Archaeology: From Survey to Teaching
November 13, 2023
7 Steps of Archaeology
Archaeology is more than digging. It begins with a research design that outlines the “who, what, where, when and how.” This is submitted for review to landowners and government agencies including tribal authorities before digging can begin.
Surveying involves walking through a site in a grid pattern (1 meter by 1 meter squares). Artifacts are noted on the surface and flagged.
Archaeologists study the physical traces of people’s past activities, also known as material culture. They look at things like pottery, stone tools, coins, buildings, skeletons and even trash.
Survey involves sampling the surface of a site, using techniques like electrical resistivity and magnetometry. Features that are dug into the natural soil, like pits and ditches, are identified by their “cut” and “fill” and given consecutive numbers for recording purposes.
One of the most important figures in archaeological recording was Mortimer Wheeler, who pioneered systematic excavation. He created a matrix for recording contexts and features at sites, helping to establish a chronology of the site’s development.
Archaeologists use shovels and other hand tools to remove soil or rock from a site. Larger excavation projects often utilize heavy machinery.
Following a survey, a plan is developed detailing how the archaeological excavation will be carried out. Obtaining the necessary permits and approvals is also part of this process.
During excavation, all finds must be recorded. This may include drawing or taking photographs of the objects and features found. The precise location of these items is also recorded, as it will help archaeologists re-create a picture of the site later.
Recording is the process of documenting everything an archaeologist does in the field. This includes research proposals, maps, notes and drawings. The archaeologist also records everything he or she finds on the ground. Every artifact has a specific location on the site and is recorded before being removed.
Archaeologists conduct surface surveys to look for evidence of past human activity on the landscape. They use survey instruments such as a transit, measuring tapes and stakes to set squares on the ground. Each square is then marked on a map with its grid coordinative. Any artifact, sample or feature found is then labeled with a number based on its grid coordinates.
Once all the digging is done, archaeologists start to analyze their finds. This involves counting, weighing and categorizing the artifacts. They also examine how they were made and what they can tell us about the people who used them.
Finally, they have to date the material. Some artifacts, such as coins, are self-dating, but other objects require other methods of dating.
A lot of time and effort is put into the research before the archaeologist even picks up a shovel. This is a step that never gets portrayed in movies like Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider!
Archaeologists use the artifacts they find to answer questions about the past. This is done by examining how people lived, what they did with their lives and what they ate.
When an archaeological site is excavated it is important that all steps are followed carefully. Before any dirt is removed from a dig the archaeologist must create a site grid and a datum point. This allows them to map out the site and accurately record the location of all features and artifacts.
It is also important to know that if an artifact has carbon on it then it should never be touched. It is important that it be wrapped in tinfoil and sent to the laboratory for testing.
Archaeologists publish their findings to educate the public and other scholars. They also work for government agencies to ensure construction projects like roadways comply with federal law.
Some archaeological discoveries have far-reaching implications for society. For example, Cyriacus of Ancona’s careful recording of ancient Greek buildings, statues and inscriptions earned him the name “father of classical archaeology.”
Other discoveries have less positive implications. For instance, archaeologists often dig on Native American burial grounds or other sites considered sacred. This can conflict with tribal beliefs that view time as cyclical, not linear. Archaeologists try to counteract these negative impacts through public outreach.
Despite the resounding success of films like Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider, public perceptions of archaeology are often misguided. To combat looting and pseudoarchaeology, professional archaeologists often participate in public-outreach programs. These efforts are geared to teach people about the past and help them recognize that archaeological sites have a value beyond their monetary worth.
Archaeologists use the scientific method to survey and excavate a site. They break each site down into the smallest units of discovery, called contexts, and record the location of these units on a map.