1. What is archaeology?
The word "archaeology" was first used by the ancient Greeks more than 2,000 years ago. It combines two ancient Greek words: archaios, which means "old" or "ancient," and logos, which means "word" or "speech." In ancient Greece, "archaeology" meant a discussion or study of ancient things.
Now we use the word "archaeology" to describe the science of how we learn about the past. Archaeologists study the remains of things people have left behind or thrown away. They examine everything from underwater shipwrecks to ancient cities that have been buried in the sand. Archaeologists are really kind of nosy scientists, since they are interested in every part of everyday life. To an archaeologist, even garbage can be a treasure because it helps us learn things from the stuff people threw away. Future archaeologists will study us and the artifacts we have left behind. Maybe one day your old school notebook, sneaker, or toothbrush will become an artifact and an archaeologist will learn something about you and the world you lived in.
2. Why should we care about the past? Why do archaeology anyway?
Most people feel strongly about the need to protect the past because knowledge of the past helps us to know where we come from. Archaeology helps us learn about the history of farming, language, literature, art, and war. You name it and archaeology helps us understand it. The loss and destruction of ancient sites is a bit like burning pages in the diary of human history. The less we know about our past means the less we know about what it means to be human and how we are all connected, not just now, but long ago, and how we will connect with each other in the future.
Archaeology is also important because it helps us learn about how humans have interacted with the environment over time. The more we know about past human activity, the better we will understand what effect we have had on the environment and how we can help preserve the world and its resources for many thousands of years to come.
3. Do archaeologists dig for dinosaurs and fossils? What is the difference between palaeontology and archaeology?
Paleontologists (Pale-ee-on-TAHL-o-jists) are scientists who study earth's earliest inhabitants, such as dinosaurs and fossils of other once-living things. They are interested in the really ancient remains of plants and animals that are now extinct and which are usually preserved in the layers of the earth as fossils.
Archaeologists study the remains left behind by people in the past. Archaeologists do not study dinosaurs and fossils, although they may come across them by accident while they are digging. Out in the field, archaeologists and palaeontologists may look a lot alike because they use similar methods and sometimes similar tools to uncover the past. Palaeontology, however, teaches us about the history of the earth and its earliest inhabitants, while archaeology teaches us about ancient (and sometimes not-so-ancient) people.
4. Why do archaeologists have to dig in the dirt for artifacts? How does the past get buried?
Over time, things from the past get buried under layer upon layer of soil and dirt. Imagine losing a house key in someone's backyard, or in the gutter. If someone doesn't find the key, it will get lost and eventually get covered over by dirt and rotting leaves or garbage. The key may even disappear down a hole made by a rodent. It may stay there for hundreds of years before an archaeologist digs it up and asks important questions like: Who lost the key? When did they lose it and how? What is they key made of? What does the key open? What do the answers to all of these questions tell us about the world at the time of the key?
Sometimes the past gets buried in more dramatic ways, from natural disasters such as volcanoes, mudslides, or hurricanes. When disaster strikes and destroys a town or a city, people will often build newer houses right on top of the old ruins.
Things are getting buried every day, and we may hardly ever notice it: streets get resurfaced, farmers plow in last year's corn stubble, autumn leaves fall, a river floods, a grave is dug, a garden is sown, and garbage is dumped. Keep your eyes open and you may discover how the past is getting buried, minute by minute, day by day, year by year, right in your own neighborhood.
5. What tools do archaeologists use on a dig?
Archaeologists use many, many different tools on a dig. What tools they use depends on what they are excavating and where the site is located. Some tools can be as simple as a toothbrush, while others are extremely expensive and sophisticated machines and can be handled only by trained specialists.
The basic tool an archaeologist uses is a flat masonry trowel (the kind used to spread cement, not the curved sort you would use for gardening). Archaeologists use a trowel to scrape off layers of earth so that they can examine them carefully as they dig deeper and deeper. Small handpicks help loosen the earth and shovels are used to scoop the earth into wheelbarrows. The soil is the taken to an area called a "dump," "dumpsite," or "spoilheap." Dust pans and brushes are used to sweep up loose soil into buckets. Dirt is often put through a sieve or a sifter to catch small artifacts. Delicate objects such as skeletons, and other fragile finds, are exacavated using smaller tools, such as dental picks and tiny brushes.
Some archaeologists don't dig in the ground, but excavate underwater sites. Underwater archaeology requires a different set of tools. Instead of shoveling dirt into buckets, underwater archaeologists use tools called dredges or airlifts that work like gigantic vacuum cleaners to suck up sand and loose sediment that covers artifacts and then blow it away from the site. Heavy artifacts are lifted to the surface using giant balloons called liftbags. Underwater archaeologists usually wear standard diving gear, which includes a tank of compressed air, an inflatable vest, a weight belt, and a wetsuit. They carry a measuring tape, a special plastic notepad that lets them write underwater, and a digging tool.
Archaeologists also use tools borrowed from astronauts to help them map and locate buildings and small objects from outer space. Satellite technology known as Global Positioning Systems (GPS) is especially useful for underwater archaeologists who find it difficult to use traditional measuring and photographic equipment, which can be adversely affected by poor visibility and currents underwater.
Some archaeologists discover sites from the air, using aerial photography. Archaeologists sometimes also use sophisticated tools and equipment with complicated sounding names. One of these, called a "resistivity detector," sends currents of electricity into the ground to "see" buildings beneath the soil. Electron microscopes magnify really, really tiny remains - like grains of pollen - so that archaeologists can identify them and learn what people were growing and eating. There are also some archaeological tools that simply have to be invented to suit the needs of a particular excavation. Archaeologists love making new and useful excavating tools from everyday objects. Can you think of how an archaeologist might use a spoon or a toothpick?
6. What happens to artifacts after they have been discovered? Do archaeologists ever get to keep the stuff they find?
Every artifact that an archaeologist finds - from the lowly button to precious gold vessels - must be carefully numbered and labeled so that we know where these important objects came from. If we do now know where an object came from, it cannot tell us much about the past civilization to which it belonged. Artifacts are bagged and labeled in the field and then afterwards they go to the fieldhouse or the lab to get cleaned. Once the dirt has been removed from the artifacts, they get sorted and identified. Some artifacts may have to be carefully repaired and conserved. Others will be photographed. A few will undergo expensive scientific analysis to determine their date, or to identify microscopic remains such as pollen from plants or the bones from animals. All artifacts, however, are numbered and catalogued so that future scholars will know exactly what was found and where they came from. Most artifacts end up in museums and universities where they can be studied and enjoyed by everyone.
Archaeologists don't get to keep the stuff they find because it doesn't belong to them. In the United States, artifacts belong to the owner of the land where the artifacts were found, and the owner may donate them to a local museum or history center. If the artifacts are discovered on public lands, then they belong to the city, state, or federal government. There are also some strict laws to remind archaeologists that they cannot excavate sites to acquire artifacts for their own personal enjoyment or profit. All over the world, artifacts belong to the government and people of the country where they were found. Taking anything away from an archaeological site is against the law. It also prevents anyone from learning anything from the artifact since it has been removed from the place where it was found (its context).
7. Homework Help! I would like to know all about the ancient (insert the civilization you want to know more about here) for a school project.
Sorry, we can't do your homework, write your paper, or do your research. We can help steer you in the direction of further resources (books, videos, websites, etc.) to find out more about any ancient subject that interests you.
Be sure to check out my answers to previously asked questions in our archive. We may have answered your question already! And also be sure to check dig's own links page for lots of valuable links and tips.