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An Introduction to Archaeology and Frequently Asked Questions

What is archaeology?   What is an artifact?
What is a site?   How are excavations conducted?
What is context?   What is stratigraphy?
What is a feature?   How are sites dated?
How do archaeologists know where to dig?/How are sites found?   How can preservation help/hinder an archaeological investigation?
Background on the Native Peoples of the Tennessee Valley
  Paleoindian period 12,000 – 10,000 years ago
  Archaic period 10,000 – 3,000 years ago
  Woodland period 3,000 – 1,000 years ago
  Mississippian period 1,000 – 500 years ago
  Historic period 500 years ago –
Suggested Reading and Viewing


What is archaeology?

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 language.
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 to Top

What 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 to Top

What 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 to Top

How are excavations conducted?

An archaeological 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

What is context?

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

What is stratigraphy?

Stratigraphy refers 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 to Top

What 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 to Top

How 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. Back to Top

How 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 to Top

How 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 to Top

Background on the Native Peoples of the Tennessee Valley

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.

Archaeologists divide 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. Back to Top

Paleoindian period 12,000 – 10,000 years ago

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

Archaic 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 to Top

Woodland 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 to Top

Mississippian period 1,000 – 500 years ago

Mississippian societies 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 to Top

Historic 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. Back to Top

Suggested Reading and Viewing

Archaeology and the Native Peoples of Tennessee, Exhibit, Frank H. McClung Museum. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee.

Chapman, Jefferson
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. Back to Top

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