Believe it or not archaeologists rarely excavate dig entire sites! Archaeology is a destructive science—meaning that once a site is excavated, it is gone forever.
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The artifacts and information gathered remain, but the site itself can never be recreated. Excavating sites is also costly and time-consuming. Once the dig is done, archaeologists have a professional responsibility to analyze all the artifacts and information obtained, to report on their research, and to curate the collections.
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For these reasons, archaeologists generally excavate only when there is a threat of destruction or when they may reveal vital information about past cultures. And they usually excavate only a small part of any site. Although archaeologists work on all kinds of environments around the world, they follow the same basic process when planning an excavation. Before an excavation begins, archaeologists write a research design. This outlines the "who, what, where, when, how, and why" of the fieldwork.
Archaeologists must submit this important document for review before gaining permission to excavate a site.
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In the U. If an American archaeologist wants to work in a foreign country, permission must be granted by the appropriate agency in that government. Tribal American Indian lands in the U. Once a research design receives approval and permits, a team gathers the necessary people and tools. Archaeologists must record the exact location of all artifacts and features on a site. Before removing any soil or artifacts from a site, they create a site grid. They establish a datum point, or fixed reference point for all measurements. Then they superimpose a rectangular grid over the whole site.
They measure each square in the grid and assign it a number.
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These squares are often referred to as units. This system allows the archaeologist to create a precise map and to record the exact location of all the features and artifacts on the site. Archaeologists use a statistical sampling method to select which squares or units they will excavate. To begin, they will collect surface artifacts, then remove any ground vegetation. Archaeologists screen all soil removed from a unit to recover small artifacts and ecofacts.
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They record exact location, both horizontally and vertically, of all materials recovered. They store artifacts from each unit in secure bags labeled with the site and excavation unit numbers and level.
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The unit may be dug in arbitrary levels such as every 10 cm or by following the natural stratigraphy layers of the soil. Stratigraphy is the study of geological or soil layers. Over time, both natural processes like the decay of organic matter, and cultural processes caused by humans , create soil layers. The cross section of these soil layers resembles a layer cake.
The oldest layers are on the bottom and the most recent layers are on the top.
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This is called the Law of Superposition and is one of the most important principles in archaeology. Archaeologists can use stratigraphy to determine the relative age of each layer and its contents. Archaeologists spend much more of their time in the laboratory analyzing artifacts and data than they do in the field. Archaeologists analyze artifacts, features, and other information recovered in the field to help answer their research questions.
During the investigative process, they might seek to learn when people occupied the site, the purpose of the objects recovered, what the people ate, the kinds of structures they built, with whom they traded, and much more. They may also look at how the site they are analyzing relates to other sites. The analysis will depend on the archaeologist's research questions from the beginning of the project. There are a variety of techniques for determining the age of an artifact or archaeological site. Stratigraphy can determine the relative age of soil layers and artifacts and can help us understand the order of events.
But if an artifact of known age such as a coin with a mint date is found in a soil layer it can tell us when something occurred. Tree-ring dating, or dendrochronology, is one of the oldest dating methods used by archaeologists. It is based on the principle that trees produce growth rings each year and the size of the rings will vary depending upon rainfall received each year. Archaeologists have built up long sequences of rings from tree trunks that extend back centuries.
In the American Southwest, tree ring dating goes back to 59 BC. Radiocarbon C14 dating is the most popular method to date objects made of organic matter.
go Potassium-argon dating can date ancient objects—up to , years old. Obsidian hydration can date artifacts made from volcanic glass. This is only a sample of the many physical and chemical dating methods that archaeologists use to date archaeological sites and artifacts. Artifacts are important sources of information for archaeologists. Artifacts can tell us about the diet, tools, weapons, dress, and living structures of people who made and used them.
Archaeologists wash, sort, catalog, and store recovered artifacts after bringing them back from the field. They analyze individual artifacts, but also may sort them into groups to see patterns. For example, they might weigh all the oyster shells together or count all the nails and consider them as one unit. The locations of artifacts on the site provide clues to the kinds of activities that occurred. The type of material the artifact is made of is another important piece of information.
It that can inform whether past people obtained the materials locally or by trading with another group. Artifacts provide a window into the lives of peoples who lived before. A feature represents human activity but, unlike most artifacts, it cannot be removed from the archaeological site. A feature might be a stain in the soil that is evidence of a former fence post. Photographs, drawings, and soil samples of the fence post hole collected by the archaeologist are part of the scientific record of that feature.
Those documents and samples are just as important as the artifacts found nearby. Features like soil stains can reveal the outlines of prehistoric or historic structures such as houses, barns, longhouses, and earthen lodges.
Other types of features include hearths fire pits , storage pits, and middens—what archaeologists call garbage dumps! Privies outhouses are important features in historical archaeology sites, because people used to dump their garbage into them. Archaeologists have both ethical and legal obligations to preserve all the data they collect for the benefit of future generations.
This includes not just the artifacts recovered, but also the associated information and records. This includes soil samples, field notes, maps, photographs, drawings, and related historical documents. Archaeologists follow strict guidelines and procedures for cleaning, labeling, cataloguing, and storing objects. Each state has a responsibility to store the millions of artifacts recovered from surface collections or excavations within its boundaries. Finding space for these collections is a major challenge. While some collections are stored in many locations around the state, other states have created centralized archaeology storage facilities.
Universities and museums also sponsor archaeology projects and are responsible for preservation and storage. Archaeologists working at museums or universities may store their collections there. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Philadelphia is an example of a museum with important archaeology collections, which it stores, displays, and loans to other institutions for exhibitions. These collections are also studied by scholars from all over the world.
We preserve collections for both scientific research and public education. The application of new technologies and dating techniques to old collections yields valuable new information that may lead to new understandings about our human past. For instance, neutron activation analysis now allows us to trace the origin of the raw materials used in Maya ceramic pots, collected over a hundred years ago. Both DNA analysis and atomic mass spectrometry AMS radiocarbon dating are being applied to plant and animal remains to study the origins of domestication.
Archaeological collections are also preserved for use in museum exhibits so that the public may benefit from the archaeological research that unearthed them. I'm wondering how I could start a catagory on here where during the course of the year, people including me could report in on present and past PRIVY digs that they have partaken in here in Northern New England. I made it my mission 3 years ago to devote my digging time to answer the question " Are there privies full of bottles to be dug here in Maine, NH, northern Mass.
I've dug dumps, land fills, ravines etc for 20 years with great success, but if there are privies to be had out here, I want to dig them! I took a trip out to Syracuse to visit digging buddies, and to accompany them on a genuine permission style privy dig.
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