Archaeology Facts

Archaeology [är-'kē-'ä-lə-jē]

The study of ancient peoples and their cultures.

What is Archaeology?

prehistoric cave image

Archaeology is learning about ancient peoples — how they lived, what they looked like, what tools they used, and what their cultures were like. The word 'archaeology' comes from the Greek word arkhaiologia, which means 'ancient history,' and it's pretty fascinating stuff! Archaeologists are the scientists who study the remains of past civilizations and groups of people.

The Past as a Puzzle

archeological site in Greece
Archeological site in Greece

Archaeology is a bit like putting together a puzzle that has lots of pieces missing. And while being an archaeologist is sometimes like being a treasure hunter, it's a lot more like being a detective.

Archaeologists look at the things people from long ago left behind — their houses, clothes, bones, tools, dishes, and even their garbage! In fact, a garbage site is one of the best places to find artifacts from the past. Those artifacts are clues that archaeologists use to “fill in the puzzle” about how the people in particular places lived their day-to-day lives.

Archaeologists don't have as much excitement and danger in their lives as portrayed in the Indiana Jones movies, but it still can be pretty exciting when they do piece together a 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.

archeologist working on an excavation

First, 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.

archeology tools

Sometimes farmers and builders uncover artifacts while working around their properties, and an archaeologist will come in to see if the artifacts are signs of a larger human settlement buried on 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 photographs. Other times, they can get clues from old books, documents, and maps. All of these provide potential starting places for archaeologists to research and determine if they'll conduct a dig.

Did You Know?

archeologist working a square dig

Archaeologists always dig square holes. It's true! They dig 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 a 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 Do Archaeologists Look For When They Are Digging?

archeologists working at dig

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

  • The thing that most often comes to mind when people think about a dig are artifacts. Artifacts are objects like tools or pottery, things that people could have moved or carried. These are the things some people consider to be the “buried treasure.”
  • Archaeologists also look for clues about past environments in 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 may only sample or excavate a portion of a site leaving the rest for future researchers who may have better tools and methods.

archeological work in the search of ancient remains

There are two main reasons why archaeologists look for potential sites or decide to excavate a site:

  1. They may have a research question about the past that they think can only be answered by digging in a particular area.
  2. Human development, such as building roads or houses, or natural causes, such as erosion, may endanger a site, so archaeologists are called in to salvage artifacts before the site is destroyed.
midden trash

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, a garbage dump! Why garbage, you ask? Well, garbage can tell us a lot about how people lived. In ancient garbage heaps, archaeologists can find animal bones, shells, human excrement, remains of fruits, vegetables, and other plants, and fragments of glass and pottery. All of these provide important clues about day-to-day life.

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?

old stone tablets
stone tablets

We're used to thinking about the past as history. And history is what we learn about in old documents, records, letters, books and other written things. But wait, the written word is only about 5,000 years old, and in the grand scheme of things that isn't very long! We know there is lot of history that happened before writing was invented. Also, there are a lot of things that are left out of written documents. For example, books will usually be about famous people and we won't hear about how the average person lived. And, sometimes what people say and what they do are two totally different things.

So we rely on archaeologists to tell us about things that aren't written down in books. Archaeologists can do the detective work on non-written artifacts and give us a fuller picture of the past.