|  Archaeology / Prehistory  |  Overview

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Overview

Basic Goals and Types

Archaeologists have their work cut out for them. Their task is to decipher cultural information from very fragmentary data. They sift through ancient garbage and ruins, bleed information from stones and soil, interrogate skeletons and mummies. Their methods are exacting, scientific, and often tedious. But the payoff is enormous; archaeologists are our only link to prehistory—that vast expanse of time from 150,000 years ago until the invention of writing (and the advent of history proper) some 5 thousand years ago. Of this 145,000—year expanse, archaeologist often tell a vivid and very human story—our story.

Archaeology can be defined as the scientific study of past peoples and cultures. The basic goals of archaeology include discovering (and recognizing) the clues of the past, explaining what is found, and answering greater questions about the human endeavor. They often don't go it alone; archaeologists routinely work alongside fellow researchers such as historians, geologists, chemists, and zoologists in trying to locate, understand and interpret what they find.

It is important to note that not all archaeologists focus their trowels on prehistory. Archaeologists also use their techniques to unearth information about classical civilizations such as ancient Egypt. They also can be found digging up historical sites such as old slave quarters on a Georgian plantation. Here, the items uncovered will help tell the story of those who were not writing history—the slaves. Some employ archaeological methods and principles to excavate maritime sites like shipwrecks or ancient flooded cities.

 

The Archaeological Record

Whatever the type of archaeology, all archaeologists concern themselves with finding, excavating, and interpreting the same thing—the archaeological record. The archaeological record can be defined as material remains providing clues of past human activities and behaviors. The record is comprised of four main components:

  1. Artifacts–portable objects made or modified by human activity
  2. Features–non-portable things created by humans such as pits, walls, and dams
  3. Ecofacts–unmodified biological remains related to human behavior such as discarded fish bones or ancient pollen
  4. Sites–a geographical locality containing one or more of the above components of the archaeological record

Items in the archaeological record are either found in primary context or secondary context. Artifacts, ecofacts, and features are said to be in primary context when they are found just as they were left, the initial result of cultural action. This is a rare thing indeed. More often, transformational processes such as human activity, animal action, decay, or erosion have disturbed the record and it is found in secondary context. Ironically, archaeology itself is the greatest transformational process. For this reason, archaeologist approach the record with careful intent and well-planned methodologies.

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