Archaeology

December 13, 2005

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Archaeology Facts

clipartWhat is Archaeology?
Archaeology is learning about ancient people, how they lived, what they looked like, what tools they used and also learning about their culture. The word archaeology comes from the Greek - it means the study of what is ancient and it's pretty fascinating stuff! Archaeologists are the scientists who study the remains of past civilizations or groups of people.

puzzler clipartUp for the challenge?
Archaeology is a bit like putting a puzzle together that has lots of pieces missing. It is kind of like being a treasure hunter but a lot more like being a detective. Archaeologists look at the things people from long ago have left behind. Archaeologists are interested in how people lived, their houses, clothes, bones and even their garbage! In fact, a garbage site is one of the best places to find artifacts of the past.

Archaeologists don't have as much excitement and danger in their lives as portrayed in the movies, but it still can be pretty exciting when they do piece together the puzzle and discover something new!

How does an archaeologist know where to dig?
Over time, things and places get covered up and buried. When something lays on the ground day after day, year after year, leaves fall on it, dust blows, and little by little it slowly gets covered up. Before an archaeologist conducts a dig, they do lots of research to determine where they might start.

clipartFirst, archaeologists know that people need certain things to help them stay alive. These include easy access to water, trade and migration routes, and food sources. With this knowledge and some research, archaeologists can locate the most likely places where people may have lived.

Sometimes people, like farmers and builders, uncover something from the past and an archaeologist comes in to help with the site. Archaeologists also look at buildings, ruins, unusual mounds or sunken spots in the land. Sometimes, archaeologists can tell where old roads or walls once stood by looking at aerial photography. Other times, they can get clues from books and maps. All of these places are potential places where an archaeologist might begin their research when determining where they might conduct a dig.

Excavation siteDid You Know?
Archaeologists always dig square holes? They dig in a scientific method with neat, organized, square holes on a grid system. Being super organized helps them keep records of where they make each find. That way, when they go back to the lab with hundreds of pieces they can begin putting the map together of all of the finds. This helps them develop a clearer picture of what life must have been like during the time period they are studying.

What does an archaeologist look for when they are digging?
Once an archaeologist locates a site, does the initial research and gets permission to conduct a dig, that's when the work really begins! Archaeologists look for lots of different things when they begin a dig:

  • The thing that most people think of when they think about a dig are artifacts. Artifacts are things like tools or things that people could have moved or carried. Or what some people would consider to be the "buried treasure."

  • Archaeologists also look for evidence about past environments to find things like seeds, animal bones and soil types. These types of finds are sometimes called eco-facts.

  • They also look for features or things that people made or did that can't be moved. Things like walls, floors or fireplaces. These types of things are called "features."

The Dig
Although a dig or excavation is one of the most important and widely known methods in archaeology, care has to be taken in its use. Archaeologists know that excavations destroy a site, so they only sample or excavate a portion of a site leaving the rest for future researchers who will have better tools and methods.

There are two main reasons why archaeologists look for and sometimes excavate a site.

Garbage Dump1. They may have a research question about the past that makes it necessary to search a certain area for sites, or to excavate a site.

2. Sites may be endangered by a development project or natural causes, such as erosion, that requires data to be salvaged before the site is destroyed.

One of the best places for an archaeologist to learn about a past civilization is a "midden." A midden is the term archaeologists use for a garbage dump from the past! Yep, the garbage site! Why garbage, you ask? Well, garbage can tell us a lot about how people lived. Think about your garbage can. What would it tell people about your life? Just think, you may be the archaeologist's dream come true in a few thousand years!

Why do archaeologists dig stuff up? Can't they just look in a book?
We rely on archaeologists to tell us about things that aren't written down in books. The written word is only about 5,000 years old, and in the grand scheme of things that isn't very long! Also, there are a lot of things that are left out of books. Many times, books will be about famous people but we don't often hear about how the average person lived. And, sometimes what people say and what they do are two totally different things. Archaeologists can help do the detective work by pulling all of the information together and give us a portrayal of the past.

 

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