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What is Archaeology?

There are numerous mechanisms used to study past human behavior, including history, oral tradition, and archaeology. Archaeology is the investigation of historic and prehistoric cultures through the study of material remains. Archaeology provides us with information on how cultures in the past subsisted on a daily basis. For prehistoric times, the archaeological record is the only thing left by past cultures, and through this physical record archaeologists can reconstruct early human behaviors and lifestyles.

Generally, this record develops through the excavation of particular sites. There are three primary objectives of archaeology--chronology, lifeways and process. The initial objective of an archeological investigation is to determine the age or chronology of the site. The second objective is to understand culture and lifeways-- what types of food, clothing, housing, material culture, technology and other objects were used during the period. Process, the third and final objective, is an attempt by archaeologists to explain the causes and consequences of changing human culture.

Remains discovered in the archaeological record aid an archaeologist in explaining past human behaviors and events and their context in past cultures. Archaeological remains can be classified into three distinct categories: artifacts or movable objects fashioned by humans, such as ceramics or projectile points (arrowheads); features or non-portable objects, such as hearths or grave sites; and ecofacts or natural remains not directly impacted or altered by humans, such as pollen and animal bones.

In examining the past, archaeologists work in three stages of interpretation. The first seeks to reveal and describe the form of the physical evidence of the past. This stage involves collection of information from an archaeological site and is followed by an assessment of the remains found. Most archaeology includes the collection of data using both intrusive and non-intrusive methods. Non-intrusive approaches include the analysis of aerial photography for landscape alterations, use of ground-penetrating radar to find buried anomalies, and the systematic, controlled collection of materials from surface contexts. Intrusive techniques include shovel testing (units 40 cm on a side), test units (1 or 2 meters on a side) or excavation blocks (anything larger than 2 meters on a side).

Archaeologists analyze these remains to determine their past purpose and function within the overall context of a site as well as the importance of the position of the artifacts within a site. The artifacts can also provide environmental clues about an area's floral and faunal composition (natural history) and temperature, which in turn can provide a temporal reference, or time period, for the specific site (See related section: History: Time Periods ). Ecofacts such as plant seeds and animal bones can be used to reconstruct past subsistence activities. In the third and final process, the archaeologist attempts to understand cultural processes and behaviors, with the primary goal to interpret how and why the cultures changed through time (Ashmore and Sharer 1988).

While prehistoric archaeology is the study of the past largely through material remains, history and historical archaeology are the study of the past through written or textual remains such as diaries, legal documents, and maps. Historians examine written material such as personal records and correspondence, government documents, newspaper articles, and legal documents to interpret and understand past events and cultures. Since written records are subject to the original authors' interpretations and personal biases, historians analyze and compare different sources of information about particular events in order to minimize this bias. Once the material has been evaluated, the historian can reconstruct past events. The combination of the fields of archaeology and history allows us to view past people, events, and cultures through their physical and written remains.

Protection of Archaeological Sites

It is imperative to protect our archaeological sites and other cultural resources since there are a limited number of them. Archaeological site excavation is necessarily a destructive process; once a site is fully excavated and all its information extracted, it can never be put back together. For this reason archaeologists carefully record soil layers, textures, colors, and intrusive pits or features and document all this information with scaled drawings, photographs and narrative descriptions. Additional site loss or damage is caused by development, looting, or natural processes, such as erosion. The degradation of our cultural resources results in the loss of knowledge about our past. Adequate preservation protects important cultural resources for future generations. The unauthorized removal of artifacts can significantly affect the ability of archaeologists to interpret the archaeological record.

Source - National Estuarine Research Reserves System - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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