What is Archaeology?

Archaeology is the scientific study of human cultures based on analysis of material remains.  Archaeologists use clues such as artifacts and features in the soil to reconstruct the lifeways of the people who left these materials.

Artifacts include any type of material that was made, modified, or used by humans.  Some examples are china, bricks, iron nails, pottery, waste flakes from making stone tools, and shell ornaments.  Artifacts include whole objects, plus fragments and refuse.

Features are the remains of human activity that are not movable, such as hearths and building foundations.  Other examples of features are post holes, storage pits, and privy holes.

Artifacts and features occur at archaeological sites.   A site is any location of the remains of human activity.  Archaeological sites include special-purpose areas.  Grist mills or fishing camps are good examples.  Sites also include multi-use areas such as a village, town, or city having a variety of human activities.  Multiple uses (e.g., family life, work, social events, and ceremonies) are indicated by artifacts and features of different functions .  The nature of sites and human activities vary greatly among cultures.

Archaeologists work much like detectives, studying material clues to reconstruct prehistoric and historic cultures.  Prehistoric archaeology is the study of cultures that were not documented by written records.  In Indiana, as in the eastern United States, cultures are known from the PaleoIndian, Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian periods.  Historic archaeology is the study of cultures after activities have been recorded in some written form.  In the United States, the historic period begins with the arrival of European explorers or colonists, and thus starts at different dates depending on geographic location.

How do archaeologists find sites?  Some sites are obvious.  On the surface of the ground there might be artifacts, such as worked stone, fragments of pottery or crockery (which are called sherds), nails, or many other things.  Archaeological features such as building foundations, soil stains, or hearths might be seen.  All of these indicate human activity at some time in the past.  Often a farmer or landowner will uncover artifacts or features.  Construction or erosion can reveal sites that were not apparent on the surface.

When archaeologists discover a site, or receive a report about one, they fill out a "site record form".  The site record describes the location and characteristics of the site.

How do archaeologists study the past?  The best evidence for reconstructing past cultures comes from artifacts and features that have not been disturbed since they were deposited.  These materials are considered to be in association, which can increase the information we can learn.  For example, when kernels of corn are found with the pottery of a particular ancient culture, archaeologists would say that the people of that culture were either growing or trading for corn.  If the archaeologists also found hoe blades in association, they might conclude that this group of ancient people was growing this plant for food.  By itself, the pottery would tell us nothing about the economy and diet of the people who made the pots.

Instead of discovering pretty ornaments, archaeologists would rather find garbage around a hearth.  Can you guess why?  Think about your family's filled up garbage can and the necklace worn by someone in your house.  Which tells more about your family's life?

The excavation of an archaeological site is the scientific process of carefully uncovering objects and data left in the ground, in order to answer questions about past cultures.  However, the actual digging is only part of the procedure.  The professional archaeologist is trained to recover and record information from the past in a systematic way.  After looking at the clues on the surface of the ground, the archaeologist makes maps of site characteristics.  The archaeologist might also use modern technology to measure soil magnetism or electrical conductivity for other clues about artifacts and features that might lie beneath the ground surface.  Once the surface and subsurface surveys are complete, a portion of the site is selected for excavation.  Because digging removes artifacts from their association with each other and from their association with features, keeping records at all stages in the excavation is essential.  Finally, many hours are spent in the laboratory cataloging and classifying the artifacts, identifying raw materials and food remains, interpreting the materials, and writing reports.

Why do archaeologists leave large parts of sites unexcavated?  As much as possible, they want to preserve archaeological sites (artifacts, features, associations) for future study, when they will have new questions and new research methods.  In addition to preserving sites, it is also important to preserve existing collections of artifacts, documents, research records, and reports that have resulted from archaeological surveys and excavations.  People who have archaeological sites on their land are on the front lines of preservation.  Museums, universities, organizations, industry, government agencies, and the general public also play important roles in preserving archaeological sites and collections.

Archaeological sites are fragile and belong to everyone as part of our cultural heritage.  If select items are damaged or removed from a site, it creates an imbalance in the scientific record.  If a site, or part of a site is destroyed, it cannot be replaced.  The loss of artifacts and sites means part of the story is lost forever.  Everyone is responsible for preserving our cultural heritage for our children and for future generations.

How can you help preserve the past?  If you think you have found a site, you should call the State Archaeologist.  You can find the Indiana State Archaeologist by calling the Department of Natural Resources at (317) 232-1646.  The archaeologist might request a site survey, record the information, and place it in the state database for future reference.  If you have collected artifacts from the surface, be sure to preserve the information by keeping good notes and maps that record where each piece was found.  It is best to catalog each item: to describe each piece and list the location where it was found.  Remember that picking up artifacts and removing them from a site will change what archaeologists will be able to learn about that site.  Therefore, responsible collectors make sure that the artifacts and their catalog are kept safely so they can be part of the state database and studied in the future.

How can I excavate at an archaeological site?  After learning how to do archaeology, you can join a research team.  You can work either full-time as a professional archaeologist or part-time during vacations and weekends as an amateur archaeologist.

Because archaeological sites are fragile, their treatment is governed by our state and national laws.  It is important never to disturb human remains.  It also is important not to disturb or remove  artifacts  beneath the surface of the ground.  In 1989, Indiana passed a law that protects both burials and archaeological sites and provides strong penalties for violations.  No one, including the landowner or an archaeologist, may dig for artifacts without filing a research plan and receiving a permit from the state, and obtaining the permission of the landowner.  In addition, there is a federal law regarding human remains.  Because people are concerned about the treatment of human burials, this law ensures that descendants of native groups are involved in decisions about what happens to any human remains of those groups.

It is important to know that Indiana law requires people to report any accidental discovery of human remains to the State Archaeologist or law enforcement officials within 48 hours.  Also, if you see any type of archaeological site being damaged by erosion or
construction you should call the State Archaeologist.

Archaeological sites provide a unique opportunity for us to learn about the people who lived in Indiana long before us -- both prehistoric Native Americans and the pioneers and settlers of the historic era.  Where did they live and why?  What did they eat?  Did the children play games? How did they survive the winter?  What type of shelters did they build?  What kind of communities did they live in?  What were their beliefs?  We can only learn this information if everyone helps protect archaeological sites.  Having sites protected will allow all of us to know more about the people who lived in Indiana before us. And we might learn things we can't even imagine now!