FAQ About Archaeology: Part III

The Archaeology in Annapolis lab is currently occupied with student volunteers who are helping us wash the artifacts from this summer’s field school. We’ll discuss the laboratory process in our post next week for the Day of Archaeology, but for now, we’ll answer more frequently asked questions supplied by our archaeological colleagues. For other answered questions, see Part I and Part II.

Why did people live underground in olden times?

Although we dig underground to find the remains of human activities, it does not mean that these activities all took place beneath the surface. Sometimes the people we study did dig into the earth, creating pits, trenches, burials, cellars, and kivas, and left objects there. However, many of the artifacts and structures that we find were not originally underground.

Example of the stratigraphy that develops overtime. Source: http://www.lparchaeology.com/prescot

Example of the stratigraphy that develops overtime. Source: http://www.lparchaeology.com/prescot

When a site is abandoned, it is subject to rain, wind, and other environmental forces. The structures collapse and the biological materials begin to decay. Soil is not immobile, but rather naturally moves and builds up overtime, and new plants take root. Irregular plant growth or formations in the ground can clue archaeologists in on a site buried just under the surface, and these are signs that we look for in determining where to dig. As different levels of soil continually build up, either through these natural processes or through human intervention, this creates the stratigraphic levels that we dug through this summer in Annapolis and at the Wye House.

In short, we don’t dig into the ground because that is where people lived; we dig because the evidence of human occupation ends up underground, often due to natural processes.

Skeleton discovered at the University of York.

Skeleton discovered at the University of York. Source: http://www.astigan.com

Have you ever dug up any bodies?

Personally? No. There are archaeologists who study human skeletal remains, in doing mortuary studies, bioarchaeology, or looking into the evolution of the human species. When archaeologists find human remains, it is necessary to determine the context of the bodies first. If a skeleton is recent, it may be a part of an ongoing police investigation, in which case the archaeological site becomes a crime scene.

In the United States, there are regulations about disturbing human remains. For example, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), legislation passed in 1990, restricts the excavation of Native American burials on public lands. Understandably, the exhumation of bodies by archaeologists presents many ethical dilemmas and debates about the balance between scientific inquiry and respect for the dead and their descendants. Read the provisions of NAGPRA here.

Do you have other questions? Are you an archaeologist and have a response to add? Let us know in the comments.

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