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FAQ's

After working in the field and the lab the teachers in the Eisenhower Professional Development Project/Elementary and Secondary Education Act Title II entitled Using Archaeology as an Integrated Gateway to Teacher Professional Development Grant put together this list of Frequently Asked Questions. It should help answer some of the most common questions asked by students and teachers.


Do archaeologists dig up dinosaurs?
NO, not intentionally anyway. Archaeology is the study of past human life and culture by the recovery and examination of remaining material evidence, such as buildings, tools, and pottery. Paleontology is the study of the forms of life existing in prehistoric or geologic times, as represented by the fossils of plants, animals, and other organisms. Therefore, it would be paleontologists who would be interested in searching for and recovering dinosaur or other remains. Archaeologists are more interested in finding the artifacts that would have been left behind by humans.

Note: dinosaurs were extinct by 60 million years ago, and people have only been on the scene for about 5 million years, so they never overlapped in time.

Image of a Projectile Point.


What are the artifacts worth?
To the professional and amateur archeologist, artifacts are worth $0.00 in monetary terms, but in informational terms, artifacts are priceless because of the information that can be inferred. Provided the artifact was found and left within its context, we can learn about the past from the artifacts.

To the treasure hunter, artifacts are worth the amount of money another treasure hunter is willing to pay. This sale is highly unethical often illegal, and often times involves a den of thieves or grave robbers. Those looting sites to sell the artifacts have destroyed many important sites, and the information can never be replaced.


Do archaeologists get to keep what they find?
Professional archaeologists do not keep, buy, sell, or trade any artifacts. Quite simply, they don't get to keep what they find because it doesn't belong to them. If archaeologists kept what they found, they would be the only ones to know the story behind the object. Archaeologists want to share their discoveries. Archaeologists recover and record the discoveries they make and then share them in various ways including: publications, displays, brochures or lectures.

By law, artifacts recovered from federal or state lands belong to the public and must be taken care of on behalf of all of us. Artifacts from private land are the property of the landowners. Often these landowners allow archaeologists to remove the artifacts so that they can be studied and displayed properly and enjoyed by others. Collecting or excavating these sites is trespassing and/or vandalism without the express permission of the owner.

Landowners often keep the artifacts they find on their property, but they can work with archaeologists to make sure that the information is reported properly. These artifacts are the past's legacy, and everyone has the responsibility of making sure that they are cared for into the future.

Image of an Archaeological Journal--The Wisconsin Archaeologist.


Can I conduct an archaeological dig in my own backyard?
The past is nonrenewable, so we must be very careful to preserve the past. Every time a site is excavated portions of that site are destroyed. A great deal can be learned about the past through careful observation and inference, but care must be taken to preserve as much as possible for future generations. To properly excavate a site and record the information that can be learned from it requires training and expertise. That is why archaeologists do not recommend that anyone conduct a dig themselves unless they are trained professionals.

However, amateur archaeologists have played a very important role in archaeology by working with professionals. Check out MVAC's Events web page to see ways that you can get involved in archaeology.

Image of removing the plow zone at an archaeological excavation.


What do I do if I find an arrowhead?
If you found the arrowhead laying on the surface of private land you should remember where it was found. You can draw a map of the area and show where you found it, or use a local plat map or road map. You should then take it to an archaeologist to identify and record the area it was found in. Don't worry, if it is from your land you will be able to keep the point.

If you found the arrowhead on public land or on state land, you should leave the projectile point where it is. Collecting artifacts on public land is illegal. You could report it to the park ranger.

Image of an artifact in a plowed field.


What do you do if you are on a dig and find human remains?
If you are on an archaeological dig, you must immediately stop all of the work and contact your state archaeologist or burials site office. You should take steps to ensure that the remains will not be disturbed until the state officials can arrive (call the sheriff's department or the local police if necessary). The archaeologists will contact all of the people who have expressed an interest in human remains discovered in an area. Usually this involves a number of Native American tribes whose ancestors lived in the area.

Depending on who owns the land and the laws of the state, the archaeologists and the Native Americans will decide on how to proceed. If there is a way to leave the remains in place in the ground, this is usually the preferred way. Otherwise, they will come to some agreement on what to do. This must be done before any further disturbance or excavation of the human remains can take place.

If you are digging on your land, for example if you are putting in a swimming pool, and find human remains, you must follow the same procedures, and start by calling the local sheriff or state archaeologist. No graves or human remains may be disturbed or excavated by unauthorized people.


What is the difference between a prehistoric artifact and an historic artifact?
Artifacts are things that have been made or deliberately modified for use by humans. Archaeologists distinguish between prehistoric and historic cultures. Prehistoric cultures are those groups without written records. In North America, the Native Americans had no writing system, and the materials they produced are called prehistoric artifacts. These could include stone knives, projectile points, pottery, bone and shell tools, rock art, and so forth.

An historic culture, such as ours, has a writing system and written records about themselves. Ancient Greece or Rome, and modern America are examples of historic cultures in this sense. The artifacts they make, such as coins, glass bottles, porcelain cups, and so forth, are historic artifacts.

Note: just because there was no writing system does not mean that a prehistoric culture did not have a history. Oral histories, legends, and other media such as art helped to preserve the past for these cultures.

Image of prehistoric artifacts.   Image of historic artifacts.


How do you know how old an artifact is?
There are many methods for establishing the age of archaeological remains. They include both relative and absolute dating methods.

With relative dating, we can identify something that is older or younger than something else. In general, older things are found below younger ones.

We would examine a number of things:

With absolute dating, we can get an actual date for when the artifact was made (+/- 50 years or so). Radiocarbon dating is the most common type of absolute dating. It can only be used on organic materials. A piece of charcoal can be radiocarbon dated and the date can be applied to the artifacts closely associated with the charcoal.


How does an archaeologist decide where to dig?
Many times archaeologists are working as part of a cultural resource management (CRM) project to identify and test sites prior to construction. For example, if a road were to be built, the Department of Transportation would hire archaeologists to survey the new highway corridor to see if any sites were located there, and if so, to test those sites to see what they can tell us about the past. If they are considered important sites, then they could be excavated to recover the information and artifacts that would otherwise be lost during construction. (See also Cultural Resource Management)

When archaeologists are conducting research that is not part of a CRM project, they might be looking for new sites, or might be trying to get more information from known sites. If they're looking for new sites, they could check the written historical records of the area or first hand accounts from local land owners. Land owners typically know a fair amount about their property including the history of the area. They might have found artifacts on their land that can tell archaeologists the kinds of sites that might be present. They would do some survey work to see if they can find a new site in their area.

In addition to this, the state archaeology offices have a record of all known archaeology sites around the area, some of which might not have been explored yet. This would be another good way to determine a potential site for archaeologists to dig. The choice of a site would depend on what they were seeking to learn. If the archaeologists wanted to know about how people lived along the Mississippi River, then sites exposed in the bank of the river would be good places to test.

When on the property that an archaeologist plans to dig, several factors come into play in deciding specifically where to start:

  1. The lay of the land — In some cases it is possible to choose the place to put the excavation units through looking at a quality topographic map and actually walking the area. After personally surveying the site there may be a natural feature that would appear to be a great place to start.
  2. Shovel testing — In other cases, once on the site archaeologist do shovel testing, either at random or in a grid pattern, to try to find evidence of artifact rich areas.
  3. Recorded sites — All sites that have been dug by professional archaeologists are carefully recorded. In some cases it may be possible to go to a site that has not been totally excavated and continue work that a previous crew had started. Many sites are tested by different people over many years.

Image of a topographic map.


Once an archaeologist finds an artifact what do they do with it?
Before the artifact is removed from its context, it may be photographed in place and its precise location plotted on graph paper and then transferred to a master map of the site, preserving its context. Once the records have been made the artifact moves to the archaeologist's laboratory. Each artifact must be minutely examined, and classified as to the type of artifact, its raw material, and so forth. Measurements of the artifact are taken and descriptions written. Then all the information from the analysis is compared with the information on other artifacts from the site, and from other sites.

Image of mapping.


How do archaeologists spend most of their time?
When people think about the work of an archaeologist, most probably think of a crew of people digging in the earth for remains of the past. The field work is only one of four phases of an archaeological project and it can often be the one that can take the least amount of time.

Researching a site can be a very lengthy process. This may include finding out what has been done in an area before, securing funding, getting permission to excavate, as well as conducting small-scale testing sampling to determine where to dig.

The artifact and data collected at the site during the field work phase, will only be useful after hours of analysis in the laboratory. The laboratory phase of the project is probably the most time-consuming component of an archaeologist work as this process can take months to years to complete.

Finally, the results of the analysis must be reported in a site report. Often, other publications and presentations, both professional and popular, follow. It is very important to share the results of the archaeology with others, and this can be done through displays, presentations, brochures, web sites, and so forth, as well as professional books and articles.

The field work phase of the project can often be conducted in less time than each of the other phases of the project. An archaeologist begins with paper work (research and planning), continues with paper work (data collection, laboratory work) and concludes with more paper work (site report).

Image of lab work.


Why teach archaeology?
Archaeology is a innovative way to capture students attention and a great vehicle for teaching a wide variety of subjects through a multi-disciplinary approach. Archaeology can be used to teach multiple subjects including art, science, social studies, language arts and math. Students love the connection to the real world of work and seeing a practical need for knowing how to measure, record information, read a map, etc. Archaeology is a great tool for tapping into kids natural curiosity of the world around them and learning about the people of the past.

Image of teachers and students in the field.


How many college and universities in the United States offer a degree in archaeology?
There are actually only a handful of institutions that offer an undergraduate degree in Archaeology. A list of these can be found on the web site for the Society of American Archaeology (http://saa.org/student/index.html). At least half of the institutions listed offer degrees in classical archaeology with the emphasis on the Greek, Roman and Egyptian finds and history. The other schools offer a comprehensive archaeology program integrating archaeology courses taught from the anthropological, historical and geological perspectives.

Depending on their interests, students might choose to pursue classical archaeology, or to study the cultures of the New World, generally prehistoric archaeology. With a broad background, students graduating from a comprehensive program will have good understanding of the sub-fields that make up the study of archaeology and be prepared for field work and any number of other applications for their degree. In choosing a graduate program, they will make a more informed choice concerning what aspect of archaeology they want to pursue. For further information on available programs and their degree requirements, refer to the SAA web site mentioned above.

Note: the University of Wisconsin — La Crosse offers an undergraduate degree in archaeology. Check out the program at the Archaeological Studies Program web site.


What jobs and career paths are open to individuals with an undergraduate degree in archaeology?
With an undergraduate degree in Archaeology, an individual would qualify for entry and possibly intermediate level laboratory work in a museum or university setting. Such candidates would also be able to find work on dig sites, and, with adequate experience may supervise other crews. There are also jobs available in museums setting up displays under the supervision of a curator, or working in museums or other educational places as guides. As entry-level positions, these jobs are often low paying, but additional experience provides more avenues for advancement. However, they would not be able to direct an entire project themselves without an advanced degree.

Any job in the fields of Archaeology and Anthropology that involve the responsibility of reporting results, supervising the excavation of a site, planning and executing displays in museums and the like, require a graduate degree. Typically, the most employable individual will have a graduate degree in Archaeology with a very strong background in Anthropology, Geography, or other related fields. To do any teaching at the university or college level requires a Ph.D.

Jobs are not found just in archaeology, though. World wide commerce has made understanding other cultures very important to success. People with the educational profile described above are being hired to steer these companies through the sometimes murky waters of cultural traditions and norms when business is being conducted in foreign countries.

For more information about job opportunities, check out the SAA web site at http://saa.org/student/index.html.


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