Ask an Archaeologist: Part 1

Jan 11, 2014 By Colleen Hanratty
Anonymous's picture

Colleen answers your questions about archaeology here!

Is the past important?

Archeologists study past cultures through remains of ancient sites and artifacts, which people have created. The fascinating facts in your history books would not have been possible without the work of dedicated archeologists.

Why is it important to understand the past? It is often said that "History repeats itself". A society oppressed by a dictator, the cry for freedom, the challenges of democracy - this could be present-day Egypt, the U.S. 250 years ago when it came out of Britain's shadow, or Rome's struggles in 500 BC after overthrowing the tyrannical monarchy.

History teaches us lessons which as important today. The Maya disappeared suddenly in the 9th century B.C. Now, researchers claim decreased rainfall as a result of climate change was to blame. And what caused the climate change? The massive deforestation of the very jungles that had supported the civilization. Sounds familiar, doesn't it!

1. What does Archaeology really mean? Is it only digging up the past?

Archaeology is the scientific study of human cultures through the recovery and analysis of material remains and environmental data. It is part of a broader field known as Anthropology. The other subfields of Anthropology include: cultural anthropology (the study of culture), physical anthropology (the systematic study of humans as biological organisms), and linguistics (involves the study of language, the medium of culture.).

A great example of how these subfields can work together is the recent discovery of the remains of Richard III (as written in the article here)

2. How do people actually plan an archaeology expedition? It must be difficult to know where to dig. How do you actually do it?

Those are very complex questions! But it really depends on the archaeologist’s hypothesis and research design. Archaeologists utilize the scientific method – here is a graphic of the process: 

For instance, in the case of Richard III, anthropologists hypothesized that his remains are buried beneath Greyfriars church. Archaeologists then tested this by hypothesizing where the church may have been (based on historical records), then excavating the area and eventually identifying the ruins, recovering the human remains, and then testing those remains. 

3. When you discover an item, how do you know if it is a recent artifact or something significant from before?

There are two different ways to identify the age of an artifact: 1) absolute dating techniques and 2) relative dating techniques.

Absolute dating methods allow a researcher to determine the age of a sample in years whereas relative dating methods only allow scientists to determine that a given sample is older or younger than a reference sample.

For example, using an absolute dating method, like radiometric dating (aka Carbon or C14 dating) you could determine that a tooth from a skeleton is 5000 years old. A relative dating method, like comparing fossil sequences in sedimentary rocks from around the world, will only able to conclude that a sample is older than a particular layer of rock or another sample.

4. Do you use carbon dating on all artifacts?

You can only utilize carbon dating on artifacts that are made from organic materials that contain carbon (such as wood). For more on how carbon dating works, check out this article from the past. 

5. I wanted to ask about becoming an archaeologist. I've always thought it was a cool field to go into and have been collecting minerals and rocks since I was little. I have tons of mica from Stone Mountain, Georgia. I wanted to ask: what is the best way to become an archeologist?

I loved collecting geological samples when I was little too (and still do)! The best way to become an archaeologist is to stay in school and study hard! There are a lot of great University programs in anthropology and archaeology– but you will need to keep your GPA up!

You can also get involved in local archaeological programs in your area as well via your local historical or archaeology society, local museums, or universities. Here is a great link for more information.