Introduction to Archaeology and Frequently Asked Questions
Archaeology is a branch
of the social science anthropology. Anthropology is the study
of humans and their culture. Culture is the way of life of a group
of people. One branch of anthropology is cultural anthropology,
which deals directly with living human groups and all aspects
of each group’s culture: their religion, law, economics,
kinship, etc. Physical, or biological anthropology, is another
branch of anthropology, and this branch deals with the biological
aspects of human life, past and present. Linguistic anthropology
is a final branch, and it examines the origins and evolution of
As far as archaeology is concerned, it is the study of the human
past. It accomplishes this study by examining material remains
of past human activity. These materials includes everything from
a tomb of a queen to a broken piece of pottery or burned animal
bones – all of these things are informative about past human
culture and are pieces in the puzzle. Archaeology includes the
discovery, recovery, analysis and interpretation of material remains.
In addition, archaeology can confirm, clarify, or refute preconceived
ideas about events and conditions of the past. Archaeology can
reconstruct a past culture when enough artifacts are found in
association with one another at a site. Back
is an artifact?
An artifact is any
material made or modified by human activity. For example, these
materials include pottery, projectile points (arrowheads, spear
points, or stone knives), beads, shell necklaces, broken glass,
bone or stone tools, flakes of flint or chert (waste by-products
of tool production), etc. Artifacts also include items from the
natural environment used by humans in some way – for example,
animal bone, plant remains, and shells. Artifacts are also referred
to as ‘material remains’, and other examples of this
would be alterations or disturbances in the soil as a result of
human activities, or the biological remains of the humans themselves.
For example, campfires, storage pits, and postholes would fit
in this category. A posthole is a hole where a post was placed
for a house or other structure. In the Tennessee Valley, the wood
posts themselves were not preserved due to the acidic and wet
nature of the soil, although sometimes a small part of a post
may survive if it was charred or a wood like cypress or cedar
that is rot-resistant. More typically, the rotted remains of the
post leave a signature mark in the soil, usually soil of a different
color and texture than that of the surrounding soil. Back
is a site?
A site is a place
where artifacts are found. Every time people throw things away,
or disturb the ground in any way (for example, a campsite), it
results in the formation of a site. Sites can be as small as an
area where a native person stopped to fix a projectile point,
resulting in the disposal of small flint flakes over a small area,
or as large as a village site with many dwellings and structures.
It is important to note that archaeological sites are irreplaceable.
Each site is unique with the information it contains. Once a site
has been disturbed, through either natural or human means, crucial
information is lost. This is why proper scientific excavation
conducted by professional archaeologists is the only way to properly
examine sites. Vandalism, or pot hunting, is illegal and destroys
information and artifacts that are priceless in the information
they contain for science and public knowledge. Back
are excavations conducted?
excavation is a careful and systematic procedure. The purpose
of an excavation is to recover objects and data pertaining to
the context and pattern of the remains. Scientific excavation
minimizes damage to the site and maximizes the information obtainable
from it. Each site is divided into units, or squares, of an equal
size. Each square is designated by a unique numbering code. The
location of remains found are recorded by square, which allows
for pattern recognition later. Each square is excavated in thin
layers or levels, with each level’s finds kept separate
from other levels in that square. This also allows for pattern
recognition, because artifacts found closer to the top of the
site are younger than artifacts found deeper in the site. Vertical
control is maintained with a surveyor’s transit (a surveying
instrument) that references all remains and levels to a permanent
benchmark (datum) with a known elevation. Datum points that may
be used are a point on a tree, the corner of a building, or a
USGS stake in the ground.
Soil from each level is sifted through a metal screen, which allows
for the recovery of artifacts from that level. Smaller screens
or screening with water allows for the recovery of small artifacts,
such as pollen, fish bones, and beads. The most well known tool
of the trade is the trowel. Shovels, dental instruments, and brushes
may also be used. Detailed drawings and photographs are also important
facets of any archaeological investigation. Back in the laboratory,
artifacts are washed, sorted, cataloged, and then identified and
interpreted. Back to Top
Context is an important
concept; it refers to the grouping of artifacts together. Without
context, artifacts from a site would not make sense when analyzed.
For example, if the remains of a hearth (fire pit) and burned
animal bones are found in association with one another or in the
same context, it can be inferred that the people who occupied
that site were cooking and eating the specific animals represented
by the bones. Back to Top
to the layering of the soil. Alternating periods of soil deposition
from the environment (for example, from a flood) and deposition
from humans due to occupation create layer cakes of stratigraphy.
As when baking a cake, the bottom layer is the oldest or was laid
down first, and the topmost layer was laid down last. Therefore,
artifacts are sealed in their order of occurrence during each
occupation. Artifact styles change through time, much as the general
style and shape of modern day automobiles have changed through
the decades. This sequence of changes is preserved in well-stratified
sites. Therefore, when the layers of stratigraphy are dated, the
objects within them become diagnostic time markers. This is useful
when artifacts are found at sites without good stratification.
For example, the different styles of projectile points through
time is well documented, and if several projectile points of one
specific style are found at a site without good stratigraphy,
that site can be dated to the time period that produced that particular
style of projectile point. Back
is a feature?
A feature is a disturbance
in the soil caused by human activity. Any anomaly in the soil
can be labeled as a feature during the course of an excavation.
For example, post molds, an aggregation of artifacts, hearths,
burial pits, refuse pits, etc. all fit into this category. Back
are sites dated?
There are several
different ways dating is accomplished. Relative dating is one
method used, and this dates sites or objects based on known dates
of objects found in association with them or through understanding
the principles of stratigraphy. For example, if a projectile point
is found in a lower layer than one in a higher layer, it can be
stated that the unknown projectile point is older than the one
above. (See Stratigraphy). No definite date can be assigned here.
Absolute dating is the other method used, and it uses science
to determine how old artifacts and sites are in years. There are
several methods used, but one of the most common is radiocarbon
dating. Radiocarbon dating operates on the fact that all living
things have two different forms of the carbon isotope in them;
and these two isotopes are at a constant known ratio while things
are alive. Once death occurs, one of the carbon isotopes begins
to decay, but the other one remains stable. This decay rate is
known for carbon. When an object is radiocarbon dated, both isotopes
of carbon are measured, and based on comparing this ratio to the
known one when the organism was alive, time since death can be
calculated. There are some caveats to this method. For example,
if charcoal is found in a hearth at a site, it can be radiocarbon
dated. (Remember, charcoal is the remains of a burned tree). Radiocarbon
dating will reveal when the tree died, but not when the wood was
burned in the fire. However, it is easy to imagine that these
two events were relatively close to one another in time. In addition,
radiocarbon dating only works to obtain dates to about 50,000
years ago. Other methods are available to obtain much older dates.
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do archaeologists know where to dig?/How are sites found?
Typically, the presence
of items of archaeological interest will be present on the surface
of the ground, such as a collection of projectile points, flint
flakes, or even the remains of a structure (in the case of historical
archaeology) and perhaps this is noticed and reported to a professional
archaeologist. In the Tennessee Valley, many sites were found
by people walking along river bottoms, noticing where there was
an unusually large amount of artifacts, and by talking to local
farmers, to see if they had noticed anything out of the ordinary
while plowing their land. The presence of a mound is a huge clue.
Mounds were built in villages either as a place to bury those
of high importance, or as a place to locate ceremonial centers.
Sites can also be located by reading historical records, noting
where European explorers write about meeting native people. Back
can preservation help/hinder an archaeological investigation?
Preservation of artifacts
is affected by the climate and soils in the region. In dry climates,
such as Egypt and the Southwest United States, artifacts such
as wood, baskets, cloth, hides, feathers, etc. are well preserved,
even after thousands of years. However, the climate in the Tennessee
Valley is wet and the soils are acidic – which causes organic
objects such as the ones listed above to rot quickly. It is estimated
that half of the material remains of the native peoples who lived
in the Southeastern United States are now gone. Back
Background on the Native Peoples of the
Native Americans have
lived in the Tennessee Valley for at least 12,000 years. Here,
especially in river valleys, they found resources on which to
build lives and societies. In 1933, the TVA (Tennessee Valley
Authority) was created and began plans to construct dams along
many of those rivers to produce electrical power and reduce flooding.
They and others realized that impounded waters would cover and
perhaps destroy the material record and history of the region.
Therefore, at sites destined for flooding, federal job programs
(WPA) and archaeology teamed up to find and preserve evidence
of ancient societies. The Universities of Alabama, Kentucky, and
Tennessee were key players in that effort, recovering the material
record, interpreting its stories, and sharing them with the public.
the human presence in the Southeastern United States into periods:
Paleoindian; Archaic; Woodland; Mississippian, and Historic. Each
reflects both a time span and a set of cultural characteristics.
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Paleoindian period 12,000 – 10,000
The Paleoindian period
was a period of climate change from ice age to the modern day
climate environment. There is little material evidence that has
been found other than the remains of stone tools. Based on the
available evidence, archaeologists have inferred that they lived
in extended family groups that moved frequently as food availability
changed. They probably ate white tailed deer, bear, and other
animals. Back to Top
period 10,000 – 3,000 years ago
The Archaic period
is characterized by the presence of bands – extended family
groups that were larger and less mobile than those in the Paleoindian
period. From base camps, they traveled to temporary camps to hunt,
fish, and gather plants, nuts, and berries. There was a greater
variety of tool types in the Archaic period than at earlier sites.
It is at Archaic sites that the earliest evidence of structures,
weaving, and ornamentation using beads and shells are found. In
addition, the Tennessee Valley’s earliest human skeletons
were found dating to 9,000 years ago – revealing valuable
information about diet, health, and population. In addition, native
seed bearing plants became established in open areas. The sunflower
was first domesticated 4,200 years ago. Back
period 3,000 – 1,000 years ago
The early Woodland
period is characterized by the continuance of the band as the
group organization; however, by the end of the period, larger,
more permanent settlements were formed. Substantial structures
existed, as did earthen mounds for the burial of the dead or as
platforms for ceremonies. Plant cultivation continued, as did
hunting and gathering. Pottery became established for cooking
pots and storage of food items. In addition, the bow and arrow
were developed, which aided with hunting of large game. Accidents,
injuries, and old age were the leading causes of death. There
is little evidence of nutritional disease, probably because at
this point the diet was varied and balanced. Trade with neighboring
groups was common, and items traded were raw materials, finished
objects, technologies and ideas. The existence of animal effigies
suggests an emerging imagery of supernatural beings. Back
period 1,000 – 500 years ago
are best characterized by large towns, some with over 500 residents.
Chiefs, drawing authority from lineage membership and religious
links, oversaw the towns from residences atop mounds. Other people
lived in small villages within the town. Pottery became more artistic
and varied, and there was improved technology for growing corn.
With the increased reliance on corn as the number one crop, populations
increased, but new health problems developed, such as tooth decay
and iron deficiency anemia. Hunting and gathering were still practiced,
however, and beans were introduced during this time. Due to the
larger populations in towns, disease spread easily. This especially
became a monumental problem beginning in A.D.1540 when the European
explorer Hernando DeSoto arrived bringing with him European diseases
such as smallpox, scarlet fever, influenza, and whooping cough
that the Mississippian peoples had no immunity to. During the
Mississippian period, trade increased in goods and diversity,
and there were large ceremonies celebrated in towns that marked
agricultural events or seasons. Artwork was also common, with
a variety of images and symbols in use. Back
period 500 years ago –
The arrival of European
explorers in the 1500s marks the beginning of the Historic period.
There were few benefits to native peoples from the Europeans’
presence – some being the trade of medals and wearable objects;
also the adoption of European farming techniques, livestock raising,
and housing styles. Native peoples also embraced machine woven
fabric and metal tools. Europeans brought with them foods such
as chickens, pigs, peaches, and potatoes, but they also brought
disease with them – which killed huge numbers of native
people. The tragedy of what occurred cannot be understated. The
development of European colonies was the beginning of the end
of life as native people had known it for twelve thousand years.
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Suggested Reading and Viewing
Archaeology and the
Native Peoples of Tennessee, Exhibit, Frank H. McClung Museum.
The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee.
1985 Tellico Archaeology, 12,000 Years of Native American History.
Report of Investigations No. 43. Department of Anthropology, The
University of Tennessee. Tennessee Valley Authority, Knoxville.
Dickens, Roy S and
James L McKinley
2003 Frontiers in the Soil, The Archaeology of Georgia. Society
for Georgia Archaeology, Athens.
Lewis, Barry R.
1996 Kentucky Archaeology. The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington.
Walthall, John A.
1980 Prehistoric Indians of the Southeast: Archaeology of Alabama
and the Middle South. The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.
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