For archaeologist Breck Parkman, the thrill of the job isn’t confined to the dig. An intriguing find is only the prelude to a story that will flesh out and unfold with ever more research and deeper digging.
As a senior state archaeologist, based in Sonoma County for more than 30 years, Parkman distinguished himself with a wildly diverse and sometimes unconventional array of work — from identifying ancient mammoth rubbings on coastal rocks to successfully advocating for the preservation of a mid-century European-born potter Marguerite Wildenhain’s home and studio in Austin Creek State Recreation Area.
But Parkman’s strength is also as a master storyteller in the fading tradition of rangers around the campfire. He puts the dry facts of history into broader context and answers for the listener that one key question: Why should I care about this?”
“Being an archaeologist I got to work on everything,” he said of his eclectic interests. “And because I was interested in it, I embraced everything.”
The Georgia-born Parkman — his mother named him Breck after her favorite shampoo — retired this spring at 65 after 36 years on the job. He leaves a major legacy of work and institutional knowledge that pushed forward the public’s understanding and awareness of the history of the North Bay and beyond, starting with Native American cultures to his bold and groundbreaking study of a 1960s hippie commune at Olompali State Historic Park.
When documentarians needed an expert voice to put on camera, most recently the BBC’s 2013 miniseries “Ice Age Giants,” the formidable 6-foot-3-inch Parkman, with his gentle Southern accent, was the go-to guy.
He dropped out of the University of Georgia’s pre-med program at 19 and, like many an adventurer before him, heading as far west as he could. Landing in California he enrolled at what was then Hayward State, where he earned a master’s degree in anthropology, with a focus on archaeology, which in the United States is considered a branch of anthropology.
For 15 years, Parkman lived in a state-owned mobile home in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and wrote eloquently about life on “The Ridge,” the changing skies and season, the nighttime sounds, the movement of wildlife. He plans to continue to write and research in his retirement.
He recently moved with his 11-year-old son down the mountain to the Sonoma Valley, to a century-old home that aptly has some rocky ruins of an old hot springs resort in the front yard.
Q: Where are the roots of your interest in archaeology?
A: Growing up I wanted to escape. I loved adventure stories, and I would escape in books, like “Treasure Island.” When I was a kid I went all over the world. I sailed. I was a pirate. It gave me this wanderlust that in the second half of my life I’ve been able to do. I’ve ended up working on five continents now.
Q: What inspired you over the years to become such a visible spokesman for historical projects?
A: I didn’t just want to do archaeology, I wanted to do storytelling. I would go nuts if I had to just write numbers on arrowheads. It’s the story that resonates with the public. Twenty years ago, I was president of the Society for California Archaeology.