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What is Archaeology

Archaeology is the collection of sciences that study human
cultures through the recovery, documentation, analysis, and
interpretation of material left behind from past events--
it is how ancient peoples' behaviors are brought to light!

Archaeology's earliest roots in the United States is evident in the writings of Thomas Jefferson who systematically excavated an Indian mound on his property at Monticello. Jefferson dug a trench through the mound and noticed that this mound had various strata of differing soil colors and consistency. He also uncovered several burials and through this evidence, he surmized that that the mound had been created with the placement of the burials and then capped over with soil and that this process had been repeated a number of times throughout the years until the mound reached its final height of 12 ft.

Jefferson's work on the mound was ahead of its day in three respects:

First, he was one of the first people on this continent to excavate at all.

Second, his excavations were done with such care that they enabled him to clearly view the stratigraphy of his trench. This was remarkable considering that it wasn't until the 1930s that archaeologists began paying attention to stratigraphy.

And third, Jefferson was seeking an answer to a question that he posed, and then, through his experimental procedures, he was able to draw conclusions.

In essence, he used what we are taught in school today as the scientific method. Thomas Jefferson wasn't simply interested in gathering artifacts, he was interested in learning about the people who inhabited this land before him through the only means at his disposal, those things which they left behind with their burials.

A simple way of looking at archaeology's interpretive process is diagramed below:



In more complex terms, the aquisition of information as demonstrated above involves a growing number of scientific discaplines and techniques--from surveying and mapping to plot the exact location of an archaeological site, to the study of bones, lithic assemblages, their wear and use, floral and faunal remains, charcoal, and even the study of animal proteins left upon stone tools--all help to fill gaps in our knowledge.

Study questions:
1) Can you name other sciences used in archaeological studies today?

2) How do these sciences promote our greater understanding of the past

3) Why is a greater understanding of the past helpful to us today, and in plotting the course of our future?

LOCATION IS EVERYTHING!
The location of a site with reference to it's placement upon a USGS map is achieved by
Northing and Easting. Studies of site preferences and usage, in comparison with artifact assemblages and available resources, can be made from detailed mapping .

The detailed positioning of each artifact, feature and soil-type or -discoloration is performed by creating a grid-system over the site, usually in 5ft squares, with provision for balks or unexcavated areas bordering the squares to be dug, so as determine soil strata via cross-sections next to the excavated areas.

A datum point is established from which all relavent measurements are taken. This fixed location, a three dimensional point in space, enables archaeologists to accurately and precisely determine the locations of every artifact and feature in relation to the actual ground depth (before top-soil/plowzone removal) and to every other artifact and feature both within the excavated square and within the entire site. A theodolite, transit and measuring stick or even a water-level and measuring stick are effectie tools for determining depths of features and artifacts.

The images above demonstrate the techniques of plotting artifacts in three-dimensions. As with northing and easting within the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) coordinate system, measurements are taken north and east of grid lines established for the dig squares.
Where grid blocks are not aligned to cardinal directions, such lines are established based upon the established grid block lines themselves, which are plotted by position to cardinal directions, thus ensuring spacial relationships and plotting integrity.

A 'Virtual Dig' whereby the click of a mouse reveals artifacts--designed for 1st year archaeology students

New technologies now enable precise positioning of sites and features in relation to others, and is known as GPS or Global Positioning System. Using electronic triangulation between three or more points offered by orbiting sattalites and the point to be accurately plotted, a precise location may be plotted, whereby with the coordinates of this location, one may return again and again to the exact position, reference this position to others, and determinations of relationship or patterns of use can be studied. The datum point coordinates are now determined by GPS, and all other measurements derived referenced from the datum point.

The system is demonstrated by the following graphic animation:


The boundaries of the dig squares are set to form a grid over the proposed dig-site, vertical and horizontal measurements are taken to define the absolute position and depth of each feature, artifact, soil lens and disturbance (tree roots, animal burrows, later period intrusions and other anomalies) in relationship to datum point, dig-layers, actual layers of soil deposition, and the relationships between each artifact and feature may be studied in detail. Much is revealed by these methods of positioning and study


The grid established over the dig-site itself is now replicated in exacting detail on paper, enabling archaeologists to establish
patterns and outlines of structures, and here, establishing that dwelling and storage structures were superimposed upon one another
over a period of time--some older structures were removed so that new ones could be erected.



The balks outlining these dig-squares allow detailed anaysis of the accretional layers of this mound--over time,
features and burials were added to the mound until it was no longer used as a burial site.



The soil lenses shown here are marked by their physical distinctions from one another, and show how the mound was built up over perhaps hundreds of years.
Each layer has its own story to tell, and together they help form a more complete understanding of the both the mound structure itself and the people who built it.


"Context" is essential to understanding the past. The specific purpose of the detailed mapping and grid-layout of an archaeological site, the measurement and absolute location of everything excavated, is to be able to study the relationships between various individual items excavated, and to enable reasonable conclusions to be drawn.



The blue lines drawn between the bannerstones and the bone hooks show a relationship that only can have been established by careful excavation and plotting of artifacts, photographic documentation and study of the assemblage of artifacts as a whole. A wooden shaft once connected the two pieces.

Up until this time, the use and purpose of bannerstones had remained conjectural: Bannerstones had previously been refered to as 'problematical' and were once thought to be net-making sizers or objects of unknown ceremonial use--until these specimens were excavated at the Eva site in Tennessee, in the late 1950's.

Previously, only guesses as to their meaning and use could be made, and as it turns out, wrongly! Only in this manner, the relationships between each discovery can be analyzed and conclusions drawn as to their use or meaning.

You will note that the entire burial was uncovered 'in situ', exactly as it had lain in the earthen mound for thousands of years, before any part of the assemblage was removed for further study.

The stone weight permitted the Atlatl to bend in a whip-like motion, much like cracking a whip or casting with a fly-fishing rod; the bone hook enabled the dart's base to rest there, socketed as it were until it left the Atlatl, the use of which is demonstrated by the animated gif at top of page... The Atlatl was capable of hurling a dart up to 200 times faster and farther than such a weapon could be hurled by hand alone!

Documentation of evidence is essential--here, the evidence is really no different than forensic evidence gathered at a crime scene. It is not enough simply to locate an artifact within the context of the whole, but to record exactly how it relates to other artifacts and features. Attitude, direction and positional relationships need to be documented so that researchers may study their true physical relationships.

For example, a stone projectile point is found in a prehistoric burial, alongside the body--one cannot simply assume that the apparent association means the body was a victim of violence, unless the stone point can be shown to be embedded in the bones of the 'victim' itself, or is found in such a position that it could not likely have come to be where it is except by having been buried within the body itself.

Projectile points are sometimes encountered as part of the grave-fill, and may even be of a type known to pre-date the burial itself. The same goes with mortuary- or grave-goods. Such items as may have been placed with the burial as an act of reverence for the dead cannot be assumed unless its specific positioning coincides with the initial interrment itself. Sometimes, later period peoples can have excavated a trashh-pit to dispose of camp-refuse, unintentionally intruding upon a previous burial.

Detailed analysis of accurately established relationships between artifacts within a feature such as a burial can reveal these facts--or dismiss them entirely.

Accurate documentation must accompany each artifact, must be recorded upon cards attached to each artifact, in logs defining the contents of a feature, upon packing boxes and crates so that absolute provenience is certain, and each bit of documentation must coincide accurately and correctly with every other form of documentation. From field notes and excavation logbooks to photographs and sketchs made while the artifact/s are 'in situ' and after removal, documentation is critical to accurate interpretation. Mistakes can spell the loss of vital data, and the care with which documetation and handling of each artifact is subjected to is vital to avoiding such mistakes.


Below is a Flow Chart of Surveying Responsibilities.
The best results are achieved by planning ahead and by utilizing a series of standarized
forms and procedures throughout the excavation and documentation processes.



Each state has its own versions of site and artifact reporting forms. It is useful to ask for assistance from a professional archaeologist representing a cultural resources preservation office, museum or recognized historical foundation involved in archaeological investigations when filling out forms yourself. Recording a site with your states' department of historical resources (DHR) is one way of reaching out to the archaeological community in a positive way.

Too many private individuals seek only to aquire specimens ONLY for resale, and their activities on unreported sites causes much loss of vital and important information. Looting of arcjaeological sites around the world is not new--however, the internet age has brought access to such a worldwide volume of artifacts to buyers that international laws have been passed to impede the trafficing of stolen artifacts.

Be responsible and conscientious when hunting for artifacts, and NEVER DIG! The reporting of sites to your states' Department of Historic Resources, and providing documentation of your finds, will add to the knowledge available to everyone.

Non-professionals wishing to record archaeological information may contact the Archaeology Inventory Manager,
Jolene Smith

Surface-hunting for artifacts CAN produce valuable information--for example, stone projectile points and other lithic tools found on each of several sites within a short distance from one another can produce the following results, if carefully documented:

1) dimensional attributes and ranges can be established for points belonging to the same cultural group

2) resharpening strategies may be determined, along with variations in use-wear and eventual stages of discard

3) material preferences can be established

4) material resource locations and workshop sites for lithics reduction (point-making) might be found

5) variations in use-wear and resharpening strategies might point out similarities and differences site usage and preferences for certain tasks

6) variations and similarities can be discerned within a wider scope of lithics distribution, tool assemblages and site use if collected data from local sites can be compared with other areas/regions site data

7) subsistence strategies can be at least glimpsed at, and potential variations discerned, where apparent floral and faunal resources can be shown to differ (a shoreline campsite is likely to have been utilizing shoreline related resources as opposed to an upland or mountainous campsite, whose resources will probably differ markedly)

8) short-term seasonal as opposed to long-term sedentary campsites will likely show differences in tool assemblages, lithics sources used and concentrations of surface-found artifacts

9) potentially significant sites can be found by study of lithic assemblages, artifact concentrations and through variability in cultural periods represented by the artifact assemblages found

10) regional cultural occupational ranges and limits can be determined in part by such studies

The great importance of accurate documentation cannot be overstated here--there is a small but vocal subcommunity of professional archaeologists who feel that private stewardship of Americana is detrimental to the advancement of knowledge. Many within this group have openly sought legislation to limit, prevent and even outlaw the private collection of artifacts.

One potential future focus of such efforts may be to undermine the rightful ownership of 'culturally significant' family heirlooms. The concept put forth is that such private stewardship infringes upon the rights for 'all to know or gain by knowing' about the past.

Archaeological Glossary


~ Proposed Report/Project/Essay Subjects ~

~ Where do your state and federal legislators stand on these issues?

~ How do you feel about restricting the hunting and possession of artifacts?

~ How do you feel about you/your family's legal standing to claims of private ownership/stewardship
of potentially culturally significant family heirlooms and personal-found artifacts?



Additional Links and References

Virginia Department of Historic Resources
Virginia Archaeology Network
Archaeological Society of Virginia
Virginia Archaeology Links




Email: stone@crosslink.net