1. Archaeology, what is it?
Archaeology is a set of methods for the study of antiquity. History is technically defined as the story of humans since the emergence of record keeping. When people want to study human history and origins, they are constructing a timeline from available data. The farther back in time we go, the less verifiable stories there are. Around the early neolithic, there is a point at which written stories do not exist. Everything before this point is pre-history. Human behaviors from before historical records cannot be studied by the same methods that history is. Archaeology is a tool for the scientific study of pre-history. The study is founded on three main preconceptions: Cultural behaviors are learned and not biologically programmed. Learned behaviors have predictable patterns. We can study these patterns of behavior by examining sites, artifacts, and remains. It involves finding architectural ruins, artifacts, and remains from prehistory. In general, theoretical models of behaviors can be constructed by the careful interpretation of these items and the environment they are found in.
Why study old stuff?
The study of human pre-history is vital to our identity as a species and as a culture. The portion of the human story that written history encompasses is a tiny fraction of the big picture, and tells us little about why we are the way we are. To understand what we are and why, we need more information from more time periods. Human beings are naturally curious about how things come to be. As a culture, we enjoy thinking about ourselves. It is unavoidable that our species and culture would be preoccupied with the question of how we came to be.
Call before you dig
Early archaeologists would examine ruins, remains, and artifacts through diverse means then formulate stories about their origin. Within the last 270 years, archaeology has developed into a more strict science. To gain accurate useful data, one must be careful and use scientific methods. The following generalized methodology is not perfect and is not always followed. It represents a current standard that reflects a general tendency of improvement in the science.
Current standard methods involve five main phases of work:
First, a research design is formulated. It is something like a business plan that is set up for a scientific study. This helps to organize the work ahead, plan what is needed to complete the work, and optimize efficiency. Another reason for thorough planning is that you may have to sell licensing offices, labor, and potential financiers on the idea of what you want to do.
Second, a survey of the environment is recorded. Small test excavations can be made to tell archaeologists about geology and the possibility of finds. A detailed geological survey is made. This includes mapping data including depth/altitude, and a detailed grid, even in surface collection sites. Small scale mapping data may include software models of various strata. Landmarks and structures with a known date are included to help interpretation. Geological history, human involvement with the environment, dating data, taphonomy, preservation, and presence of anything else that could effect interpretation are all recorded in the survey. The interpretation of any item found by archaeologists depends strongly on what environment it was discovered in and dating can depend on strata and preservation, so surveys are important. Artifacts with no provenience attached to them are very difficult to interpret.
Third, individual items are sought out in a systematic manner. Artifacts, remains, and other evidences are catalogued and tagged with as much objective data as possible, including the exact coordinates of where it was found in the site and it’s orientation. Single context recording often includes other data like strata samples and photos of the artifact. Associations with the survey can give clues about stratigraphy that can help archaeologists interpret behavior and dates. The goal is to have a complete picture of the site while minimizing the loss of useful information. Meticulous record keeping allows for interpretations and comparisons to be made even if the site is destroyed and theoretical models change. A large collection of objective data is always useful but interpretations can easily become useless or disproven. That is why data and interpretation are separated in the scientific process. This data is all recorded before any official interpretations are made.
There are many different methods of collection. The collection phase often includes excavation. Complete destruction of sites is less common than it once was in archaeology, but digs are still common and can yield good data. Vertical digs like the one Thomas Jefferson cut into a burial mound can show a good cross section of strata and association between artifacts, but the digging itself can destroy or displace artifacts. Those who use horizontal excavations can be more meticulous about preserving location data, but everything must be moved from each successive layer in this type of dig. Surface collection is less invasive, but is only useful in places where nothing has moved for a very long time. For example, it is often possible to get a good idea of associated finds and dates when remains are found on the surface of Olduvai Gorge, but not in Mexico City. As technology and science have changed, methods that don’t destroy evidence have become possible. In some modern archaeology sites, artifacts are never touched or removed. Changes in technology and theoretical models have also shown that future generations of archaeologists may have methods, tools, and understandings that we do not. In any serious excavation, an attempt to preserve objective data must be made.
After the collection process is completed the data and items are carefully catalogued and sorted analysis of the various items is conducted. Data that comes from closer examination of artifacts are added to the library of objective data from the survey and collection phases. Different dating techniques have different degrees of accuracy so it is preferable to get a multifaceted date with several methods verifying each other whenever possible. The testing and expansion of data in this phase are harder to keep objective. This phase is important because it provides known facts to base interpretations on. If, for example, an interpretation says there were fires made in a certain place and time, analysis should show smoke deposits and their date. Without the tests it is only a darkened area in the dirt. This is usually the point at which hypotheses are recorded. The hypothesis guides the direction and focus of other testing that is necessary before interpretation. Lab data that comes from dating techniques and closer examination of artifacts are added to the library of objective data next. Different dating techniques have different degrees of accuracy so it is preferable to get a multifaceted date with several methods verifying each other whenever possible. The testing and expansion of data in this phase are harder to keep objective.
When all the data is in and organized, interpretation can begin. In this phase, ideas about what the data really means are put forward. Archaeologists attempt to explain various behaviors of the people associated with the site. Comparisons are made with other sites of similar time period or location. Current theoretical models and consensus with findings at other sites can help put interpretations in perspective. Assumptions are made, unknown factors are compared to other unknown factors, certain truths are assumed proven in the model when they are not. Some of this is inevitable but a good scientist will minimize these mistakes as much as possible. The larger story of human prehistory and how our culture arose is understood in this way. Every good interpretation of archaeological data adds something to the story.
Didja find anything cool?
Artifacts can tell us volumes about behaviors and cultures. Modern forensic techniques enable us to gain a lot of insight from artifacts and remains. A good site can give us evidence of diet, methods of environment use, connections to other cultures in different eras, a clearer picture of the source of current human cultures, and a better idea of what a human being is. In some neolithic sites, architectural ruins can be compared to the accounts of ancient historians.
For a long time our knowledge of the paleolithic was based only on their stone tools. It may seem like a very limited source of information but we can understand many things about these people from just their stone tools. For example if a stone tool is made from a material found a thousand miles away then we know the people travelled or traded. There isn’t any evidence that mode1 tools like sharpened rocks were less useful than mode 3 hand axes for the same purpose. We do know that mode 3 handaxes were harder to make and look cool. From these differences in the time and skill needed and the attention to aesthetics we can get a measure of psychological and cultural complexity. Sometimes fragments of stone tools are found imbedded in animal remains, which supports the idea that the people killed large animals. By dating and categorizing the stone tools over the entire paleolithic for a given region, we can see a basic trend away from disposable multi-purpose tools and toward more specialized, complex, varied, and valued tools. The trend toward specialization and complexity follows an exponentially increasing curve, and not a linear one. Our understanding of diet and social customs of people who lived two million years ago is based entirely on archaeological finds like stone tools, remains, and trash dumps.
Oh, looks like we were wrong
Theoretical models of how human cultures work and change over time have had to change over time themselves. The way we define the stone age is based on outmoded models. “Paleolithic” once meant a time period ranging from the first human use of stone tools to the “iron age”. The general view was that civilizations make a linear progression from bad to good, and their place on the scale could be identified by the types of technology and materials they used. The environment and availability of materials was not considered. These assumptions were based on Victorian understandings of European history. The definitions had to be adjusted as we learned that some advanced civilizations never had metals and some cultures are stone age today. In the Americas and Australia, people appear later than they did in Europe and developmental influences were very different. When Europeans started exploring North America, they found nomadic hunter/gatherers living amongst neolithic ruins. In the Pacific Northwest, cultures that built permanent towns but never farmed, began trading with Europe and China. In Australia where population density was low, people were content to be hunters and gatherers well in to modern times. European theoretical models were based on patterns of European development. These models were made at a time when the effect of environment on human culture wasn’t well understood. Northwest Europe had low populations in the lower paleo. They had plenty good wood, large animals, and cold weather. In a warm place with less trees and more people, the culture would develop differently. In the Levant, for example, agriculture and nation states appeared much earlier than in Britain. The old assumption that all cultures follow certain markers of progression on their way to becoming Northwest Europe has been thoroughly disproven but it still shows up in modern interpretations.
Neanderthals were thought to be evolutionary predecessors to A.M.H. when they were first discovered. The assumption that only one hominin made tools and fires has been disproven as well. Discoveries of Neolithic town sites in the Americas that precede nomadic hunter/gatherer cultures have called the idea of linear progression in to question. The fact that similar city states appeared globally with little precedent, then were eventually abandoned, doesn’t fit any of the old models that assumed gradual “improvement” over time. Archaeologists once marveled at ruins of advanced neolithic civilizations that abruptly ended for unclear reasons. We now know that this is a common pattern for neolithic nation states.
In more recent times, other assumptions in the theoretical model have been challenged. In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, most lower paleo peoples were assumed to be hunters. Hunting was seen as barbaric and masculine in Victorian culture, and peoples of the lower paleolithic were envisioned as barbaric and masculine, so it makes sense that they assumed paleolithic hunters had hafted their stone tools and speared all megafauna to death. Since the 1800’s, Archaeologists have admitted to more of what they don’t know for certain, but the technology has allowed for much better analysis. We now know that most paleolithic stone tools were one-piece, hand held implements. A single mode 1 core and flake tool could be used to split kindling, butcher meat, tan hides, scrape marrow from a carcass, open shellfish, or grind coffee. Some uses can be shown through analysis of the tools or bones. Other uses can not. Some archaic tools have been forensically shown to be scythes by microscopic analysis. These tools are clear indicators of agriculture related activity, and have challenged the idea that agriculture was intentionally invented. It may be a natural occurrence that would happen anywhere there is water, edible plants, and population density.
Wait, why are we digging this hole in the desert again?
Archaeology is our only way of getting information about prehistory. Ancient cultures had elaborate stories of their origins that were highly valued because all humans are predisposed to this kind of thinking. In our culture we use scientific methods to be more certain of how we know what we know. The sciences are all methodologies toward finding the most accurate truth we can. Archaeology exists because we want to know what happened a long time ago. It can tell us that.
The study of prehistory is the study of human cultural identity and origin. As a species, we want to know what we are and why. Curiosity about history is one of the main differences between humans and other apes. Our specie’s social and cultural behaviors are unique in their scale and complexity because our specie’s psychological abilities are unique in their scale and complexity. Our curiosity about long term cause and effect is a part of that psychological complexity. We are the way we are because our cognitive abilities include the ability to see events on large time scales, with an understanding of many simultaneous levels of cause and effect. We are curious about where things come from and where they go because understanding long-term cause and effect has served our species well. This combination of memory, cognitive ability, and curiosity has been selected into us by evolutionary forces.