Role of Archaeology
What is archaeology?
The goal of archaeology is to learn about people, especially
people who lived in the past. Archaeologists study the places where
people lived and worked to learn about what their lives were like.
People sometimes think that the goal of archaeology is to find
spectacular artifacts, the way Indiana Jones did. But artifactsthings
that people make and usedon't tell the story by themselves.
Archaeologists also need the information they get from each artifact's
position and from the soil around it.
Why do archaeologists dig?
People leave things behind. Things they have lost, things they have
thrown away, and even traces of buildings may remain at a site long
after they are gone.
As time passes, these clues about people who used to live in a place
become buried as organic materials decompose, and wind and water deposit
soil on the ground surface. Archaeologists dig, or excavate, to
find information that will help answer questions about people who lived
How do archaeologists know where to dig?
Part of being an archaeologist is knowing how to look for clues that
identify sites. In fact, archaeologists usually spend more time looking
for sites and recording them than they do digging sites.
As they search, archaeologists use information from other sites to
help them guess where people might have lived or worked. They think
about things like the types of soils that are in an area, the distance
to the nearest lakes and rivers, and how hilly the terrain is.
They may also look at old maps and atlases for information about
where a more recent site like a lumber camp may be located. Then they go
out into the field and do a systematic search and record any
archaeological evidence that they find.
Why do archaeologists dig such tidy, square holes?
Digging square holes makes it easier to map the locations of
artifacts accurately. Deeper artifacts are usually older than shallower
ones and artifacts that are close together usually were used together.
The straight sides of square holes also make it easier to see different
soil layers and to recognize where soil has been disturbed. Careful
digging makes it easier to notice marks or stains in the soil that may
indicate the site of a trash pit or a building.
Recording a dig thoroughly is important because you can't go back to
double-check your work. Once you have dug, that part of the site is
destroyed. Archaeologists usually leave part of a site intact, so that
others can learn from it in the future, when they may have better tools
or different questions. Standardized recording techniques also make it
easier to compare one site with another.
What kinds of things do archaeologists find?
- Artifacts, which are objects made and/or used by people
Usually, only artifacts made of hard materials, such as stone, metal
or glass, survive in the ground. Soft materials like wood, paper or
cloth, tend to rot away.
- Bones of animals that were killed and eaten Sometimes
archaeologists find human bones, too, but modern archaeologists
usually do not excavate human bones unless they are in danger of
- Seeds left from plant foods The seeds that archaeologists
find are usually those that were burned during cooking, which helps
to preserve them.
- Features, which are marks or stains in the soil. Some
activities leave marks or stains in the soil. The wooden posts of a
stockade rot away, but the rotted wood leaves dark stains in the
soil that can be seen and identified by the archaeologist.
Archaeologists typically find pieces of things, not whole objects.
Some artifacts are broken at the time they are lost or discarded. Others
are broken when they are in the ground, either by natural forces like
freezing and thawing, or by human activities like plowing.
This exhibit case represents an archaeological excavation unit. It
has clear sides to show how archaeologists find things at different
depths as they dig. While the artifacts in the case are not all from one
dig, they are layered as an archaeologist might encounter them during an
excavation. More recent objects are found nearer the surface, and older
objects are generally found deeper in the ground.
What Do Archaeologists Do With The Things They Dig Up?
When archaeologists finish an excavation, they take all of the things
they found, along with all of the records they made back to the lab.
Typically, for every day archaeologists spend digging, they will spend
about three days in the lab.
- Cleaning the artifacts reveals new details or makers'
marks. Sometimes even the dirt contains information, like bits of
charred food, so lab workers have to be careful.
- Cataloguing involves numbering the artifact to connect it
with the records and photos that identify it and tell exactly where
it was found.
- Some artifacts need further identification. For example,
specialists can tell whether the bones from a site are turkey or
- Artifacts can be tested in the lab to learn more about
them. Even dirt from privy (toilet) sites can be tested to look for
evidence of bacterial diseases!
- Research helps archaeologists learn how their findings
compare to what other archaeologists have found at similar sites.
Each excavation helps to build a more complete picture of the
history of the people who lived in that area.
- Finally, the archaeologist puts all the bits of information
together and interprets (tells) the story of the site.
Sometimes there are gaps or pieces that don't seem to fit. New
information can change how the pieces fit together. So the story
always ends, "To be continued . . ."
What can archaeologists learn from the things they dig up?
A surprising amount of information about people can be gained from
the archaeological sites.
- The style of the artifacts foundthe shapes of the arrowheads or
the type of decoration on the potterycan tell the archaeologist
how old a site is.
- Artifacts from far away reveal that people participated in trade
networks. Archaeologists find shells from the Gulf of Mexico and
obsidian from the Rocky Mountains here in Michigan, and Michigan
copper appears at prehistoric sites in those places.
- Seeds can help archaeologists decide whether the people they are
studying moved about frequently, gathering wild plants for food, or
stayed in one place for longer periods, growing crops like corn and
Archaeology and the Michigan Relics
Many times in the archaeological record, we have a hole, a missing
piece of the puzzle. In the case of the Michigan Relic collections, it
seems that we are not missing anything but instead have extra pieces
that do not fit.
"Tools Leave Marks," 2001
When the Michigan Relics first appeared, most archaeologists labeled
them fakes, based on their knowledge of Old World cultures like Egypt
and Assyria. Today archaeologists also know a great deal about thousands
of Michigan sites. The Michigan Relics don't fit with artifacts from those sites,
In addition, these relics have never been found in context with
evidence of daily life, like houses, cooking vessels or trash. Nor have
there been accidental finds, something one would expect from a culture
with so many ceremonial objects.
The Office of the State Archaeologist
There are more than 20,000 recorded archaeological sites in Michigan!
About 19,000 are land sites, and about 1,500 are underwater-mostly
shipwrecks. They include 10,000-year-old campsites occupied by Paleo
Indians, French missions, 19th-century logging camp sites, and
farmsteads that were abandoned in the early 20th century.
The Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA), which is part of Michigan's state government, keeps the state's official archaeological site file. When people find sites, whether they are
professional archaeologists or someone who finds an arrowhead while
planting their garden, they notify the Office of the State
Archaeologist. The site is given a number and plotted on a topographic
map; information about the site is entered into the site file database.
The information in the site file is used for archaeological research
projects in Michigan, and to help prevent sites from being destroyed by
construction projects like highways or pipelines. In order to protect
archaeological sites from looting and vandalism, the Office of the State
Archaeologist does not give out information about the exact locations of
sites, unless the information is needed to help preserve them.
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