Frequently Asked Questions

** The following information is synopsized from Santa Clara University.

Archeology is the study of the material remains left behind by past populations. Material remains are the physical things people made and/or used.  The field of archeology can be divided into many specialized subfields, often dealing with a particular time, culture, geographical area, or category of materials. Archeologists do not only study individual artifacts; our job is to study the relationships of artifacts to each other to understand and interpret past behavior at a particular place in time.

People and cultures are living histories that have great temporal depth and inspire inquisitiveness and educate us on several levels. For example, communities speak languages that are inherited from the past. They live in societies with complex cultures, traditions and religions that have not been created on the spur of the moment. People use technologies that they have not themselves invented. As time progresses, people mold and shape these living histories based on individual and communal needs. Ultimately, the byproducts of these cultures that are discarded eventually become part of the archeological record. Thus, archeology is a facet, the underground component if you will, of history. So, history then, and by extension, archeology, is that shared body of acquired knowledge that humans live by and pass on to each successive generation. Understanding the linkages between past and present is basic for a good understanding of the condition of being human. That, in a nutshell, is why History matters. It is not just ‘useful’, it is essential!

An artifact is any object that was created, modified, or even just used by a human being. It can be difficult to tell if a natural object, such as a stone, was used by a human being unless there are physical marks on it; however, its context will give us clues. Generally, the term artifact is applied to portable objects. Structures created or modified by humans that cannot easily be moved, such as building foundations, wells, agricultural terraces, pits, and post holes, are called features.

There are many ways to find a site. Often an archaeologist hears about a site from people who may have stumbled across it accidentally. For instance, farmers often find sites while they plow their fields or clear land to create fields. Hikers sometimes find sites while out exploring. Construction crews sometimes find them when they dig up an area to lay the foundation of a building. Pilots have found sites from the air. Usually, the people who discover the sites report them to archeologists, who then investigate. Another common way to find sites is through purposeful survey in advance of a construction project. In this case, archeologists actively search the project area for sites in areas that were likely to support human populations, or in places where old documents and records indicate people once lived. Old records and maps often talk about communities and settlements that do not exist today. Archeologists physically walk over these areas looking for evidence of human occupation such as pieces of pottery.

Most people are very surprised at the amount of dirt that can build up at an abandoned site. Once a structure has been exposed to the elements, even just through a broken window or a hole in a roof, the weather, animals, and humans all do their best to help the building crumble and fill up with dirt. The artifacts and structures that archeologists study have often been abandoned for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. During this time, they decay and are covered over. Wind brings more dust to cover the remains. Sometimes floods will bring with them silt and soil. Downtown Rome today is many meters higher than the Rome of the Caesars, partly because when the Tiber River flooded, silt built up even as people inhabited the city. In addition, the area was abandoned several times in its history — and finally, there was no consistent daily or weekly effort to clean up the streets, no city-wide, consistent equivalent of our trash collection today. And so, a city can slowly be partly buried even while people are living there. In more dramatic cases, sites may be buried relatively quickly during catastrophic events, the way Pompeii and Herculaneum were covered over by ash and volcanic mud during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. One way or another, by the time archeologists arrive on the scene, the remains of a site may be covered by anywhere from one to forty feet of earth and debris.

Very carefully! Many objects buried for hundreds of years may be quite fragile. Generally, archeologists loosen the earth with a pick, shovel, or trowel in very small, shallow area, remove the loosened earth, and then loosen more. They move the dirt horizontally, in small increments, rather than dig down around objects as they appear – and when they find something, they leave it in place until they have uncovered everything else around it at the same level and have recorded all the finds and their locations. It is very tempting to dig objects out of the ground right away, or to dig holes around artifacts, since it is human nature to want to see what you have found! The archaeologist’s goal, however, is to notice all the relationships and connections between objects and features – the context of the finds — because otherwise a great deal of information may be lost. The earth that is removed is often taken to screens where the archeologists look for very small artifacts or other remains, such as seeds, that they may have overlooked while digging. The sifted dirt is collected into large piles referred to as “back dirt” or a “dump” or “spoil heap.”

Generally, artifacts uncovered during an excavation are carefully collected, cleaned, labeled, recorded, and photographed, and then taken to a lab where they are analyzed. Sometimes artifacts are too fragile to be cleaned and must be conserved before any further analysis can be done. Conservation techniques help to consolidate an object. After analysis, objects are usually stored in safe dry environments for future study. Archeologists almost never get to keep the objects they excavate, since the remains generally belong to the country in which they are found. Archeologists are only interested in studying the objects and do not keep or sell them.

To become an archaeologist requires a great deal of study and preparation. Most archeologists have at least a bachelor’s degree in archeology. To achieve any sort of role as a supervisor takes an M.A. degree, and to teach at a university and to run an excavation you must have earned a Ph.D. Archeologists who run projects and excavations generally have Doctorates in archeology. Many universities and colleges around the country offer courses in archeology. Not everyone who enjoys archeology wants to be an archaeologist full time. Interested “lay archeologists” can usually volunteer on projects. Every year the AIA publishes the Archeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin that lists many current projects. You should also contact your local state archaeologist, who will often have information on projects ongoing in your home state.

Archeologists do much more than “dig!” Archeologists in federal, tribal, and state government agencies are responsible for managing, protecting, and interpreting archeological sites on public land. Working in museums, archeological parks, or historic sites, archeologists may manage collections of artifacts, work in education or public programming, or become administrators that manage programs relating to research, collections, education, and exhibitions. Colleges and universities employ archeologists as faculty members that teach undergraduate and graduate students. In addition to teaching, academic archeologists are active researchers in their field. They write grants to raise money to fund their fieldwork, in addition to directing excavations; they oversee the analysis and interpretation of the projects and publish the results of their work in books, and scholarly journals, as well as in popular publications that help make their research available to the public.

Professional archeologists work in a wide variety of settings. Archeologists are employed by federal and state government agencies, museums and historic sites, colleges and universities, and engineering firms with cultural resource management divisions. Some archeologists work as consultants or form their own companies. The majority of archeologists today are employed in cultural resource management, or CRM. CRM companies are responsible for archeology that is done to comply with federal historic preservation laws that protect archeological sites. Archeologists employed in CRM firms may be hired as temporary field or laboratory assistants or may be project managers or administrators CRM archeologists direct field and lab work, manage staff, and are responsible for writing reports and other publications to share the results of their surveys and excavations. CRM archeologists may also be engaged in public education and outreach efforts to share the results of their work with the public through site, tours, brochures, and exhibits.