Online Essay:

Archeology Today


Why study archeology?
What kind of people become archeologists?
Where do archeologists work?
What do archeologists do?
What is it like to work on an archeological excavation?

Why study archeology?

People study archeology for a variety of reasons. Not least of these is that most people have an intrinsic interest in knowing about the past. They want to know more about where they came from and how their society came to be what it is today. Even though they may have no direct cultural or biological connection to the Native people who occupied Illinois for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, many people living in Illinois today—regardless of their race or ethnicity—take an active interest in learning more about their State's Native American heritage. Archeology is one of the most direct means through which scholars can learn about these ancient cultures who made a profound impact on the landscape of the region--and whose presence remains visible even today.

While archeologists can not really say a great deal about a particular historical moment, their techniques can tell us much about broad trends and changes over time. Often, they are able to locate evidence linking past cultures to those of the present--illustrating cultural growth and evolution and providing connections between groups that, at first glance, appear to be unrelated.

While much of the archeology conducted in Illinois involves Native American sites (largely a result of a Native presence that stretches back for many thousands of years compared to barely 250 years of occupation by non-Indians), archeologists also study sites dating back only to the "Historic Period" (a term that many Native people find objectionable), that is, after contact with Europeans. At first glance, such work may not seem necessary because we have written records of events from these late dates. We expect to more or less "know" (or at least think we know) what happened and how people lived in such recent times.

But historians don't always know quite so much as they think they do. We now recognize that all writing is inherently biased and reflects the social position and values of the writer, as well as the purposes of the document. People may have their own reasons for portraying themselves and their own groups in an extremely favorable light or may have reasons to portray others negatively. Also, people tend not to write about things that they do every day. Exceptional events tend to appear in the historical record far more regularly than those which occur on a daily basis--the commonplace is often deemed unworthy of being recorded in writing. Archeologists can, therefore, often examine the remains left behind at historical sites and learn things that historians miss, or may never have considered using only a partial or biased written source.

At the very least, conducting archeological research on Illinois sites dating from comparatively recent times allows those who study the written record (like historians) to compare their findings with archeologists who analyze the surviving materials left on-site. When considered all together, multiple lines of evidence can often be used to create a more complete line of understanding than a single type of research possibly could on its own.


Who are "Archeologists"?

Though the stereotypical archeologist is a rugged and well-built man--like Indiana Jones, archeologists come in all colors, shapes, sexes and sizes. What binds them is their passion for their work. One prominent archeologist once said that "while it is not necessary to take a vow of chastity or sobriety, every archeologist entering the profession most definitely has agreed to accept a vow of poverty." With few exceptions, rewards come to archeologists only in modest and non-financial forms. Nonetheless, most archeologists maintain a great deal of enthusiasm for their chosen careers. Certain personality traits--a great deal of patience and a keen eye for detail--are nearly vital to make a good archeologist. But passion and patience are not enough, a good archeologist must also study (and hopefully enjoy) anthropology, history, geography and other disciplines. Certain archeological specialties might require a thorough familiarity with chemistry, biology or other natural sciences as well.

Though the stereotypical archeologist may possess a “cowboy mentality” and a sense of power, archeologists today can no longer sweep down upon the past remains of others and do with them as they please. Instead, they must today be more sophisticated in their approach and consider the feelings of modern groups related to those they study. In the United States, they must consider the increasing insistence of American Indians to have their wishes and ideas taken into account by researchers.

Where Do Archeologists Work?

We often associate archeologists exclusively with universities--and many do indeed hold academic appointments that call upon them to teach and work in the lab during the academic year before going into the field for excavations during the summer. Others work for the National Park Service or for museums or historical preservation agencies. Most archeologists (perhaps over 80%) working in the United States, however, do what is called contract archeology.

Contract Archeology occurs when a team of archeologists is hired to survey (and sometimes excavate) a site before it is damaged by a construction project, quarried, flooded by a new dam, or otherwise destroyed or rendered inaccessible. Such work is often administered, funded, and overseen by federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers or state agencies such as the Illinois Department of Transportation. ITARP (the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program), a division of IDOT and one of the largest contract archeology firms in the state, is headquartered at the University of Illinois. Most extensive construction projects involving federal money require such contract archeology to be performed before they begin and a large number of private archeological consulting firms exist to satisfy this demand.

The fact that so many archeologists contract to work on projects where we build roads, buildings, etc. suggests also that archeology is not something to be associated exclusively with exotic locales. Significant artifacts and other materials--many thousands of years of history--are all around us and exist, quite literally, right beneath our feet.

What Do Archeologists Do?

There is a lot more to archeology than digging in the dirt. Aside from contract archeologists, who are hired by an outside agency to work on a particular (and usually threatened) site, archeologists have to decide where to work, what to look for, and--most importantly--determine what they hope to learn from their efforts. Typically, an archeological project goes through several phases as outlined in the plan below

• While at their home institution, an archeologists identifies a very basic set of question he or she hopes to answer. Often, these questions are extremely broad and basic.
• The archeologist devises a research plan that outlines methods that might be used to answer these questions.
• Once they know what they hope to accomplish and how they might go about accomplishing it, archeologists have to write their ideas into a project proposal. When the project proposal is completed, they send it to museums, universities, government bodies, private institutions and anyone else they believe likely to provide funding for them to complete their work. This often takes a while.

• After they secure funding, archeologists begin surveying prospective sites. They travel to a proposed site and walk around--sometimes making small or shallow excavations--looking for features, artifacts, or other signs that indicate long-term human habitation. Such identification might be easy (as at Cahokia Mounds, Chaco Canyon, or the Great Pyramids). It is usually a good deal harder, however, and involves identifying evidence that is not always obvious to non-professionals.
Barely noticeable to an untrained observer, an archeologist may consider an eroded collection of mussel shells an indicator of an important site.

• After the prospective sites are surveyed, a few of them are selected for more in-depth study. In most cases, the amount of available funds, the number of available volunteers, students and staffers to help do the work, and the time available to complete the project combine to dictate that only a small fraction of what the archeologist might like to study will actually be studied at this time.
• Now that the likeliest sites have been selected and surveyed and the limitations of the project are now known, the archeologist considers them as he or she reframes the original questions to suit the more concrete circumstances.
• Teams go to make test excavations--small excavations to determine which of the potential sites are the most likely to provide answers to the reframed research questions. The data collected here might be used for future projects as well as to decide where to focus the current project.
• Deep and thorough excavations--the "real" work--are then conducted on portions of the likeliest site (or sites). Usually logistics (available resources, assistance and time) allow only a small portion of the site to be studied. Even when this is not a consideration, however, much of any archeological site is usually left undisturbed in anticipation of future archeological techniques and technology that may be superior to those available today.
• Material collected on-site, as well as records of the contexts in which it was found, are brought back to the lab for further (and usually very time-consuming study).
• Analysis and interpretation of finds might continue for months--even years. Tools, plant remains, soil samples, etc. are closely examined. Much of this work is divided among specialists in particular fields, such as zooarcheology, paleobotany, etc.--an indication of the collaborative nature of archeological work.
• When all of the data has been collected and interpreted, the archeologist writes up his or her findings to be published in an appropriate journal (such as Illinois Archeologist). This is a major responsibility since archeologists destroy much of what they study, precluding future research. Even the most cautious archeological activities remove artifacts and other materials from the sites where they were found. Context always affects the interpretation of data. Publication of one's findings guarantees that others in the field are aware of one's project and ideas and the descriptions of the lost contexts remain readily accessible.

What is it like to work on an archeological excavation?

The above description provides some idea about what archeologists do, but it does so only in the very broadest of terms. To gain a further understanding of what it is like to work on an archeological excavation, take a look at this photo essay that describes a recent dig conducted in Northern Illinois.

Phil's photo essay

The link below will show you a short video that may help clarify the terms that archeologists use and illustrate that archeology need not be exotic.

   Department of Anthropology
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