What is archaeology: understanding the archaeological record

Speakers: Dr. Jeffrey Becker and Dr. Beth Harris

Additional resources:

Archaeological Institute of America

Neil Brodie and Kathryn Walker Tubb, Illicit Antiquities: The Theft of Culture and the Extinction of Archaeology (Routledge, 2011)

N. Brodie, M.M. Kersel, C. Luke, and K.W. Tubb, eds., Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006)

Eric Cline, Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology (Princeton University Press, 2017)


[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] Every day, we discard things. If we think about this in terms of centuries, these objects get buried over time. Older things get buried deeper. That’s essentially what we’re talking about when we think about an archaeological site.

Dr. Jeffrey Becker: [0:20] Just like if you look around the place where you live today, the objects tell a story about things you like, things that you don’t like, ways that you live your life. The story of the past lies in the objects since the people themselves can’t be interrogated. The whole range of human experience, archaeology can tell that story.

Dr. Harris: [0:40] Thinking in terms of layers is crucial.

Dr. Becker: [0:43] Everything relies on layers. Archaeological stratigraphy relies on what we call the law of superposition, which simply means that the oldest thing tends to be at a lower level and the more recent material tends to be closer to the modern surface.

Dr. Harris: [0:57] So an archaeologist will be recording what level of the soil the object is found at, what objects are nearby, and they’re also learning things from the soil.

Dr. Becker: [1:07] In a sense, the archaeologist is reading the site as if you were reading your favorite book backwards. Starting at the end of the story, and then trying to work your way towards the beginnings of the story by disassembling and documenting the layers of human activity, and lack of activity, that have occurred at that place over time.

Dr. Harris: [1:24] An archaeological site is rich and dense with information. If we go in and we only pull out the most beautiful, the most precious objects and cast aside what seems like the detritus of everyday life, we’re going to lose so much that could tell us about a culture.

Dr. Becker: [1:43] As a discipline, [in] the 21st century archaeologists have come to the point where not only are they interested in the discovery and the conservation of the object, but they’re also committed to the preservation of its contextual information.

Dr. Harris: [1:57] Often, archaeological sites are looted, and when that happens, we lose so much context. Objects are looted so that people can live and eat in parts of the world that are deeply impoverished. There’s often a sense that it’s the collector at fault. It’s the demand for these objects that are the problem.

Dr. Becker: [2:16] The looting of archaeological sites that’s happening in the world today tends to be motivated by concerns that are different from those of archaeology, in that the archaeological exploration of a site tends to be slow and methodical.

[2:31] Looting tends to happen along a different and much quicker timeline in order to acquire, extract, objects that the black market has a taste for. It often means a serious disruption of whatever the archaeological context is in the pursuit of whatever objects are desired.

[2:48] Often, the things that are not objects per se, like the soil matrix, this helps tell the contextual story of that place. Once those are destroyed or seriously disrupted, there’s no recovering them.

Dr. Harris: [3:01] What can we learn from the soil matrix?

Dr. Becker: [3:03] We can increasingly learn more from dirt than ever before. We can even understand things about elements in human diet by looking at mineral traces in human remains.

Dr. Harris: [3:13] We can do garden archaeology and learn what people were growing not just to eat but to decorate the outside of their homes.

Dr. Becker: [3:20] This is an example of why contextual information is so vital.

Dr. Harris: [3:24] If we privilege the object, we’re losing so much, especially if we’re privileging the objects that collectors are most interested in.

Dr. Becker: [3:31] If we focus only on the object, we are going to miss most of the story.

Dr. Harris: [3:36] These days there’s so many tools for archaeologists to accurately record an archaeological site.

Dr. Becker: [3:43] Computer-aided technology has revolutionized archaeological fieldwork. It has not only made things more accurate but it has also enabled us to collect more data than ever before, such that we may even be collecting data now that scholars in the future may still be able to analyze further than we can.

Dr. Harris: [4:00] I can even use photogrammetry to recreate that object digitally in three dimensions.

Dr. Becker: [4:06] Those photo models can then allow someone who was not present at the excavation to virtually experience that object or grouping of objects in their original context.

Dr. Harris: [4:16] We can also get into the air.

Dr. Becker: [4:18] Airborne imaging, whether lidar, or from drones, or from fixed-wing aircraft, is further enhancing our ability to read human landscapes and to see the human activity that happens over time in any given place, as well as to establish patterns of human activity in the landscape. So not just focusing on a site but seeing groupings of sites or patterns of human occupation in the landscape.

Dr. Harris: [4:42] Archaeology is always destructive in some way. One is undoing those layers of the past.

Dr. Becker: [4:48] We often say that archaeology is the unrepeatable experiment…

[4:51] [laughs]

Dr. Becker: [4:52] …in that once the site is disassembled, there’s no real way of assembling it again. The properly conducted archaeological fieldwork is usually slow and maybe a bit boring, especially when compared to Hollywood versions of archaeology. But this slow, methodical recording of the site is perhaps the most important part of the archaeological method.

Dr. Harris: [5:11] Every site can only tell us a piece of a story.

Dr. Becker: [5:14] Any archaeological site, incredibly ancient or even quite recent, will always be incomplete. The archaeological record will always have gaps.

[5:22] One could even imagine that an archaeological site is like a 5,000-piece picture puzzle that one might have in the closet at home, only you’ve lost about 2,800 of the pieces. That helpful picture on the box lid that shows you what it’s supposed to look like has also perished.

[5:39] Contextual interpretation means can you use extant knowledge to fill in the missing pieces? The sad answer is that you will never have a total picture of that place, but you can get pretty close.

Dr. Harris: [5:52] That’s why we want to do everything we can to preserve those contexts and discourage the destruction of archaeological sites through looting.

Dr. Becker: [6:01] Yes, we want to encourage people to think about the fact that archaeology is telling the human story. We need as many pieces of information as we can get our hands on. If we’re only focused on an object that is pleasing to us for one reason or another, our ability to tell a complete and holistic story of the human past is greatly diminished.

[6:23] So looting that fuels a demand for black-market items, for instance, essentially means that we are literally destroying irretrievable story of our collective past.

[6:33] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker and Dr. Beth Harris, "What is archaeology: understanding the archaeological record," in Smarthistory, November 25, 2017, accessed May 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/what-is-archaeology-understanding-the-archaeological-record/.