Archaeology is often misunderstood. Fictional movies like the Indiana Jones® trilogy or Tomb Raider® offer distorted views of what archaeologists really do. Sensationalized TV programs and magazine accounts also often give us inaccurate pictures of what archaeology is about. Here are some answers to questions that archaeologists frequently hear.
(1) Do archaeologists dig up dinosaurs?
NO! Archaeology is rightly associated with digging, but archaeologists do not dig for dinosaur fossils. Paleontologists, who specialize in the field of geology, are the scientists that dig up dinosaur bones. Archaeologists study ancient people.
Dinosaurs disappeared long before the first humans. Paleontologists tell us that dinosaurs went extinct about 65 million years ago. Our earliest human ancestors lived in Africa about 4 million years ago. So humans and dinosaurs meet only in our imaginations.
Archaeologists excavate at places where people lived in the past, such as ancient camps, villages, and cities. Each of these places is called a site. That is where archaeologists find artifacts, which are objects made or used by people in the past. At very old sites, these artifacts might include stone tools, like arrowheads and spear points, and broken bits of pottery. From these odds and ends, archaeologists can deduce an amazing amount of information about life in ancient times. Archaeologists are like detectives, solving riddles from the past.
(2) Do archaeologists dig for treasure?
NO and YES! When people imagine the successful archaeologist returning from a dig, they might visualize a pirate chest full of silver coins, an enormous jade statue, or maybe even a golden idol with ruby eyes! In real life, though, archaeologists do not normally seek this kind of treasure.
Instead, archaeologists are interested mainly in learning about the lives of ancient people. To an archaeologist, broken pottery and arrowheads are treasures because of the information they reveal about ancient cultures. By learning about the past, archaeologists help us understand how and why things have changed, and how our modern society came to be.
People have lived on the land we now call Alabama for over 12,000 years. Since written documents exist just for the last 300 years, artifacts are our principal clues about Alabama's early history.
Archaeologists are able to answer such questions because they study all of the artifacts found at a site as a group. By studying stone tools, animal bones, and pottery from all parts of a site (from house floors and trash pits and elsewhere), they can create a fuller picture of ancient life.
However, much information is lost if artifacts are disturbed from their original locations. The arrowhead that could be an important clue to the past becomes nothing more than a pretty rock when removed from its context, its original location. Please don't dig on an archaeological site or remove artifacts, even ones on the surface of the ground. If you do find something that could be an important artifact, contact a professional archaeologist. This way, you can get involved in archaeology and contribute to our knowledge of the past.
(3) Do archaeologists actually dig with teaspoons and tiny brushes?
YES! Archaeologists always excavate carefully and often use delicate tools to remove soil from around fragile artifacts. It is also important to record where artifacts are found. Archaeologists seldom use teaspoons, but they do often excavate with mason's trowels and shovels. However, the equipment to carry out scientific digging can surprise people. In some cases, heavy equipment such as a backhoe or bulldozer is used to remove modern debris piled on an archaeological site or upper layers of soil disturbed by plowing.
(4) Is archaeology always done in distant and exotic places?
NO! Many books and TV programs on archaeology deal with sites in Egypt or Greece. These are important places, and archaeologists have made a lot of discoveries there. But archaeology is not always done far from home. Alabama has a rich archaeological heritage, and archaeologists are working all over our state to record prehistoric and historic sites. Two archaeological sites you can visit in Alabama are Moundville and Fort Morgan. Others, like Old Mobile, can be visited on the Internet.
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For more information on archaeology in your part of Alabama, contact a nearby university archaeologist. You can also learn a lot from these Internet websites:
Moundville Archaeological Park
Alabama Historical Commission
For further information, please contact:
6052 USA Drive South
University of South Alabama
Mobile, AL 36688