FAQ About Archaeology: Part II

We just wrapped up our second week of excavations here in Annapolis, so now is a good time to answer a few more frequently asked questions of archaeologists.

How do you know where to dig?

Digging holes takes a lot of time and work.  It is important to know where to dig before we start.  First, we must have questions to guide our research.  Without having questions to ask, how can we give any answers?  As archaeologists, we have many ways of figuring out where to place our units.  We look at old maps, historic photographs, look for changes in elevation, talk with people familiar with the site, and consult with other archaeologists who have experience excavating similar sites.  Check back next week for a more detailed explanation of how we chose where to dig at Wye House.

Why are your holes square?

West Profile of Unit 17

West Profile of Unit 17. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

We dig square units for several reasons.  First, we do it so we know where we’re digging.  Because we use a site-wide grid on our sites, a square unit lets us record our findings in terms of that grid.  We know where our unit is within our site and where our features and artifacts are within our unit.  It’s also very easy to calculate the area of a 5 foot by 5 foot square as opposed to a circular unit, a trapezoidal unit, or even a unit with no shape at all .  Second, we do it so we can record the stratigraphy we find as we excavate our unit.  Square units have straight walls which allow us to draw the wall profile after we finish excavating.  Last, square units just look nicer than anything else.  Pictures of nice, straight profile walls sometimes make me hungry for cake.

Why are the artifacts broken?

Washed Artifacts from the James Holliday House

Washed Artifacts from the James Holliday House. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

When archaeologists find artifacts, the vast majority of them are broken, rusty, bent, smashed, crushed, shattered, or otherwise in bad shape.  In order to understand why this is, imagine how artifacts enter the archaeological record.  Like today, if an object in the past broke, it was either repaired or thrown out.  However, until the 20th Century, there was no organized trash collection like we have now.  Trash was simply thrown out into the yard, or into a pit, or down a well.  As archaeologists, we dig through these deposits and find the broken plates, smashed bottles, discarded food remains, and other trash created by people in the past.  If an object didn’t break, it generally wasn’t thrown out.  If an object wasn’t discarded, it will not  enter the archaeological record for us to find.  Whole 18th century white salt-glaze stoneware plates or matched Chinese porcelain tea sets or intact glass wine bottles were not thrown out and were kept and have been passed down.  Now, these can be found in museums and private collections and not in the archaeological record.  It’s from these broken fragments that comprise the archaeological record that we are able to piece together a picture of the past.

Are there any other questions you would like an archaeologist to answer?  If so, leave your question in the comments below and we’ll do our best to address them in a future FAQ.

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