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The Complexity of Archeology

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This paper considers the process-oriented nature of the field of archaeology together with techniques designed to make those processes successful. The process is outlined beginning with the archaeologist establishing goals for a project, followed by research, fund-raising, surveying, and site testing. Special attention is then paid to the heart of any archeological project: techniques of excavating, relic dating and analysis, and preservation.

The Complexity of Archeology
An archaeologist is a person who helps to protect and understand the record of the past by uncovering information about ancient civilizations. He does this by digging objects out of the ground and then studying them. When an archaeologist uncovers a piece of history, whether it is a vase or an entire city, he is adding a piece to the puzzle that answers the question: what was the past like? In order to find pieces of past civilizations, archaeologists must complete several steps.

There are multiple steps that an archaeologist must take before he starts to dig. An archeologist’s first step is to decide just what it is that he hopes to find (Panchyk, 2001, p. 3). Sometimes he will be looking for a specific item. For example, Howard Carter looked for years hoping to find King Tutankhamen’s tomb before he actually found it. Other times, the archeologist has a more general goal that he hopes to achieve. In this case, he would have in mind some bigger, broader questions that he wanted to answer with his finds. Example questions might be: Why did a group of people leave an area? What modes of transportation did a group of people use? The archaeologist must know what he hopes to find before he begins to search. This way he will not waste time, energy, or money.

Once the archaeologist has decided what his main goal is or has defined what he wants to find, he must start studying (Panchyk, 2001, p. 3). Before an archeologist makes a trip to the site he plans to dig up, he must do as much research on it as he can. He is looking for new information and is wise to take advantage of the work others have done. After all, “the great civilizations that began about 5,000 years ago are usually mentioned in various historical accounts” (Panchyk, 2001, p. 3). Carter, who found King Tutankhamen’s tomb, researched ancient Egypt for thirty-one years (“Tut Watch” para. 5 and 6). All of this research prepared him to know where to dig and what clues to look for as evidence of King Tut’s tomb. As shown with Carter’s example, this step might actually take years before it is complete. The research is complex and unique for each archaeological dig, but one thing is generally true of all projects. That is, the more an archeologist knows about the civilization he is studying, the better prepared he will be to make sense of new objects that he uncovers.

The next step that archeologist must take is to find money to fund his dig. This means that he must either write grant applications or find people who will donate either time or money to help fund the project. Without money, the archaeologist cannot hire people to help him. In fact, he could not even afford the tools necessary to help dig up the artifacts (Panchyk, 2001, p. 5). Lord Carnarvon hired Howard Carter to help find ancient Egyptian artifacts. Without Lord Carnarvon’s money and his belief that it was being used well, Carter would never have found such a wonderful archaeological site (“Tut Watch” para. 5).

After the archaeologist is able to find enough money to fund his project, he will begin to survey the area. A survey involves the archaeologist and his team examining the area to see where the artifacts might be located. They might go up in a plane and complete an aerial survey, or stay on the ground and complete a surface survey, or they can “look” beneath the surface with a geophysical survey. The archaeologist will survey the land to see what evidence he can find to support his goal. If the archaeologist cannot find any artifacts, he will have to survey a different site. Surveying can involve taking pictures or soil samples, using a metal detector, and plotting out where the artifacts can be found (Panchyk, 2001, pgs 5-6). Surveying does not cost as much money as actually excavating a site. It is a step that allows the archaeologist to evaluate whether his goal is accessible or not. If there is not enough evidence to support he guess that there are objects from the past there, the archaeologist might have to begin some more research before moving forward.

Once the area has been surveyed and the archaeologist has plotted a graph of where the artifacts are located, then he will test the site to see samples of what might be found. The layers of earth, whether it is on land or underwater, are cautiously uncovered. The digging is done very carefully so that the archaeologists can assess what level the artifacts are at. By carefully examining each level, they will then decide whether there are different civilizations on top of each other, or if the earth’s shifting that has changed the placement of the artifacts. The archaeologist will make painstaking notes of where everything was found during this and every step. These notes serve as guides for future archaeological digs as well as markers of progress within the current project (Panchyk, 2001, p. 8).

The excavation process begins next. To excavate literally means “to hollow out.” The “cav” part of the word “excavate” is related to our word “cave.” When someone excavates, it is like taking items out of a cave. When an archaeologist excavates something, the actual artifacts and relics are taken out of the ground or ocean. This, again, is more than just yanking pieces out of the earth. The archaeologists must make exact notes of where everything is found. These notes are important because their placement helps to tell the story of why the pieces were located where they were and will help to give clues on the stories behind the artifacts themselves. The ways in which the artifacts lie form a context, which helps everyone involved to analyze and better understand the artifacts that are uncovered (Panchyk, 2001, p. 9). Just as one sentence taken from a story makes little sense without its surrounding context, pieces that are taken from the earth and not given consideration for where they are from make little sense by themselves.

The archaeologists use rakes and trowels to dig below the surface in a slow manner so that nothing is lost in the unearthing process. Small amounts of dirt are run through a screen so that artifacts are not lost in the shuffle; this way even the smallest artifact will not be lost in the process. They also use fine brushes to wipe away the dirt to ensure that the items are not broken during the excavation process. It might take an archaeologist a week to excavate a five-foot by five-foot space (Panchyk, 2001, p. 9). That is how slowly they work making notes on the context and taking the artifacts out of the ground!

Once the context is documented, the artifacts then need to be analyzed. They will be removed from the site for others to look at and research further. The person analyzing the artifact will consider and research many things about the artifact. The research will seek to answer questions like: “What is it made of? Where did the material come from? How was it made? What was its purpose? Is it rare or common?” (Panchyk, 2001, p. 11). By looking through other people’s discoveries and comparing them with this excavation, more knowledge and history can be pieced together. Dating the piece is also an important part of the process. This is when the researchers and archaeologists will try to determine how old the artifact is. If the artifact is found to be older or younger than what the original hypothesis for the excavation area is, then the whole focus changes. On the other hand, the dating for the artifact can confirm the entire excavation and archaeologist’s goals.

Dating an artifact can be very easy or very difficult. For example, coins often have a ruler’s face or even a date on them. This makes the process easier. Of course you might have a penny in your pocket from 1950, but that does not mean that this is when you were living, so the researcher will still have to research further to determine the time frame of the coin in relation to the excavation as a whole. Most other times, the artifact does not have a date stamped on it, so the archaeologist must again refer to other texts to date the pieces properly (Panchyk, 2001, pgs. 11-12).

The last step that the archaeologist will take is to preserve the artifact. Preservation includes washing the artifact, removing the dust, or gluing broken pieces back together. Sometimes the preservation can occur with simply brushing dust off of the object (like Howard Carter did when looking at the objects in King Tut’s burial chamber) or it might include special chemicals that will not ruin the object but actually restore it (Panchyk, 2001, p. 12). This is why the analysis sub-step is so important. If someone mis-guesses what an object is composed of, that piece could be lost forever.

Archaeology is comprised of many steps, ranging from designing a goal to actually preserving the artifact. The table below captures these steps together with their goals:

Table 1.
Summary of steps in archeological process
Step| Purpose| Result| Establish goals| Defines a successful mission| Gives the project focus| Conduct research| Refines understanding of goals; provides knowledge base| Refines methodology; aids in interpreting findings| Generate funding| Provides necessary personnel and supplies| Enables project dream to become a reality| Survey site| Provides time and cost effective way of locating a suitable site| Allows archeologist to determine whether or not additional research is required before| Conduct site testing| Allows archeologist to strategize approach to excavation| Provides a way of thinking through how to use resources effectively during excavation process| Excavate| Allows archeologist to find artifacts which verify research and achieve goals| Provides hard evidence justifying the project’s purpose and importance| Analyze findings| Enables archeologist to match findings with research and goals| Provides documentation and interpretation of findings| Preserve findings| Prevents artifacts from experiencing rapid decay once uncovered| Allows other scientists and general public to learn firsthand from findings|

All of these steps are important as each step builds upon the others so that the final result is an artifact that all can learn from. The science of archaeology is an important part of every culture worldwide. Archaeologists help cultures and civilizations learn more about themselves as they learn about the people who were there previously. This discipline helps people to understand how people as a whole, and a civilization individually, have developed to where they are now. It is only through learning where we have come from that we can progress any further.


“Archaeology.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 30 Oct. 2005. 17 Nov. 2005. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeology#Survey >
“Excavate.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Nov. 2001. 17 Nov. 2005.
< http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?l=e&p=12 >
Panchyk, Richard. Archaeology for Kids: Uncovering the Mysteries of our Past. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2001.
“Tut Watch: The Man Who Found Tut.” Archaeology (19 April 2005): 19 pars. 16 Nov. 2005. < http://www.archaeology.org/online/features/tutwatch/carter.html >

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