Ask the Experts

Our Experts, who have volunteered to share their time and information, include researchers, university professors, AIA Board members, ancient art historians, field archaeologists, museum specialists, architectural historians, and more – all with specialized knowledge of specific ancient cultures and subjects.

We have created a catalogue of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). In the FAQ section are answers to some of the questions archaeologists are most often asked, arranged by topic. If you want to know the meaning of a particular archaeological term, please check our online Glossary.

If you cannot find an answer in the FAQ, please leave a comment! Please be patient, since our volunteer archaeologists are sometimes excavating, teaching, or otherwise occupied, and may not be able to respond immediately.

Comments

What are the most important tools of the trade used in archaeology? Were they developed through trial-and-error? Why do archaeologists use the tools that they use today?

Archaeologists use a wide variety of tools. Any tool that can help an archaeologist record a site through survey and mapping, position an excavation, carefully and efficiently move soil to expose artifacts and features, and help recover these objects and transfer them to a lab for analysis, is used on an archaeological project. Modern surveying and mapping tools like Total Stations and GPS mapping devices have made the archaeologists’ lives a lot easier. These tools allow us to gather and process data much more rapidly and efficiently than in the past. Computers are invaluable in helping to organize and process the large amount of data that are collected at archaeological sites. Positioning an excavation is often based on a combination of what is visible on the surface and an archaeologist’s experience at picking out clues that may indicate what lies below the surface. Additionally, modern geophysical tools like ground penetrating radars and magnetometers help us to “see” what is below the surface before we start digging. Once we are sure of the location for our excavation we use a number of different tools to actually move the soil and uncover the archaeological remains. The type of tool depends on the nature of the excavation. Often shovels and pick-axes are used to get through the top layers of soil that usually contain modern debris and roots. After that we switch to finer tools like trowels and when we encounter especially delicate deposits we may even use dental picks. Again, the goal here is to move dirt efficiently and carefully without damaging any of the archaeological remains. In most cases the soil that we remove from an excavation is sifted through screens which allow us to find any small artifacts that may have been overlooked in the excavations. Finally, all of these artifacts are brought back to the lab where they are cleaned, stabilized, cataloged, photographed, drawn, weighed, measured and subjected (if necessary) to special chemical analyses in an effort to retrieve every piece of information possible from these artifacts. After analysis the artifacts are conserved and stored. After all this is done, the archaeologist has to spend time writing and publishing the results of the work that was done so that people interested in the research can read about it.

Ben Thomas
AIA Director of Programs

I have just returned from Italy where I saw many examples of ancient, one piece, several meter tall, marble columns. The uniformity of columns in a particular building, and the apparent perfect shape of the individual column seems beyond belief. They look molded. Could you please direct me to a source that explains how the columns were constructed, and once constructed, how they were placed in a vertical position?

If you were looking at Roman-era remains, I suspect what you saw was actually a type of plaster, not marble. Since it was expensive to make columns out of marble, the Romans sometimes cheated and made them out of bricks, then plastered them over, shaping the plaster with regular flutes to make it look like a carved marble column. Finally they would paint the columns to complete the illusion that they were expensive marble. You can see a great example of this in the basilica on the forum at Pompeii. Today most of the paint has come off, so it often times looks like a dull cement column, but if you look closely at places where the plaster has chipped away, you can actually see the bricks underneath.

The uniformity of columns in a particular building, and the apparent perfect shape of the individual column seems beyond belief. They look molded. Could you please direct me to a source that explains how the columns were constructed?

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