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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

FAQ

After working in the field and the lab the teachers in the Eisenhower Professional Development Project/Elementary and Secondary Education Act Title II entitled Using Archaeology as an Integrated Gateway to Teacher Professional Development Grant put together this list of Frequently Asked Questions.  It should help answer some of the most common questions asked by students and teachers.

Do archaeologists dig up dinosaurs?

SwennesFBNo, paleontologists dig up dinosaurs. Paleontologists study fossils of plants, animals, and other organisms that lived in prehistoric or geologic times. Archaeologists study past human life and culture by looking at material items people left behind. Dinosaurs were extinct by 60 million years ago, and people have only been around for a few million years, so they never overlapped (although movies love to put them together!). Even if they don’t find dinosaurs, archaeologists do sometimes see remains of extinct animals, such as this Ice Age mastodon bone.  (John and Otto Swennes holding the front leg bone (ulna) of an Ice Age mastodon they found after a flash flood in Long Coulee, near Holmen, Wisconsin.)

What are the artifacts worth?

agateFBTo archaeologists, artifacts have no dollar value. Instead, they are priceless because of what they can teach us. Archaeologists learn about the past by studying artifacts and their contexts-where the artifacts were found and what was found with them. Unfortunately, buying and selling artifacts (and the large amounts of money that are sometimes involved) can tempt some people to loot sites, trespass, sell fakes, and engage in other illegal or unethical behavior.

Do archaeologists get to keep what they find?

Wk 38 KeepProfessional archaeologists do not keep, buy, sell, or trade artifacts—the artifacts do not belong to them. By law, artifacts found on federal or state lands belong to the public and must be curated, or taken care of, on the public’s behalf. Even archaeologists need permits to excavate on public land. Artifacts from private land are the property of the landowner. Many landowners allow archaeologists to remove artifacts so they can be studied, and appreciated by others. Other landowners keep the artifacts but work with archaeologists to make sure the information is recorded properly. Collecting or excavating on any site is illegal without express permission of the owner. As an institution, MVAC houses many artifacts that people have donated or that came from projects where long-term curation was arranged. MVAC staff do not have personal artifact collections.

Can I conduct an archaeological dig in my own backyard?

Wk 39 Backyard WLegally, if the site is on your property and is not a burial site, you can excavate it. However, excavating a site destroys it forever, so even professional archaeologists think hard about whether to dig, and how, and why. Excavation requires training and expertise, the right equipment, and knowledge of how to properly recognize and recover all types of material, record information in detail, and take care of everything found. Otherwise those parts of the past are lost forever. Sometimes the most important things are hard to see, such as a subtle soil difference that might indicate a storage pit, or maybe even a house. Just digging up the artifacts loses that information. That is why archaeologists recommend leaving excavation to trained professionals. Opportunities are available for interested people to work with professionals, even on excavations. MVAC’s Facebook page and Events web page provide information on how you can get involved in archaeology.

 

 

What do I do if I find an arrowhead?

Artifact in a plowed fieldIf you find an arrowhead on the surface of private land, make sure you remember exactly where you found it. It’s helpful to plot the location on a sketch map, local map, or air photo (readily available online). If you have the landowner’s permission, you can take the artifact—just make sure you keep the location information with the artifact. An archaeologist can help identify the arrowhead and record where it was found. Each state keeps a listing of known sites, and adding the site to that list will help with future studies and planning. If you find an arrowhead on federal, state, or other public land, you should leave it where it is. Collecting artifacts on public land is illegal. But taking a photo, keeping track of the location, and reporting your find to the park ranger or appropriate office can be a big help. If you have a GPS unit, you can take a reading and report that also.

What do you do if you find bone?

Wk 41 Find BoneWIf you find bone while you are digging in your garden, working on a construction site, or walking through the woods, and there is ANY chance that it is human, you should call local law enforcement right away. If the bone seems to be archaeological (for example, someone has disturbed a burial mound or cemetery), it must also be reported. By law, specific processes must be followed in dealing with human remains. State laws vary, but in Wisconsin, any disturbance to a burial site must be reported to the Burial Sites Preservation office at the Wisconsin Historical Society (1-800-342-7834). Speak to a staff member and explain the situation, or leave a detailed voicemail. In Minnesota, contact the Office of the State Archaeologist (612-725-2411). If you’re sure it’s not human, but want to know what it is, you can send MVAC a photo of it (include either a ruler, a coin, or something as a scale).

What is the difference between a prehistoric artifact and an historic artifact?

Wk 42 CahokiaWk 42 ButtonsArchaeologists use the term “prehistoric” to refer to time periods or cultures for which there are no written records. “Historic,” then, refers to time periods or cultures for which there are written records. Written forms of language were brought to the Americas by Europeans, so artifacts and cultures dating before the arrival of Europeans are often known as prehistoric. This does not mean that Native peoples had no history! Native cultures throughout the Americas had long, rich histories passed from one generation to another by stories, art, songs, and other ways of preserving and communicating traditions. Historic sites in the Americas range from Euro-American farmsteads to factories, military forts, cemeteries, and Native villages that postdate European contact. To avoid confusion, many people use the terms “precontact” and “postcontact,” rather than prehistoric and historic, to separate the times before and after Europeans arrived.

How do you know how old an artifact is?

Wk 43 Cherry pitsArchaeologists use many methods for determining ages of artifacts and sites. Relative dating methods tell whether something is older or younger than something else. Usually, older things are found below younger ones, unless there has been some disturbance. Absolute dating methods provide a calendar age. Radiocarbon dating is the best-known form of absolute dating. It can only be used on organic materials. A radiocarbon date obtained from a burned cherry pit found in a hearth can tell us the age of artifacts found with it. A radiocarbon date from these cherry pits can tell us the age of stone tools or pottery found with it.

 

How does an archaeologist decide where to dig?

MapMany times archaeologists are working as part of a cultural resource management (CRM) project to identify and test sites prior to construction. For example, if a road were to be built, the Department of Transportation would hire archaeologists to survey the new highway corridor to see if any sites were located there, and if so, to test those sites to see what they can tell us about the past. If they are considered important sites, then they could be excavated to recover the information and artifacts that would otherwise be lost during construction. (See also Cultural Resource Management)

When archaeologists are conducting research that is not part of a CRM project, they might be looking for new sites, or might be trying to get more information from known sites. If they’re looking for new sites, they could check the written historical records of the area or first hand accounts from local land owners. Land owners typically know a fair amount about their property including the history of the area. They might have found artifacts on their land that can tell archaeologists the kinds of sites that might be present. They would do some survey work to see if they can find a new site in their area.

In addition to this, the state archaeology offices have a record of all known archaeology sites around the area, some of which might not have been explored yet. This would be another good way to determine a potential site for archaeologists to dig. The choice of a site would depend on what they were seeking to learn. If the archaeologists wanted to know about how people lived along the Mississippi River, then sites exposed in the bank of the river would be good places to test.

When on the property that an archaeologist plans to dig, several factors come into play in deciding specifically where to start:

  1. The lay of the land – In some cases it is possible to choose the place to put the excavation units through looking at a quality topographic map and actually walking the area. After personally surveying the site there may be a natural feature that would appear to be a great place to start.
  2. Shovel testing – In other cases, once on the site archaeologist do shovel testing, either at random or in a grid pattern, to try to find evidence of artifact rich areas.
  3. Recorded sites – All sites that have been dug by professional archaeologists are carefully recorded. In some cases it may be possible to go to a site that has not been totally excavated and continue work that a previous crew had started. Many sites are tested by different people over many years.

Once an archaeologist finds an artifact what do they do with it?

MappingBefore the artifact is removed from its context, it may be photographed in place and its precise location plotted on graph paper and then transferred to a master map of the site, preserving its context. Once the records have been made the artifact moves to the archaeologist’s laboratory. Each artifact must be minutely examined, and classified as to the type of artifact, its raw material, and so forth. Measurements of the artifact are taken and descriptions written. Then all the information from the analysis is compared with the information on other artifacts from the site, and from other sites.

 

How do archaeologists spend most of their time?

Lab workWhen people think about the work of an archaeologist, most probably think of a crew of people digging in the earth for remains of the past. The field work is only one of four phases of an archaeological project and it can often be the one that can take the least amount of time.

Researching a site can be a very lengthy process. This may include finding out what has been done in an area before, securing funding, getting permission to excavate, as well as conducting small-scale testing sampling to determine where to dig.

The artifact and data collected at the site during the field work phase, will only be useful after hours of analysis in the laboratory. The laboratory phase of the project is probably the most time-consuming component of an archaeologist work as this process can take months to years to complete.

Finally, the results of the analysis must be reported in a site report. Often, other publications and presentations, both professional and popular, follow. It is very important to share the results of the archaeology with others, and this can be done through displays, presentations, brochures, web sites, and so forth, as well as professional books and articles.

The field work phase of the project can often be conducted in less time than each of the other phases of the project. An archaeologist begins with paper work (research and planning), continues with paper work (data collection, laboratory work) and concludes with more paper work (site report).

Why teach archaeology?

Teachers and students in the fieldArchaeology is a innovative way to capture students attention and a great vehicle for teaching a wide variety of subjects through a multi-disciplinary approach. Archaeology can be used to teach multiple subjects including art, science, social studies, language arts and math. Students love the connection to the real world of work and seeing a practical need for knowing how to measure, record information, read a map, etc. Archaeology is a great tool for tapping into kids natural curiosity of the world around them and learning about the people of the past.

How many college and universities in the United States offer a degree in archaeology?

There are actually only a handful of institutions that offer an undergraduate degree in Archaeology.  Some institutions offer degrees in classical archaeology with the emphasis on the Greek, Roman and Egyptian finds and history.  Other schools offer a comprehensive archaeology program integrating archaeology courses taught from the anthropological, historical and geological perspectives.

Depending on their interests, students might choose to pursue classical archaeology, or to study the cultures of the New World, generally prehistoric archaeology. With a broad background, students graduating from a comprehensive program will have good understanding of the sub-fields that make up the study of archaeology and be prepared for field work and any number of other applications for their degree. In choosing a graduate program, they will make a more informed choice concerning what aspect of archaeology they want to pursue.

Note: the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse offers an undergraduate degree in archaeology.  Check out the UWL Department of Archaeology & Anthropology web site.

What jobs and career paths are open to individuals with an undergraduate degree in archaeology?

With an undergraduate degree in Archaeology, an individual would qualify for entry and possibly intermediate level laboratory work in a museum or university setting. Such candidates would also be able to find work on dig sites, and, with adequate experience may supervise other crews. There are also jobs available in museums setting up displays under the supervision of a curator, or working in museums or other educational places as guides.  As entry-level positions, these jobs are often low paying, but additional experience provides more avenues for advancement. However, they would not be able to direct an entire project themselves without an advanced degree.

Any job in the fields of Archaeology and Anthropology that involve the responsibility of reporting results, supervising the excavation of a site, planning and executing displays in museums and the like, require a graduate degree. Typically, the most employable individual will have a graduate degree in Archaeology with a very strong background in Anthropology, Geography, or other related fields.  To do any teaching at the university or college level requires a Ph.D.

Jobs are not found just in archaeology, though. World wide commerce has made understanding other cultures very important to success.  People with the educational profile described above are being hired to steer these companies through the sometimes murky waters of cultural traditions and norms when business is being conducted in foreign countries.

For more information about job opportunities, check out the SAA web site at http://www.saa.org.