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CHAPTER 2: How We Discover the Past
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CHAPTER OUTLINE
I.
The Evidence of the Past
A. Artifacts
B. Ecofacts
C. Fossils
D. Features
II.
Finding the Evidence
A. How Are Sites Created?
B. Taphonomy
C. How Are Sites Found?
D. How Are Artifacts, Ecofacts and Features Recovered from Sites?
III.
Analyzing the Evidence
A. Conservation and Reconstruction
B. What Can We Learn from Artifacts?
C. What Can We Learn from Ecofacts and Fossils?
D. What Can We Learn from Features?
E. Putting It All in Context
IV. Dating the Evidence
A. Relative Dating Methods
B. Absolute, or Chronometric, Dating Methods
1. Radiocarbon Dating
2. Thermoluminescence Dating
3. Electron Spin Resonance Dating
4. Paleomagnetic Dating
5. Potassium-Argon Dating and Argon-Argon Dating
6. Uranium-Series Dating
7. Fission-Track Dating
8. Other Techniques
V.
The Results of Archaeological Research
VI. Ethics in Archaeological Research
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Resources for Discussion
Asking Questions
All archaeological research begins with questions. We go about answering those
questions through the research process, which begins with questions and ends with
answers (and usually more questions).
Building Models
The first step in answering questions is to propose a possible answer or a set of answers.
These possible answers are called models and are based on particular bodies of theory
that provide a set of assumptions for how humans behave. Models propose specific
hypotheses or predictions about what the archaeological record will contain. Once
hypotheses are selected for testing, the variables necessary to evaluate them are
operationalized (that is, made measurable through the archaeological record).
Collecting Data
Field research—survey and excavation—is initiated only after questions have been asked
and models built. Why? Because we can’t possibly collect everything, so we have to
determine beforehand what specific data we need to gather in order to evaluate our
hypotheses. Sampling also helps us determine precisely what to collect. Once collected,
data must be interpreted to determine what they mean.
Analyzing Data
Archaeologists have developed a powerful set of analytical tools to recover meaning from
the archaeological record, and, as I will try to impress upon you, most are based on
patterns and context rather than the intrinsic properties of artifacts themselves.
Evaluating Results
Once data have been analyzed and interpreted, they can be evaluated in relation to the
theoretical model and associated hypotheses under which they were collected. The
outcome of most evaluations is a new set of questions, and that, in essence, starts the
process of archaeological research all over again.
Discussion Questions
1. What are the four basic sources of evidence about the past for archaeologists and
paleoanthropologists?
2. What are sites? How are sites found?
3. How is information about the past obtained?
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Copyright © 2009 Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458. All rights reserved.
4. How do archaeologists date material accurately?
5. Archaeology allows for cultural histories to be developed and hypotheses about
cultural change to be tested. What is the primary goal of archaeology?
6. What are the ethical considerations archaeologists must make? Why?
Paper Topics and Research Projects
1. Research the roles of the paleoanthropologist and the archaeologist; report on the
similarities and differences of these two fields, using actual practitioners as examples.
2. Based on a mock excavation students might write a report, including the need for site
preservation, modeled after actual site preservation documents.
3. Students might research eighteenth and nineteenth century accounts and records of
collectors of antiquaries. Compare the collections and the intent of the collectors with
those of researchers today and of the current threat of damage to archaeological sites
by pothunting.
4. Research and write a comparative paper on the methods and contributions of each of
the following approaches to studying the past: historical archaeology,
ethnoarchaeology, the direct historical approach, and underwater archaeology.
5. Write a descriptive paper on the processes of locating archaeological sites, including
an evaluation of current practices in one or more of the following: survey methods,
systematic and unsystematic approaches, subsurface testing, proton magnetometer,
electrical resistivity, remote sensing, and aerial photography.
6. Write an evaluative paper on one or more of the applications of various
archaeological dating methods, such as: relative dating, strata, Steno’s law of
supraposition, the principle of faunal succession, faunal correlation, palynology, the
FUN trio, numerical or absolute dating, radiocarbon dating, potassium-argon dating,
fission-track dating, dendrochronology, and serration. Compare their benefits and
drawbacks and their usefulness to archaeology and the study of human development.
7. Evaluate various writers on the implications of biased versus balanced interpretations
of the archaeological record.
8. Write a website that operates like a time capsule. What sort of information would you
include in it so that people of the future could understand our generation, its
problems, and its successes?
9. Evaluate some of the popular fictional literature that makes use of archaeology, such
as Tony Hillerman’s Westerns (Dance Hall of the Dead). Select one author and
demonstrate how he or she uses concepts of archaeology correctly or incorrectly.
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Copyright © 2009 Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458. All rights reserved.
10. Investigate what students and faculty do who participate in “garbology” studies at the
University of Arizona’s Department of Anthropology. Why would they do this?
World Wide Web Sites Your Students Can Use!
1. Review the websites about dating techniques. You may find them at:
http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/dating.html or
http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/archaeology/dating/.
Select a relative and absolute dating technique from the lists and describe each.
2. The following website, http://www.eng-h.gov.uk/cas/whs/shenge.htm, is titled
“WORLD HERITAGE SITES AND GIS.” Review this site to see how GIS is applied
to the mapping of archaeological sites. What value do you think this approach has to
archaeology?
Supplementary Materials
Films
Medieval Sculpture and Nuclear Science. 9 min. International Center of Medieval
Art; [Berkeley, Calif.]: Dub Express, 1996. Shows how neutron activation analysis, a
dating technique derived from nuclear science and developed at Brookhaven National
Laboratory, is being used to date fragments of French medieval sculpture, chiefly those
on display at The Cloisters in New York City.
Archaeology Developments in Artifact Analysis and Preservation. 23 min. Films for
the Humanities & Sciences, 1995. Program illustrates the traditional techniques of
archaeological excavation, exploration, and conservation. It shows and explains newer
techniques such as tree ring dating and sedimentation rates. The final segment shows
methods of preservation, which involve the use of radiation for stabilizing materials.
Stones and Bones: The Birth of Archaeology. 50 min. Films for the Humanities &
Sciences, 2000. This program looks at the birth of archaeology. The discovery and
excavation of Pompeii is covered, along with work done by Mary Leakey in East Africa.
Readings
Darvill, Timothy. The Concise Oxford Companion to Archaeology.
(Oxford University Press, 2003).
McMillon, Bill. The Archaeology Handbook. (Wiley, 1991).
Renfrew, Colin, and Bahn, Paul. Archaeology. Rev. ed. (Thames & Hudson, 1996).
Scarre, Christopher, ed. Past Worlds: The Times Atlas of Archaeology. 1988. Reprint.
(Crescent Books, 1995).
Shaw, Ian and Robert Jameson. A Dictionary of Archaeology.
(Wiley-Blackwell, 2002).
Schnapp, Alain. The Discovery of the Past. (Abrams, 1996).
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