Ask the Experts: AIA Archaeology FAQ
What is archaeology?
Archaeology is the excavation and study of the material remains left by past communities. Material remains include the physical things people made or used, everything from clothes to buildings. Archaeology can be divided into many specialized subfields, often dealing with a particular time period, culture, geographical area, or category of materials. Please refer to the section under Introduction to Archaeology for a more detailed discussion.
Do archaeologists study dinosaurs?
No. Archaeologists are concerned only with the material remains left by human communities. Currently these extend back to around 4 million years ago. Dinosaurs became extinct around 65 million years ago. Dinosaurs are typically studied by specially trained scientists known as paleontologists, who are experts in identifying the remains of dinosaurs and other animals that lived at the same time.
What is an artifact?
An artifact is any object that was created, modified, or even just used by a human being. It can be difficult to tell if a natural object, such as a stone, was used by a human being unless there are physical marks on it; however, its context will give us clues. Generally, the term artifact is applied to portable objects. Structures created or modified by humans that cannot easily be moved, such as buildings, walls, agricultural terraces, pits, and post holes, are called features. Please refer to our Glossary for more archaeological terms and definitions.
While it can be very exciting to think about uncovering a golden object or making a highly unusual discovery, that doesn't happen all that often - and usually only in the movies; the discovery of King Tut is a notable exception. (For that matter, few archaeologists have actually been chased, like Indiana Jones, by giant boulders and enraged locals -- nor have they been stealing artifacts from ancient monuments!)
Most of us are thrilled by far more mundane activities and finds: by standing on a patch of ground, cleared of weeds and gridded with string, knowing that we are about to dig down with picks and trowels to literally uncover the past, and maybe even part of the life and possessions of a particular person who lived hundreds, or even thousands of years ago, whose bracelet we may touch or whose cup we may hold.
I found something in my backyard that may be an artifact. What do I do with it?
The easiest way to get an identification of the object you found is to take it to a museum or university where someone may be able to help you. Sometimes a photograph of the object can be sent to an archaeologist. The first place to check for the appropriate person or institution is your state archaeologist's office. Each state has an official archaeologist and this person or someone on the office staff will be able to help you find your answer. Remember, however, that archaeologists generally need to see an object in its original position in the ground before they can really determine its function. So, when you find an object it is usually better to leave it in place, protect it, and inform local officials. Once an object is removed from its original setting, it often loses much of its informational value.
How does an archaeologist find a site? How does an archaeologist know where to dig?
There are many ways to find a site. Often an archaeologist hears about a site from people who may have stumbled across it accidentally. For instance, farmers often find sites while they plow their fields or clear land to create fields. Hikers sometimes find sites while out exploring. Construction crews sometimes find them when they dig up an area in order to lay the foundation of a building. Pilots have found sites from the air. Usually the people who discover the sites report them to archaeologists, who then investigate.
Another common way to find sites is through survey. In this case, archaeologists actively search areas for sites in areas that were likely to support human populations, or in places where old documents and records indicate people once lived. Old records and maps often talk about communities and settlements that do not exist today. Archaeologists physically walk over these areas looking for any evidence of human occupation, such as pieces of pottery.
Once a site has been located, the archaeologists record it and then - if they have time, money, and permission -- excavate. The first step is to map and photograph the area. Any excavation will naturally destroy the original setting, and therefore this must be recorded before any digging commences. Then the archaeologist must decide the type of excavation that best suits the site, the time frame, and available resources. Sometimes the archaeologist might simply test the area to find out the extent of the site. At some sites the archaeologist might conduct larger, horizontal excavations to uncover large features and collect artifacts, while at others a deeper, more vertical approach might answer more questions.
What is remote sensing?
Remote sensing is the term used to describe techniques and tools that allow archaeologists (and others) to probe a site without physically disturbing it. These are called "non-invasive" ways of looking for sites. Special tools usually have a sensor that records anomalies that may exist below the soil. The most common recording methods are resistivity, magnetometry, and radar. In these techniques, signals sent from above ground penetrate the earth and record irregularities. In many cases these irregularities are human-created features. Remote sensing saves time and can cover a lot more surface area than traditional survey methods that rely on foot power and digging test pits.
Why do archaeologists have to dig to find sites and artifacts? (How do sites get buried in the first place?)
Most people are very surprised at the amount of dirt that can build up at an abandoned site. Once a structure has been exposed to the elements, even just through a broken window or a hole in a roof, the weather, animals, and humans all do their best to help the building crumble and fill up with dirt. The artifacts and structures that archaeologists study have often been abandoned for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. During this time they decay and are covered over. Wind brings more dust to cover the remains. Sometimes floods will bring with them silt and soil. Downtown Rome today is many meters higher than the Rome of the Caesars, partly because when the Tiber River flooded, silt built up even as people inhabited the city. In addition, the area was abandoned several times in its history -- and last but not least, there was no consistent daily or weekly effort to clean up the streets, no city-wide, consistent equivalent of our trash collection today. And so a city can slowly be partly buried even while people are living there. In more dramatic cases, sites may be buried relatively quickly during catastrophic events, the way Pompeii and Herculaneum were covered over by ash and volcanic mud during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. One way or another, by the time archaeologists arrive on the scene, the remains of a site may be covered by anywhere from one to forty feet of earth and debris.
What tools do archaeologists use for excavation?
Archaeologists use a great variety of tools for excavation, depending on the nature of the area in which they are working. The most common digging tools are picks, shovels, and trowels. In areas where there is a lot of sediment or dirt over the sites, archaeologists sometimes use heavy equipment like bulldozers and back hoes, but only to remove earth that shows no signs of human remains. If excavation will be a delicate operation, as during the careful cleaning away of soil from a damaged painting or human skull, archaeologists use dental picks, spoons, brushes, or anything that works. They often improvise based on the situation in which they find themselves.
How does an archaeologist uncover the artifacts?
Very carefully! Many objects buried for hundreds of years may be quite fragile. Generally, archaeologists loosen the earth with a pick, shovel, or trowel in very small, shallow area, remove the loosened earth, and then loosen more. They move the dirt horizontally, in small increments, rather than dig down around objects as they appear - and when they find something, they leave it in place until they have uncovered everything else around it at the same level, and have recorded all the finds and their locations. It is very tempting to dig objects out of the ground right away, or to dig holes around artifacts, since it is human nature to want to see what you have found! The archaeologist's goal, however, is to notice all the relationships and connections between objects and features - the context of the finds -- because otherwise a great deal of information may be lost. The earth that is removed is often taken to screens where the archaeologists look for very small artifacts or other remains, such as seeds, that they may have overlooked while digging. The sifted dirt is collected into large piles referred to as "backdirt" or a "dump" or "spoilheap."
What happens to the artifacts once they are excavated? Do archaeologists get to keep the things they have found?
Generally, artifacts uncovered during an excavation are carefully collected, cleaned, labeled, recorded, and photographed, and then taken to a lab where they are analyzed. Sometimes artifacts are too fragile too be cleaned and have to be conserved before any further analysis can be done. Conservation techniques help to consolidate an object. After analysis, objects are usually stored in safe dry environments for future study.
Archaeologists almost never get to keep the objects they excavate, since the remains generally belong to the country in which they are found. Archaeologists are only interested in studying the objects and do not keep or sell them.
How do I become an archaeologist? How can I get involved with archaeology?
To become an archaeologist requires a great deal of study and preparation. Most archaeologists have at least a Bachelor's degree in archaeology. To achieve any sort role as a supervisor takes an M.A. degree, and to teach at a university and to run an excavation you must have earned a Ph.D. Archaeologists who run projects and excavations generally have Doctorates in archaeology. Many universities and colleges around the country offer courses in archaeology.
Not everyone who enjoys archaeology wants to be an archaeologist full time. Interested "lay archaeologists" can usually volunteer on projects. Every year the AIA publishes the Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin that lists many current projects. You should also contact your local state archaeologist, who will often have information on projects ongoing in your home state.
For more information, please see David L. Carlson's Careers in Archaeology FAQ.