You may think that archaeologists just walk into the field and begin digging up amazing artifacts. Actually, many hours have been spent preparing for that moment when the archaeologists pick up their shovels. Extensive planning is required before excavation or even a survey can begin. The archaeologists must formulate a research question, which will guide all aspects of the work including where to excavate, what kinds of data to collect, and what types of artifacts are relevant to the study. This is a critical step that never gets portrayed in the movies!
In the early days of archaeology, archaeologists focused on the excavation of sites. They would find a site, dig, and study the artifacts. However, they were not as concerned about the broader context of their findings. How did humans of the time interact with their environment? Today, archaeologists approach research in a more focused with specific goals in mind. Again, the overarching goal of archaeology today is to preserve the archaeological record, which means actually digging is the last resort in achieving that goal. The best way to preserve a site is to leave it in its original state. Before field or laboratory work begins, archaeologists plan their research in six general stages: research design, implementation, data acquisition, processing and analysis, interpretation, and publication (Fagan, 2006).
The first stage of archaeological research is to carefully formulate a systematic plan to execute the research, known as research design. It is during this stage that background research is completed. A research design needs to be thought out and thorough including the details that will be needed to acquire funding and permissions. Many times, excavations are related to cultural resource management projects, which means the plan also needs to take into account compliance to applicable cultural resource management (CRM) requirements. As the research design is being developed, there are some key elements that need to be considered.
The careful formulation of a systematic plan for the execution of archaeological research.
In CRM, the process of ensuring that all legal requirements relating to archaeological resources are fulfilled.
Once the research design is in place, then the implementation phase begins. This is when archaeologists begin procuring the funds to undertake the research project as well as putting together the research team. Identifying any consultants and volunteers, if needed, to assist with the project as well as ensuring all necessary equipment is accessible. Most importantly, archaeologists must obtain all necessary permissions from federal, state, and local governments in addition to tribal authorities before any excavation can begin.
After the team has been assembled, equipment gathered, and all permissions have been granted, the collection of data begins. However, the shovel and trowel are not the first tools for which an archaeologist reaches. Research begins with an archaeological survey using non-intrusive tools. An excavation, actual digging, is only initiated if is determined necessary after the initial survey has been completed.
As artifacts are collected, they are sent to the lab for processing and analysis. This phase begins during excavation and can continue long after the archaeologists have closed down the excavation and recovered the site. Artifacts are cleaned, labeled, classified, cataloged, and prepared for curation. This is when materials may be sent out for radiocarbon dating or pollen samples sent to specialists for analysis.
Today, archaeological data is entered in a computer database, most often this is a Geographic Information System (GIS). Geographic Information Systems is a powerful new tool for mapping archaeological sites as well as the data related to those sites. In addition to generating maps, GIS can be used to perform analysis on aerial imagery and LiDAR models.
Organizing and managing the long-term care of artifact collections.
Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
A computer system that creates, manages, analyzes, and maps all types of data.
In the interpretation phase, all information that has been gathered from the research is brought together in a final summary or report of the findings. This explanation of the findings must relate to the original research questions. It is a report on the knowledge that has been learned through the research project.
Finally, all research results must be made accessible to, at the minimum, the academic community but preferably to the public as well. If the results of the research is not recorded, the archaeological record of that site has been lost. The site has been destroyed by excavation and the data collected is lost. Until the research is published and recorded, the archaeological record is incomplete.
There are three stages when undertaking archaeological fieldwork: finding the site, assessing the site, and excavating the site (Fagan, 2006). The rest of this chapter focuses on the first two stages, while Chapter 7 will look at the third. If at all possible, excavation is avoided if the goals of the research project can be accomplished in the first two stages.
There are some archaeological sites that are we have no problem identifying, such as The Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán, the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, and the burial mounds and earthworks in eastern United States. However, most sites are inconspicuous and well-hidden. Many archaeological sites have been located through accidental discovery. You have probably seen different news stories on some exciting new discoveries during the construction of a parking lot or highway. One of the most famous archaeological finds was accidentally discovered by a cowboy who lived near Folsom, New Mexico. George McJunkin was searching for a lost cow and repairing fence lines when he noticed some old bones and a spear point (Nash, 2017). The bones were later determined to be an extinct species of bison...and the spear point? The spear point is now known as a Folsom Point. The Folsom point was once the oldest stone tool in North America, dating to about 10,000 years ago, until the Clovis style point was discovered, which dates to about 11,500 BCE.
However, we cannot always rely on an accidental discovery. One way to locate sites is to research historical documents. Old historical documents often contain descriptions of a former settlements or burial grounds which sometimes include a general location of a site that has long been lost. These documents can give archaeologists a starting point when searching for the site using aerial imagery and newer technologies such as LiDAR. Many times the survey techniques and tools used in assessing the site are the same that are used for finding the site.
Fagan, B. M. (2006). Archaeology: A brief introduction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Nash, Stephen E. (2017, July 28). How the Folsom Point Became an Archaeological Icon. Sapiens. https://www.sapiens.org/column/curio...haeology-icon/.
Figure 6.1.1 A Folsom Point from the Paleo-indian Lithic Stage. (2006). By US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.