FAQ About Archaeology: Part I

Given the misconceptions surrounding archaeology, we asked our colleagues and friends to help us generate frequently asked questions, and our usual responses as archaeologists.

Are you looking for dinosaurs, rocks, and/or chests of gold?

No. – Response by everyone

This never happened.

This never happened. Source: http://www.andrewsmcmeel.com/dinotopia

Archaeologists are mostly concerned with artifacts, which are human-made or modified objects, or features like buildings. It’s a commonly made mistake, but you might be confusing us with paleontologists, geologists, and/or pirates.

While the excavation methods might look similar, paleontologists are interested in creatures and processes long before the evolution of humans. Since dinosaurs and humans never existed at the same time, our research questions don’t include them. Rocks might be involved in our work (see the next question), but only in relation to human activity.

Why are there so many rocks?

Rocks that have been shaped could mean the remains of a structure, though it might not look like much of a structure once we get to it. Disarticulated (not in the position they were originally in) stones could be the remains of stairs or a wall that collapsed at some point. They can be difficult to dig around, so sometimes it seems as though the professors put them there just to test our will! – Response by Anonymous

Are you like Indiana Jones? Do you have a hat and whip?

When asked this in the field, I might play along or respond with, “I’m not quite like Indiana Jones, but I do own a fedora.” I don’t keep a whip in my dig kit, though, and I run into far fewer Nazis. – Response by Anonymous

Real archaeologists vs. Indiana Jones.

Click to enlarge. Source: http://asorblog.org/?p=851

While many archaeologists have a soft-spot for Indy as entertainment, real archaeology doesn’t look much like the movies. Brimmed hats are a necessity in the field to protect the face from sunlight, but whips would best be left at home. Although machetes are useful for clearing away brush to begin excavation, there is no swashbuckling in the field. We do have to deal with snakes, insects, poisonous plants, flooding and other inclement conditions and that can provide more than enough thrills.

In addition, much of the work of archaeologists takes place in the lab—cleaning, cataloging, analyzing artifacts, and writing the official site report. Nothing can be taken from a site without properly recording its context (the situation in which it was found), so there are a lot of notes and paperwork to go through by the end of a field season.

The work can seem tedious compared to its fictional counterparts, but we’re interested in learning about our pasts from what people left behind—pieces of everyday pottery, glass bottles, tools, etc.—rather than simply acquiring pretty objects for museums.

If you’re an archaeologist, what questions have you been asked? What were your responses? For non-archaeologists, what other questions do you have about our field?


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