The Archaeologist’s Toolkit: What is Archaeology?
Posted on September 23, 2022 by Rachel Hines
When people think of archaeology Indiana Jones or digging holes comes to mind. However, archaeology encompasses a lot more than fancy hats and playing in the dirt. Archaeology is the study of past humans through the stuff they left behind! Much like detectives, archaeologists use artifacts as clues to make educated guesses about the past. Archaeological studies are important to provide an unbiased, scientific view of the past.
Sometimes the best way to gain an understanding of archaeology is to learn what it is not. There are many misconceptions about archaeology, some more popular than others. The most common misconception is that archaeologists dig for dinosaurs. Paleontologists are responsible for digging up the fossilized bones of creatures from the Cretaceous period. Archaeology is a subset of anthropology, which is the study of human culture. There are millions of years between the extinction of dinosaurs and the emergence of humans, which means archaeologists do not deal with dinosaurs.
Archaeologists study the human past through artifacts and features. An artifact is any portable object made or used by humans. Artifacts can come in many different shapes and sizes and could be made from any material. Common precontact artifacts include stone tools, and ceramics, while common historic artifacts include glass bottles, ceramic dishes, and metal objects. Archaeologists can also study features, or evidence of human activity that cannot not be moved from its location. Some common features found on archaeological sites are fire hearths and garbage pits. Since features cannot be brought back to the lab for analysis, it is important that archaeologists measure, draw, photograph and sample their finds.
Left: A photo of an artifact. This decorative glass roller skate was found near downtown Mobile earlier this year. Right: A photo of a feature. Privies, or outhouses, are common features on historic sites.
Contrary to the Indiana Jones movies, it is not an archaeologist’s job to find buried treasure or search for priceless heirlooms. Far from the early days of pillaging, archaeology now involves a slow, carefully planned, and well-organized process that is performed by trained professionals. Each individual artifact found is another is a piece to larger puzzle to understanding past lifeways. In the profession of archaeology, its not what you find, but what you can find out.
The final misconception about archaeologists is that we only excavate in far off places, such as Egypt or Greece. There are specialists within the field of archaeology, such as Egyptologists or Classical Archaeologists, who do study these ancient civilizations. However, archaeology can take place anywhere, including right here on the Gulf Coast.
Archaeologists excavating near downtown Mobile for the I-10 Mobile River Bridge Archaeology Project
One of our major projects is the I-10 Mobile River Bridge Archaeological Project. We’re currently excavating and studying archaeological sites along the shores of Mobile Bay before the bridge construction. Check into the blog often to find out more about the discipline of archaeology, as well as updates from our ongoing research on the 1-10 Mobile River Bridge Archaeological Project!
The Archaeologist’s Toolkit is written by anthropology student Chelsea Cook and examines different archaeological concepts. Follow along to learn more about archaeological research methods.