What is Archaeology?

So what is archaeology anyways? Archaeology is the study of past people through objects they left behind. In many parts of the world, people who lived a long, long time ago did not write things down or take pictures. Instead, the only things they left behind are crumbling buildings and trash from their everyday lives. Trash that can be thousands of years old! Fortunately, using these objects, archaeologists can learn many things about past people. In fact, archaeology is one of the only ways to learn about many ancient human societies. It is also how we can learn about people left out of written histories, such as slaves or the working class. Archaeologists, in many ways, are like detectives, who look at all of the clues left behind in order to solve the mystery about what happened in a particular place at a certain time.

grad student wearing white using a trowel to excavate and snapshot of large excavation with many archaeologists working
Two examples of archaeological excavation. Left image courtesy of Autumn Painter, right image courtesy of Arthur Greenberg (NARA NAID 552495).

One way that archaeologists gather clues about the past is by digging very slowly and carefully in the ground. Over time, objects and buildings once used by people can become buried by natural processes, such as by blowing sand or flooding. Past people also buried objects themselves as a way to store them or throw them away. As such, archaeologists often have to dig in order to collect objects made or used by past people (called artifacts) or to find the remains of houses or other buildings (called features). This is called excavation. It is a dirty job, but it can be a lot of fun and is a great way to uncover clues about the past. Most excavations take place at archaeological sites, or locations where people in the past lived, worked, and threw stuff away.

Black tray with small and large animal bones sitting next to a scale
A tray full of sorted animal bones waiting to be analyzed! Image courtesy of Autumn Painter

Once they are done digging, archaeologists bring everything they find back to a laboratory. There, artifacts are cleaned, identified, counted, and weighed. These artifacts can then be studied to learn about how people lived in the past. Using artifacts, archaeologists can learn about what people ate, how they built their houses, what games they played, or even what kind of government they had. All from trash!

While archaeologists have made many discoveries, there is still a lot about the past that is not known. Future archaeologists, like yourself, are needed in order to create a more detailed story of the past.

If you are interested in learning more about archaeology and what archaeologists do, click the links on the navigation bar above!