Smithsonian

Donate Join Shop
Art and Design History and Culture Science and Technology
Home › Encyclopedia Smithsonian › Science and Technology
Share this page
Archaeology
 

The Smithsonian receives many inquiries concerned with archaeology. It is impossible with our small staff to answer each letter personally. Therefore, the following information has been prepared to cover topics most frequently encountered: career information, excavation, fieldwork opportunities, artifact identification, and preservation. Bibliographic references are included for further pursuit of information relating to North American archaeology. Other informational sources to consider are local museums, historical societies, or archaeological associations that deal with matters of regional interest much more than the Smithsonian does.

Archaeology is the study of the human past—prehistoric and historic—revealed through the physical remains (artifacts) people left behind. In North America the prehistoric period is the time prior to European occupation when the continent was inhabited for 12,000 years or more by the ancestors of the present-day Native Americans. While excavation is often the form of discovery for the prehistoric period, historical archaeology may rely mostly on primary sources, both written and oral, to increase our knowledge of the more recent past.

Excavation

Excavation is only a part of what constitutes archaeological research. Like other scientific investigations, archaeology requires a great amount of training and knowledge of complex field methods. In undertaking an archaeological excavation, there are laws (i.e. Antiquities Act, 1906 and National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, described at the end of this leaflet), permits for excavating on public lands and uncovering objects of antiquity or human bones, and protocols and ethical standards regarding the importance of preserving, not destroying, our national heritage. Therefore, it is imperative that the untrained person not attempt to perform his or her own excavation. Scientific excavation is not merely a matter of recovering buried artifacts. Artifacts themselves tell us relatively little about an extinct culture. Of more importance is the artifact's "association" or "context", which refers to its location or placement in relation to nearby observed indications of human activities such as living structures, burials, storage pits, fire hearths or work areas.

Because it is often impossible or unnecessary to excavate an entire site, the archaeologist must know how to select a portion of the site for excavation that will yield a representative sample of the entire site. Besides techniques of sampling and excavation one must also know something about the environmental conditions at the time the site was occupied. This type of information is obtained through the recovery of pollen, soil, food remains, shell, and plant remains during the course of the excavation. The archaeologist must also be familiar with many dating methods, such as dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating. These require skilled selection and handling of samples and careful interpretation of the results obtained. Good intentions are no substitute for scientific procedures in archaeology. The excavation of a site inevitably leads to destruction. If the archaeologist does not recover all of the necessary information, it is lost forever. There is no way of going back to correct a mistake in digging, or a failure to record the proper details. Once excavation is completed, the archaeologist's task is not finished; for if the results of the excavation are not reported in a scientific fashion in a journal or other publications, where they can be read and studied by other archaeologists, the results of the excavation are useless and digging should not have been undertaken in the first place.

Salvage archaeology is another important aspect of the field in these days of construction activities. It is important to attempt to recover these remains before they are destroyed. If a site is found that is in danger of being destroyed, it is best to bring this to the attention of a professional archaeologist before it is too late. A call to your state archaeologist, a local museum, or university with an anthropology department informing them of the danger is usually the best thing in this case.

There are several ways of acquiring the skills necessary for proper archeological excavation, reporting, and publishing. The best of these, of course, is by enrolling in a university program in anthropology or archaeology. Many universities and colleges give courses in archeological techniques and enrollment in these can often be arranged even though a person is not a full-time member of the student body. Night school and museum education programs often provide similar courses. The American Anthropological Association (www.aaanet.org) publishes each year the Guide to departments of anthropology, which lists members of the departments with their specialties. In addition, there are several books that are useful introductions to the beginning archaeologist, some of which are listed in the reading list at the end of this leaflet. Finally, it is important to put your skills to work by excavating a site under the supervision of an experienced archaeologist. These opportunities are best obtained through field schools or by participating in excavations of local archeological societies.

Fieldwork Opportunities

Excellent opportunities for inexperienced archaeologists (minimum age is usually 16) are through the field schools run by many universities and colleges across the country. These schools often operate by conducting a half day of supervised excavation while the other half will be reserved for cataloguing, cleaning, photography of specimens, or for lectures. Generally, the applicant pays a fee, which includes food, lodging, and equipment for a five to eight week session. Transportation costs are borne by the student. Because a list of field school offerings changes from year to year, any list soon becomes out-of-date. The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) produces the AFOB (Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin). The bulletin includes opportunities for volunteers, staff positions, field schools, and general information; an excellent resource for a beginning archaeologist. The AIA listing also includes the names and addresses of state archaeologists. To order, contact: Oxbow/David Brown Books, PO Box 511, Oakville, CT 06779; (800) 791-9354; or email http://www.oxbowbooks.com. To learn about other AIA resources, visit their website at http://www.archaeological.org or aia@bu.edu

Usually a field school conducts excavations in the vicinity of the institution, so regional preferences may influence your choice of application. Since some schools may be filled, it is advisable to apply to several concurrently. This should be done during the winter months. Enrollment is usually filled by April or May. Academic credit is often given for field school participation. Sometimes an archeological course must be taken as a prerequisite to field school acceptance.

Possibilities for fieldwork in the Old World and South America are generally more limited than those within the United States. High costs of transportation and maintenance of a field crew in these areas usually result in only the most experienced students being chosen. However, there are opportunities in most of these projects for volunteers. Here the usual arrangement is for the volunteer to pay his or her own transportation and sometimes his or her maintenance in the field. Volunteer workers may decide to spend only a portion of the summer at an excavation, reserving the remainder of their available time for travel. Many Americans have worked in France, England and the Middle and Near East in this capacity.

Many states have amateur archeological organizations, often assisted by the State Archaeologist, which conduct summer or week-end excavations and hold meetings to discuss the results of their work. Usually these societies are regional or state organizations. Often they have many competent archaeologists as members and publish a society bulletin or newsletter with reports of archeological excavations. Affiliation with these organizations can provide a student or amateur archaeologist with valuable training in excavation and publication. To locate your local or regional archeological society, visit the Archaeological Institute of America’s website at http://www.archaeological.org or contact the chairman of the anthropology department of a nearby university who should be able to direct you further.

Three further possibilities, among many, for fieldwork experience are Earthwatch, the Center for American Archeology, and Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. For Earthwatch projects, participants contribute toward the funding of scientific research expeditions on which scholars and students then work as a team. For information, contact: Earthwatch, 3 Clock Tower Place, Suite 100, Maynard, MA 01754; (800) 776-0188; (978) 461-0081; fax: (978) 461-2332; email: info@earthwatch.org or visit their website at http://www.earthwatch.org The Center for American Archeology in Illinois and Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Colorado conduct educational research programs for junior and senior high school students, college students and the non-professional, and separate workshops for teachers. For further information on these programs, contact: Center for American Archeology, PO Box 366, Kampsville, Illinois 62053-0366; (618) 653-4316; http://www.caa-archeology.org and Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, 23390 County Road K, Cortez, CO 81321, (800) 422-8975, ext. 146 or (970) 565-8975; http://www.crowcanyon.org

In addition, Passport in Time (PIT) provides opportunities for individuals and families to work with professional archaeologists and historians on historic preservation projects around the country. These projects may involve archaeological excavation, historic structure restoration, and oral history. There is no registration fee or cost for participating. Write: PIT Clearinghouse, PO Box 31315, Tucson, AZ  85751-1315; (800) 281-9176 (voice/TTY); (505) 896-0734; http://www.passportintime.com; email: volunteer@passportintime.com

Artifact Identification

Very often a request comes from someone who has found an archeological specimen and wants it identified. This is not always an easy task. It is often difficult to give the age and cultural affiliation of a single artifact for several reasons. First, as previously noted, it is the excavation context and the associated tools that have the most meaning to the archaeologist. Single artifacts or isolated groups of artifacts rarely have much scientific significance, particularly if they are not accompanied with precise information as to their original location and chronological contexts. Hence it is usually best to have specimens identified by specialists whose interests are in the area where the specimen originated. For this reason questions of this sort can usually be most effectively answered by the appropriate regional museum, state archaeologist, state archeological society, or archaeologist of a local college or university. Finally, the third problem is that in many cases even the specialists are not able to identify many specimens. Some of the references provided in this leaflet have good summaries with detailed regional coverage and good illustrations and bibliographies. The preservation of artifacts of bone or other perishable material is another topic of interest and again references have been provided.

There is frequently an interest in the value of archeological specimens. In general it can be said that arrowheads and other similar Indian artifacts have little monetary value. Rather, value lies in the amount of information that can be gleaned from the specimen by archaeologists trained to know the particular styles of different cultures. Other more elaborate artifacts may have considerable market value. These occasionally find their way into the art market. Museums, if they have funds, usually are not interested in purchasing single artifacts, preferring entire collections accompanied by detailed information, and even then purchase is very rare. Their most useful collections come from the scientifically documented research of qualified field workers. The collection of artifacts for the purpose of selling them individually literally ruins the importance of a site for science and is therefore a highly destructive act. In fact, many states (as well as most nations) have strongly forced antiquities laws to prevent excavation by untrained persons. See Appendix V in Robbins’ Handbook for a listing of these laws as well as a description of a few laws provided below. In addition, there are also laws in many countries prohibiting the export of antiquities, and the U.S. customs authorities help enforce some of these laws. A growing number of responsible museums refuse to accept or to borrow any archeological items unaccompanied by evidence of authorized export, according to the laws of their countries of origin. The Smithsonian strongly supports these laws and policies.

Antiquties Laws

There are several federal and state laws concerned with archaeological remains on federal and Native American lands. Following are some of the antiquities acts to be aware of:

Antiquities Act, 1906
The Antiquities Act protects all historic and prehistoric sites on Federal lands and prohibits excavation or destruction of such antiquities unless a permit (Antiquities Permit) is obtained from the Secretary of the department which has the jurisdiction over those lands. It also authorizes the President to declare areas of public lands as National Monuments and to reserve or accept private lands for that purpose

National Historic Preservation Act of 1966
The National Historic Preservation Act supplements the provisions of the Antiquities Act of 1906. The law makes it illegal to destroy, excavate or remove information from Federal or Indian lands any archeological resources without a permit from the land manager. Permits may be issued only to educational or scientific institutions and only if the resulting activities will increase knowledge about archeological resources. Regulations for the ultimate disposition of materials recovered as a result of permitted activities state that archeological resources excavated on public lands remain the property of the United States. Archeological resources excavated from Indian lands remain the property of the Indian or Indian tribe having rights of ownership over such resources.

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act 1990
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) assigns ownership and control of Native American cultural items, human remains, and associated funerary objects to Native Americans. It also establishes requirements for the treatment of Native American human remains and sacred or cultural objects found on Federal land. This act further provides for the protection, inventory, and repatriation of Native American cultural items, human remains, and associated funerary objects. It requires museums that receive public funds to consult with Native Americans. Native Americans have the power to decide what happens to museum collections of human remains, grave goods, and sacred items. When these items are inadvertently discovered, cease activity, make a reasonable effort to protect the items, and notify the appropriate Indian tribe(s) and/or Native Hawaiian organization(s).

Career Information

Information on career opportunities in archaeology may be obtained by writing or calling the following:

Society for American Archaeology, 900 2nd St., N.E., Suite 12, Washington, D.C. 20002; (202) 789-8200; http://www.saa.org email: headquarters@saa.org

Archeological Institute of America, Boston University, 656 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02215-2010; (617) 353-9361; FAX (617) 353-6550; http://www.archaeological.org email: aia@bu.edu

American Anthropological Association, 2200 Wilson Blvd., Suite 600, Arlington, VA 22201; (703) 528-1902. Email: http://www.aaanet.org/

Society for Historical Archaeology, 15245 Shady Grove Rd., Suite 130, Rockville, MD 20850; (301) 990-9771; http://www.sha.org/ email: hq@sha.org

Society for Industrial Archeology, Michigan Technological University, Soc Sci, 1400 Townsend Dr., Houghton, MI 49931–1295; (906) 487-1889. Sia@mtu.edu www.sia-web.org

"Frequently Asked Questions about a Career in Archaeology in the U.S."
http://www.museum.state.il.us/ismdepts/anthro/dlcfaq.html

A heavily illustrated magazine that keeps the reader informed of the work of archaeologists and excavations around the world is Archaeology, written for the general public. To subscribe, write to: Archaeology, Subscription Services, PO Box 549, Mt. Morris, IL 61054; (877) 275-9782; or visit www.archaeological.org/

Suggested Reading (PDF) »

ANTHROPOLOGY OUTREACH OFFICE
DEPARTMENT OF ANTHROPOLOGY
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, 2007

 


Smithsonian Information
PO Box 37012
SI Building, Room 153, MRC 010
Washington, DC 20013-7012
202.633.1000 (voice)
e-mail: info@si.edu

 
Contacts | FAQ | Press Room | Privacy | Terms of Use
Top  Top