Methods and Practices in Archaeology

Archaeology is the study of ancient people and societies through surveying, excavating, and analyzing collected materials from the past.  Archaeology is both a science and a humanity and contains elements of anthropology, geology, geography, linguistics, chemistry, and history.

Archaeologists begin by looking for a site that has a good chance of containing artifacts.  Oftentimes archaeologists search in areas where artifacts have been found before.  Places that would provide livable conditions in years past is another good place to start and usually are in areas that have good access to water and food and provide basic shelter such as caves.  

Once a reasonable site has been located archaeologists begin to survey the area.  Surveying involves searching the area on foot for visible artifacts that can be seen without digging.  Sometimes archaeologists use metal detectors especially around old battle sites.  Arial surveys can be done with cameras that are attached onto a plane, balloon, or other method in order to see what is hard to see from the ground such as structures that are covered with overgrowth.  Geophysical surveys are often used when searching for what lays underneath the ground and employ magnetometers to detect small disturbances in the earth’s magnetic field that can be caused by iron and other structures.  

Once something has been found through a survey, archaeologists dig shovel test pits.  These pits are small, circular holes that are dug 30 meters apart or 60 meters apart around the site. 

When a site has been found a site form is completed and includes a map of the area, the artifacts that have been found, the time frame in which the site is believed to have been occupied, and whether or not the excavation site should be preserved. 

Next, an archaeology team will study where the artifacts were found and set up an excavation unit.  Excavation units are basically stakes and string that form a series of squares across the site in a checkerboard like fashion.  Holes are dug evenly one level of earth at a time.  It is important that all of the walls are smooth and straight.  All the soil that is removed from each unit is placed on a screen that traps artifacts that might otherwise be overlooked.  When an artifact is found, archaeologists use paint brushes, dental picks, and chop sticks to carefully examine and remove each piece.  All artifacts are bagged and labeled with its unit and level.    

Archaeologists also look for features which are simply disturbances in the ground that often look like dark stains.  Midden is a type of feature that is particularly exciting for archaeologists because of the high concentration of artifacts.  Midden is an area that was basically a dump site of ancient people.   

When archaeologists find a feature or artifact, photographs and maps are made to document its stratigraphy or the level and area in which it was found.  The level in which something is found can tell its relative age according to what is found above and below it.  It can also show what kind of geological processes, such as flooding, that have affected the area at the time.  Artifacts that are closer to the surface of the earth are younger while those items that are found deeper in the ground are much older.  Drawings on graph paper are typically made as well and always have a directional arrow as a frame of reference.  The color of the different layers of soil are recorded using the Munsell Soil Color Charts which is the industry standard.  Excavating is a destructive process so great care is taken in documenting nearly every aspect of a feature and artifacts. 

When archaeologists are done with the excavation, they refill the holes and units that have been dug.  This is done to prevent people from falling into the site and, perhaps even more importantly, prevent people from looting the site. 

Archaeology is a dirty and physically demanding job that is commonly done in hot and remote locations.  It also usually involves searching out people, universities, and companies who are willing to donate money to fund excavations.  The drive to find an artifact or feature, however, is well worth the often slow and labor intensive process to an archaeologist who is passionate about the people who lived before the present time.