Studying the Past: The Tools and Work of Archaeologists.
November 8, 2023
Who Are Archaeologists and What Do They Study?
Archaeologists study the material remains of people and their activities. These traces can survive millions of years, or disappear within decades.
Before excavation begins, archaeologists walk a site and record the exact location of features and artifacts using a grid system. They also establish a datum point, which is the starting point for all measurements.
Who are Archaeologists?
Many archaeologists go into the field with a burning passion. They may study the subject from childhood, or they might have a eureka moment and decide to pursue it at university. Either way, the path is a long one that requires multiple university degrees. Along the way, it’s important to cultivate and refine different skills and areas of expertise.
Archaeologists also record vertical spatial positions, using a datum standard (a piece of string pulled tight and made level with a bubble or line level). They use a compass to walk in straight lines across the area they are studying. They also screen soil and remove ground vegetation to recover artifacts and features. They store all material in bags labeled with their exact location.
They might also take photographs, draw pictures, and write notes. Then they spend most of their time in the lab analyzing data and artifacts, and finding ways to answer their research questions.
What do Archaeologists Study?
Archaeologists study the ways people have lived in the past, usually for millennia for which there is no written record. They also study materials like wood, glass, metals, pottery and human remains, especially skeletons.
Many archaeologists are involved with the local and descendant community, working alongside them to spread knowledge of their shared national heritage and history. Some even conduct experimental archaeology, replicating the techniques that ancient people used to create features or artifacts. For example, the famous Kon-Tiki expedition was an experiment to show that ancient Polynesians could have used the same boats and technology as modern sailors.
As they excavate, archaeologists carefully remove soil layers and recover artifacts (things made by humans) and context (the spatial relationships of artifacts to one another and to features such as walls or hearths). They make a lot of notes and take pictures. All of this data is carefully cleaned, labeled, and stored. Some states have centralized archaeological storage facilities for their collections.
What do Archaeologists Do?
Archaeologists must follow strict guidelines and procedures for cleaning, labeling, cataloguing, and storing objects. They must also keep records of all the data collected from each site. They might work with experts from other fields, such as botanists, zoologists, soil scientists, and geologists to help them identify plants, animals, and soils found along with artifacts.
Before digging, archaeological teams survey the area. They may dig test pits or use non-invasive techniques like geophysical surveys that do not disturb the soil.
Once a site is selected, archaeologists prepare a research design and obtain permission to dig from landowners or agencies that manage the land. They must submit this plan for review before beginning fieldwork.
What are Archaeologists’ Tools?
Archaeologists use a variety of tools in the field. They often begin by surveying an area, using a compass and long tape measure to record precise locations of features on the ground. They also look for signs of human activity, like walls or foundations and color changes in the soil.
If they find something that looks interesting, they dig a test pit. These are small holes dug in the ground and usually contain artifacts and features. They may also use non-invasive techniques to survey a site, such as magnetometry or ground-penetrating radar.
Once they’ve excavated, an archaeologist studies the artifacts they’ve found. They can learn a lot about how people lived from just one object. They look for patterns in the types of things that were found, such as how the shape of pottery changed over time. They also study how things were used, for example, the way that projectile points (small chipped stone items that people attached to spears and arrows) changed as people hunted different kinds of animals.