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Educational Guide for Archaeologists

Stonehenge DigStudying humanity’s past is a way to better understand the events that took place as far back as ancient times or as recent as a few hundred years. These events play an important part in today’s world. Historical occurrences and discoveries help humanity better understand events that shaped the world into what it is today. They also teach important lessons that modern society can learn from, and in some cases avoid. For this reason the study of past cultures is critical.

What is Archaeology?

Archaeology is the scientific study of the past via the remains of discovered materials, or artifacts. These materials are objects that humans in the past made and/or used as a part of their daily lives. It may include objects such as coins, pottery, and even buildings. Environmental discoveries are also studied during archaeological investigation. The people who discover and study these historical items are called archeologists. They use their discoveries to learn about how past cultures lived.

Methods

An archaeologist must follow certain steps or methods during his or her investigations. These methods aid archaeologists in following the basic rules associated with archaeology in addition to helping them maintain the integrity of their studies. These methods include research in the form of field surveys and remote sensing, excavation, and analysis. Research occurs before the archaeologist begins digging due to its potentially destructive nature. One of the first steps in archaeology is to locate the archaeological site and to survey it for potential areas of interest. Locating the site involves the use of satellite imagery and is known as remote sensing. The process of locating an area of interest is called field survey. This is a non-destructive form of research that does not involve digging, which can be destructive. Field survey includes surface, aerial, and geophysical survey. Geophysical surveys allow archaeologists to map beneath the ground using instruments such as magnetometers, ground penetrating radars, and even metal detectors. Aerial surveys allow archaeologists to survey large areas from the air using airplanes, balloons and unmanned flying crafts. Another method is virtual archaeology. Combing the surface of an area also may provide useful information or unearth artifacts. This is known as surface surveying.

Excavation is the unearthing of artifacts and it is the most common method associated with archaeology. It is the next step after research and surveying techniques, particularly if non-invasive techniques failed to turn up anything of significance. Most often it involves digging for artifacts that are buried; however, surface surveying may also be considered a form of excavation. Excavation occurs at a viable site where the exact location of artifacts is known and recorded. Because it involves digging, it is a highly destructive method, and it is also one of the most expensive aspects of an archaeological investigation. Laboratory analysis follows excavation. This occurs in stages, starting with the careful cleaning and labeling of the excavated items. Artifacts from the site are then cataloged, dated, and examined.

Historical Archaeology

When archaeology involves the study of cultures that have written records, it is called historical archaeology. Like traditional archaeology, artifacts, the environment, and even folklore are studied. Due to the presence of written records, this branch of archaeology studies more recent times in history. In the U.S., for example, historical archaeologists may study the history of slavery in a certain location, or a battle during the Civil War.

Ethnoarchaeology

When scientists study a living culture to better understand cultures in the past, it is called ethnoarchaeology. It is a subcategory of archaeology that increased in popularity during the 1960s. Ethnoarchaeologists observe the use of artifacts and the behavior of a group of people. These observations are used to perform a comparison between the present people and the people who lived in the past.

Experimental Archaeology

Experimental archaeology is yet another subcategory of archaeology. Archaeologists who practice this form of the science attempt to recreate or replicate their findings using technologies and tools that are accurate for the time in history. This provides them with important information and allows them to understand not only how it was made, but also how it may have been used. Replication may be of an object that is as small as a tool or as large as a home or some other type of structure.

Archaeometry

Archaeometry involves the dating of artifacts using scientific techniques, such as radiocarbon dating. In addition, archaeometry also involves the application of other scientific methods such as engineering and physical science to common problems found in archaeology.

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