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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
enjoy) anthropology, history, geography and other disciplines.
Certain archeological specialties might require a thorough
familiarity with chemistry, biology or other natural sciences
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
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.
Do Archeologists Do?
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
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.
they secure funding, archeologists begin surveying
prospective sites. They travel to a proposed site and
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,
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
• 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
when this is not a consideration, however, much of any archeological site
is usually left undisturbed in anticipation of future archeological techniques
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
• 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
• 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
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?
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.
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.