought to be about 400 buildings in Palenque, but French found more — a lot more. Three years after starting, the map had 1,481 buildings on it, and that’s when he got to work on his specialty: water management.
“After we mapped it we went back and starting finding a lot of these subterranean aqueducts,” he said. “The water came down in natural springs and it would go under a plaza floor, for instance. They can be two and a half meters high — basically tunnels — and they’re still working today! I’ve been trying to figure out how floods and droughts would affect the water availability.”
Dr. French is starting another project that plays off of water management: the archeology of moonshine. “We’ll be hiking through the mountains of North Carolina to try and quantify how much moonshine was actually being made during a particular time period,” he said. “There’s no data on that because it was illegal — that’d be like trying to figure out how much meth was being made right now. The only time you get data is when someone is arrested.”
It may sound completely different from his work in Mexico but apparently it’s not. “It’s not as dissimilar as you might think,” he said. “To tie it all in, moonshine is made along streams because you need to have fresh, cold water. I was doing the same thing in Palenque. I’m walking up and down streams and monitoring water management. It’s different, but it’s very similar.”
It’s not as if French needs to travel to find adventures. Listening to his stories, it seems like they find him. “Any archeology department in the country, especially if you’re in a rural area like this, you get… well… you get crazy phone calls. ‘Hey, I got this Bigfoot print, I want you to check it out,” he said.
Professors are too busy to answer all of these calls, but when he was young and full of pip, answering a call ultimately led to his own TV show.
“When I was really young, the guy next door — he’s actually the department head now — he got this phone call and he said he had the Knights Templar treasure in his backyard,” French said. “It was a voicemail and we were all kind of laughing about it. It sounded so crazy, but he was so passionate about it. I decided I was going to meet him. The older professors gave me the ‘Oh, young boy’ kind of thing, ‘you’re crazy you don’t want to do that.’” But he had to have something right? I decided I was going to film him and make a ten-minute documentary to show class. We went out to see him. It was just a trash pit. There were jars and well…nothing. We filmed it and I interviewed him and explained that it was nothing. I didn’t say it like, ‘Well, you’re a moron.’ I said it respectfully. Anyways, I put it on my website and called it the Armchair Archeologist. I got a call from a production company and Discovery and History wanted a television show.”
With a good friend from graduate school, who is now a professor at Michigan, as the co-host, French had his own TV show, American Treasures.
“We traveled all over the country in this old F-150 pickup truck they bought us,” French said. “We would go visit people who supposedly called and left us messages. It ended up getting cancelled three episodes in — mainly because someone owned the name and it never got approved.”
Since then, French and his college friend get calls about once a year, sometimes more, about doing another TV show. He might not be a household name, but four pilots later he’s at least having fun.
“We did a moonshine episode and these guys, well, I don’t think they made moonshine anymore,” he said. “I think they cooked meth. They were only thirty and had no teeth. It was fun though. We were just hanging out, cracking jokes and sipping moonshine. They thought we were actors and we had to convince them ‘No, we’re really professors!’”
French certainly toes the line between academia and adventurer, but it comes naturally to him. Though he enjoys discussing stodgy academics, under the right circumstances, he’s just as comfortable outside of academia — and his unusual family history contributes to that. After growing up in Southeast Texas, Dr. French was the first in his family to go to college. To illustrate how different his upbringing was to where he ended up French explained, “My dad’s mom got married when she was 13 and he was 15. And she was already divorced! That’s not just crazy, that’s purely illegal now. It’s really two different worlds,” he said.
Considering his evident passion for anthropology, it’s suprising French started out as a business major. “I wanted to make a lot of money. That’s all I cared about,” he said. “But, I took a lot of anthropology classes and here I am now.”
The journey wasn’t always what he expected. “You think it’s going to be all field work, and that’s what everyone wants to do. But really, it’s 85% reading and writing. You have to teach, write proposals, publish your research — you’re doing all of this preparation for a small amount of time actually spent in the field,” he said.
Despite his knack for adventures, teaching is something that Dr. French loves to do. “I could talk for hours, which is one of the best parts of being a professor. You get paid to talk about stuff you like!”
If you want more of Dr. Kirk French, you can watch the full season of American Treasures here. He will also be speaking at the Schlow Centre Region Library in downtown State College on October 17 at 12:30 p.m. for a lecture called Research Unplugged: American Treasures, Archaeology Meets “Reality” TV.