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Secrets to Archaeology: The Top 10 Frequently Asked Questions ANSWERED!

Different colored arrowheads

In the last post, I mentioned that I was holding a free webinar in celebration of International Archaeology Day. This webinar was called, “Secrets to Archaeology: The Top 10 Frequently Asked Questions.” I said that I’d provide the answers to the questions in the next blog post, in case anyone was interested in the webinar, but could not attend. So, here are the answers to the top 10 frequently asked questions about Archaeology!

The Top 10 Frequently Asked Questions about Archaeology


Question #1: What is Archaeology?

Archaeology is one of the 4 fields of Anthropology. It is the study of what humans left behind, through excavation, which means digging things up. Some people think that Archaeology is digging up dinosaurs. But Archaeologists do not dig up dinosaurs–that is what a paleontologist does. Archaeologists dig up what humans left behind, which goes back to about 4 million years ago. So, Archaeology studies humanity by digging up the past.

Question #2: Why do you have to dig to find stuff?

Many people wonder why archaeological sites are buried and need to be dug out in the first place. Well, have you ever cleaned your home and seen a layer of dust on things? Every day a small layer of dirt is spread on top of things, brought by the wind. Well, imagine how much dirt would pile up over thousands and thousands of years!

All this dirt buries any evidence of human occupation, and so that’s why archaeologists usually have to dig to find sites. Also, in some areas there are floods, and so silt builds up over things as well. And in some places, volcanos deposit ash on top of everything. So, layers of dirt build up over time and bury archaeological sites.

Question #3: How do you know where to dig?

There are many ways to find an archaeological site, which is a place where artifacts are. Some people accidentally find a site– farmers can find things when they are plowing their fields, and hikers can find things while hiking in the forests, and construction workers can find things when they dig into the ground. So, these people report their findings to the authorities, who then arrange for archaeologists to study the area.

Another way to find sites is to use remote sensing equipment, like ground penetrating radar. A signal is sent from a piece of equipment into the ground, and it records things buried under the surface. It’s a great way to quickly check large areas to see if there is anything buried under the ground.

Another way to find sites is to use satellite imagery. This is when you look at the images of the earth taken by satellites in space, and you can see evidence of buried features. One archaeologist and her team found 17 buried pyramids, 3,000 settlements, and 1,000 tombs in Egypt in just one year using satellite imagery!

People also find sites when they’re flying planes and looking down at the earth’s surface from above. For example, this image below shows one of the famous Nazca lines in Peru, which are giant drawings that you can see from the air, but not really from the ground.

Nazca Lines in Peru

Another way to find sites is to conduct a survey. This is when a team of archaeologists walk around places where humans may have settled, and look for any artifacts on the surface of the ground. Also, state archaeology offices have information on all the archaeological sites in the area that have been found. Some of these sites may not be excavated already, so an archaeologist could pick one of those places to dig.

Sometimes, archaeologists do not choose where to dig–the decision is made for them. For example, when a road is being built, archaeologists need to be hired to see if there are any archaeological sites in that area. So, archaeologists don’t need to find a site, they are given an area that needs to be examined.

So, as you can see, there are lots of different ways that you can find archaeological sites.

Question #4: Why do you dig square holes?

Digging in squares allows you to create a grid system like graph paper, and plot out exactly where you are in the landscape. Each square that you dig is called a unit, and you need to record the exact coordinates of that unit, which is easier to do if it is a square. Also, you need to measure exactly where artifacts are located in each unit–the exact horizontal position and vertical position, which is called the provenience. This process is much easier if you use square holes.

Another reason to dig square holes is that then you can study the stratigraphy easier. Remember how I mentioned earlier that there are layers of dirt in the ground? These layers are called strata, and the study of these strata is called stratigraphy. Well, it’s easier to study the stratigraphy if you dig in a square.

Below is an example of what’s called a stratigraphic profile drawing, meaning the stratigraphy on one side of the square hole–I made all the layers different colors so that you can see them better. So, digging in squares makes things easier for archaeologists in many ways.

stratigraphic profile drawing

Question #5: What kinds of tools do you use to dig?

Excavating involves many tools, both big and small.  Here are some of the most common tools needed on an archaeological excavation. On some sites, archaeologists use big tools like bulldozers and backhoes, which are used to remove the top layer of soil. You can also break up dirt with shovels and pickaxes and similar tools. Then, you can use a wheelbarrow to transport dirt around the site. Many times you put the dirt you dug up onto a plastic tarp so that you can put it all back in the hole when you are done.

You can use flagging tape to mark places where you will dig, and you can mark surface artifacts with flagging tape or marking pins. And, you can also use flagging tape for labels as well–just write on the tape with a sharpie marker.

Then, when you are figuring out where exactly to place your excavation unit, you need things like GPS units, or something called a total station, which is a surveying instrument that calculates distance and angles, and you’ll need a compass and maps.

Then, when you are setting up your unit, you’ll need a measuring tape to measure the sides of your unit and create a square. And then you need nails or pegs of some kind to mark the four corners of your unit, and you might need a rubber mallet to bang the pegs into the ground. And then you need some string to tie around the pegs and outline your square.

And you’ll need scissors to cut the string, or to cut other things. It’s also a good idea to have a pocket knife as well-you never know when you’ll need it. And you’ll need a line level, to make sure your horizontal string is level, and a plumb bob, which is a weight on a string and is used for measuring vertically (meaning up and down). You’ll also need a folding ruler to measure with, too.

Archaeology trowel

And then when you actually start digging, you will need the most famous of the archaeology tools, a trowel. The trowel is pointed and is used not to dig, but to slowly scrape away the dirt horizontally, using the edge of the trowel. Some people also like to have a flat, square-ended trowel as well. You’ll want some work gloves to protect your hands while you dig.

As you scrape the dirt, you’ll want a hand broom to push the dirt into a dustpan. Then you will dump the dirt in the dustpan into a bucket. Then you take the bucket and run it through a sieve, which in archaeology is called a “screen” so that you can find tiny artifacts. You’ll also want some smaller tools to excavate or get the dirt off of delicate or small artifacts. So, you’ll want some paintbrushes, toothbrushes, dental picks, and even a spoon.

And you’ll need to record information about what you find, so you’ll need a field notebook to take notes in, and a clipboard that has storage compartments inside for paperwork and pencils. And you’ll want plastic ziplock bags in all sorts of sizes to put artifacts in, and sharpie markers to write information on the bags. And you’ll want a magnifying glass to examine artifacts. And you’ll want a camera to take photos of artifacts and the site in general.

In the photos you take, you’ll want a north arrow to show direction and something to show the size of the artifact. This north arrow in the image below has a measuring scale right on it. And you’ll want a letter board, or at least a whiteboard, to put in the photo, too. You’ll put on the photo board the site name, date, and other information about the photo.

So, those are some of the tools an archaeologist needs on an excavation.

North Arrow with scale

Question #6: What kinds of stuff do you find?

Archaeologists find things that humans left behind, which are called material remains. This includes small things, like arrowheads, and big things, like pyramids. Some examples of what Archaeologists find include arrowheads (in Archaeology we call them “projectile points”), pottery, bones (both human and animal), seeds, coins, glass, tools, toys, clothing, and jewelry.


If the item is small and portable, like a clay pot or projectile point, then it is called an artifact. Artifacts are things that a human-created, modified, or used. If the thing is big or it can’t be moved, like buildings or a pit that was dug into the ground or a wall, then it is called a feature–it’s a non-portable artifact. Other examples of features are houses, fences, and paths.

Now I’ll talk a little more about artifacts. Artifacts that are from cultures with no written records are called prehistoric artifacts. Artifacts that are from cultures that do have written records are called historic artifacts.

example of a feature--a rock wall

Now I’ll talk a little more about features. Features may seem kind of boring compared to cool arrowheads, but they give a lot of important information. For example, the size and location of houses can show how wealthy a person was and what their social status was, meaning their social class. As another example, pits give important information, too. They can be used for storing things, garbage, and hearths (meaning where fires were made). Seeing what’s inside these pits can give a lot of clues to how people lived.

Another thing Archaeologists find is a kind of feature called a midden. Middens are basically a big pile of garbage buried under the ground. Garbage may seem insignificant, but it can give a lot of information on people’s lives. Think of what’s in your garbage can right now. Maybe there are some bits of food, and so someone could tell what you ate, or maybe there are empty bottles of shampoo or wrappers that show the kinds of products you buy.

Another thing Archaeologists find is burials. Burials are considered another type of feature. There are two kinds of burials–graves and tombs. Graves are holes dug into the ground, and tombs are something that is constructed to hold a body, and they can be above ground or below ground.

Another thing Archaeologists find is activity areas. These are places where certain tasks happened, and they can contain both artifacts and features. For example, if you find a place where there’s a lot of pieces of stone tools, that may be an activity area where stone tools were made.

Archaeologists also find rock art, which is art drawn on rocks. There are two kinds of rock art–pictographs and petroglyphs. Pictographs are when paint was applied to rock, like in the image on the left below. Petroglyphs are when people carved drawings in rocks, like in the image on the right.

rock art

Archaeologists also find something called ecofacts. Ecofacts are natural items that are not modified by humans, but they are associated with archaeological contexts. Ecofacts can be organic or inorganic. Organic means it is made out of plants or animals. Inorganic means it is made out of dirt or stone.

Here’s a little more information about organic ecofacts. These ecofacts are important because they help archaeologists reconstruct the environment where people lived, and they help figure out what kind of resources people used. For example, plant remains give archaeologists information about the environment, climate, what plants grew in that area, and what people ate. Some archaeologists specialize in these kinds of remains, for example, the subfield of archaeozoology studies animal bones found at archaeological sites, and the subfield of archaeobotany studies the plant remains.

Now, I’ll talk a little more about inorganic ecofacts.  One inorganic ecofact is the different layers of dirt that you find in an archaeological site. Studying these layers can tell archaeologists where the layer came from. For example, the layer of dirt may have come from a flood or volcano. Some archaeologists specialize in studying these sediments, which is called geoarchaeology.

So, these are some of the things that archaeologists find. If you find something, maybe in your yard, or while you are out on a hike or something, don’t, don’t, don’t pick it up! If you take the item out of its context, then it destroys most of its value. It is important for archaeologists to know the position of the artifact, how deep it is, what it is nearby, and so on. This is called context. An artifact without a context has little archaeological value. Also, in many places taking artifacts from the land is illegal.

So, if you find something, take a picture with your phone, and write down where you found it. If your phone has an app that can track GPS coordinates, then screenshot the coordinates. If you have Google maps or another mapping app on your phone, you can mark the spot where you are standing by creating a pin on the map. Then, contact either your state archaeologist or a local archaeology group and give them all the information.

If you find bone, and you think it may be human, you should call the police and report it. Different places have different laws, but in general, special procedures need to be followed if there are human remains involved.

Don't pick up artifacts you find

Question #7: How do you know how old stuff is?

There are two basic ways to figure out how old something is–relative dating methods and absolute dating methods. Relative dating methods can tell you if an artifact is older or younger than something else, while absolute dating methods give you a specific calendar age.

I’ll talk about relative dating methods first. Relative dating methods include studying stratigraphy, the layers of dirt. In general, things that are deeper in the ground are older than things found nearer the surface. This is called the principle of superposition. So for example, in the stratigraphic profile drawing image from question #4, the pink layer is older than the blue layer.

Now, I’ll talk about absolute dating methods, which give you a specific age. One kind of absolute dating is called radiocarbon dating. This method measures the rate of radioactive decay. Basically, living things have carbon in them, and when they die, the carbon decays over time at a certain rate. By measuring the amount of carbon left in plant or animal remains, you can figure out how long ago the thing died, and so how old it is. For example, say you found a hearth that has pieces of charcoal in it. You could use radiocarbon dating to see how old the charcoal is, and then you would know how old the hearth was.

Radiopotassium dating is another kind of absolute dating. It is also called potassium-argon dating. Rocks contain potassium and the radioactive form of potassium decays into argon. As soon as a rock is formed, argon accumulates. You can measure the amounts of potassium and argon to see how long ago the rock was created. For example, this can be used to date volcanic rock layers that have covered up archaeological sites.

Another kind of absolute dating is dendrochronology. This is when you study tree rings. Trees grow a layer each year, called growth rings. If you cut down a tree, you can see the sequence of rings like in the image below. So, if there is wood at an archaeological site, like parts of a wooden house or a wooden tool, you can use dendrochronology to see how old it is.

There are many other kinds of absolute dating methods, like uranium series, geomagnetism, thermoluminescence, electron spin resonance, and lots more. Using a combination of these methods, archaeologists can determine how old artifacts or an archaeological site is.

Archaeology frequently asked questions. Image of tree growth rings

Question #8: What happens to the stuff you find?

Well, if you are digging and suddenly find an artifact, you stop and record data about the artifact, such as exactly where it was found. You take photographs and create drawings as well. Then you remove the artifact from the ground and you put it in a labeled bag or another type of container so that you can take it back to the laboratory. Then in the lab, you clean the artifact to get any remaining dirt off of it, and you take more photos of it. You also label it and record information about it. Then, it is analyzed. After that, artifacts are stored so they are available to study more in the future. Archaeologists do not keep the artifacts that they find. And, archaeologists never buy or sell artifacts. This is against the code of ethics that professional archaeologists agree to.

Archaeology frequently asked questions. Image of a reddish projectile point

Question #9: How do you know what life was like in the past?

Well, archaeologists study the things they find, and those give clues to how life was in the past. For example, archaeologists can reconstruct the environment that people lived in by looking at things like plant and animal remains. Certain plants only grow in certain environments, so you can tell things like how warm it must have been, or if it rained a lot or a little, or if the area was a forest or grassland. For example, if you find the remains of a bunch of cactus plants, then you know the environment must have been warm and dry.

Archaeologists can tell what people ate. One way is by looking at plant remains. Plant remains can be left in cooking vessels, or they can be charred from being cooked. For example, in a storage pit in England, they found over 60 pounds of charred plant remains, made up of barley and wheat and other things. And, in a site in Egypt, there were over 20 types of plants, which shows how diverse the diet was.

You can also tell what people ate by looking at animal remains. For example, cutting the meat off of animals leaves marks on the bones, so you can tell that that animal was butchered. Here’s another example. If there is a huge pile of empty clam shells in an archaeological site near the ocean, then you know people must have been eating them.

You can also tell what people ate by studying what’s left in their stomachs (if they are preserved like with mummies or found in bogs). You can also study their feces, which are called coprolites. For example, one coprolite found at an archaeological site contained the remains of a fish that lived in a nearby lake. So, you know that person was eating the fish in that lake. You can also study people’s bones and their teeth. Different foods leave different chemical signatures in bones.

You can tell what kind of contact people had with other groups. For example, if a site has some materials that are only available far away, then people must have been interacting and trading. For example, if you found shell jewelry in a site very far from the ocean, then you know that they must have traded with a group who lived by the ocean. Or if obsidian is only found in a certain place in a country, and an archaeological site very far away from it has obsidian projectile points, then that may be evidence for trade.

Archaeology frequently asked questions. Image of a black shiny projectile point

Sometimes, you can even find out how people used to think! This is called cognitive archaeology. For example, a burial from about 27,000 years ago contained a man and two children. There were also ivory spears, stone tools, and thousands of ivory beads, among other things. This implies respect for the dead, and maybe even suggests that they believed in an afterlife, since they buried useful items with the people.

Question #10: How do I become an Archaeologist?

If you want to become an archaeologist, then you will need at least a Bachelor’s degree. Some universities in the United States offer an Archaeology bachelor’s degree, but usually people major in Anthropology, and take a bunch of Archaeology courses. If you want to be a supervisor, then you usually need a Master’s degree in Archaeology. And, if you want to teach Archaeology at a university, you need a Ph.D. in Archaeology.

But, if you don’t want to go to college and earn degrees, there is still a way for you to do archaeology! Many archaeological digs will let volunteers help out, and they will train you on how to do everything. You can contact your state archaeologist or the Anthropology department at a college or university near you to see if there are any digs that you can take part in. Some excavations are like training camps, and you pay a tuition fee to attend and learn how to dig, analyze artifacts, and everything else. You can google “archaeology field school” to find one.

There is also something called an Archaeology Skills Passport. This is a little booklet that has a list of the all skills an Archaeologist needs to know how to do, and you fill it out each time you learn a new skill. It’s a way of tracking what you already know and what you still need to learn how to do. You can download a free PDF copy of the Australian version of the skills passport online at this link. If you are in the UK, you can buy the UK version online at this link. If you are not in the UK, make sure you still browse the website because they describe all the things you need to learn as an archaeologist. You can also find these websites by googling “archaeology skills passport.”

If you are not able to go on a dig, then try a virtual dig! One website with links to virtual digs is called Interactive Digs dot com. Here’s the link. You can also google “virtual archaeology dig” to find more virtual digs.

Archaeology frequently asked questions. Image of three arrowheads

More Frequently Asked Questions About Archaeology

So, those are the answers to the top 10 frequently asked questions in Archaeology. Now, I’ll share the answers to some other frequently asked questions about Archaeology that I have been asked.

How old is the oldest artifact?

Well, the oldest artifacts are some stone tools that are dated to 3.3 million years old! They were found near Lake Turkana in Kenya, which is a country in East Africa. And there weren’t just one or two artifacts—anthropologists found 149 stone tools! And, they aren’t sure which people used these tools—3.3 million years ago is a long time before humans like us showed up. The second earliest artifacts are stone tools from a site in Ethiopia that are 2.6 million years old and they’re called Oldowan tools. Scientists think that a human ancestor called Homo habilis probably made these tools.

How deep do you have to dig until you find something?

Well, it just depends. In some areas, things are near the surface of the ground, and you maybe only have to dig 10 to 30 centimeters down which is about 4-12 inches. But in other places, you may have to dig down a meter (which is 3 feet), to find something. It just depends on how buried things get over time.

What is the oldest art in the world?

Well, it depends on if you are talking about the oldest drawing made by a human, or the oldest cave painting, or what. The oldest cave painting is in Indonesia and has been dated to over 35,000 years old. But the earliest drawing is a 73,000-year-old hashtag found in South Africa!

What is the process of archaeology like, from start to finish?

So, first, you start with research. You have to come up with a hypothesis and then design a dig to answer the research questions, unless you are doing CRM work—Cultural Resources Management—where you dig sites that are going to be destroyed by construction. You need to find a place to dig, and then see what has already been done in that area. You need to get funding to do the dig—archaeology digs can be very expensive. You also need to get permission to dig from the authorities.

Then you do the actual dig itself, the excavation. You need to collect data and record a bunch of information. Then, you go back to the lab, where you clean artifacts, and analyze them. After you do that, you need to interpret your findings. You need to explain what you have found and why it is significant and important. Then you need to publish all the information. You can create reports, give presentations at archaeology conferences, and publish articles in journals. So, that’s the basic process of archaeology from start to finish.

Can I do a dig in my backyard?

Technically you can, if it’s your property and not a burial site. But you need to remember that excavating a site destroys the site. And excavating properly requires training, and many important finds are hard to see unless you have the right skillset. So, you really should not excavate your own property—let the experts do it instead!

Archaeology frequently asked questions. Image of a brown projectile point

Learn More

I hope you enjoyed this list of answers to the top 10 frequently asked questions about Archaeology! Want to watch the replay of the webinar? Just click on this link or watch the YouTube video embedded below. Want to know more about International Archaeology Day? Just click here.

Thanks for reading!

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