Archeologists are the detectives of human history. They use scientific
methods to study artifacts -- human-made objects like pottery, houses and
carvings. Using clues from artifacts, and the sites that hold the artifacts,
they try to recreate and interpret human cultures of the past.
Since most of human history hasn't been written down, archeologists have
pieced together much of our knowledge of the past.
"Archeologists provide evidence on how human culture began, how we developed
unique ways of adapting to our surroundings, and how we moved from relatively
simple to complex societies," says Texas archeologist David Carlson.
There are two main branches of archeology: prehistoric and historical.
Prehistoric archeology deals with societies that existed before written history.
Old World archeologists are concerned with periods like the Paleolithic Age,
which was about 750,000 years ago.
Historical archeology begins with the written history of the region the
Archeologists do fieldwork to gather artifacts. They travel to a particular
setting and excavate or search for artifacts in an area.
Artifacts from past cultures are often buried beneath layers of dirt and
rock. When excavating a site, archeologists carefully move the earth looking
for these clues and what they indicate about the culture.
"It's like being given a 3,000-piece puzzle with 2,689 bits missing, and
putting the rest together so that it makes sense and adds to everyone else's
puzzles," says archeologist Carole Gillis.
Although it often takes archeologists to remote places in different countries,
fieldwork isn't as glamorous as it seems in the movies.
"It's definitely not an Indiana Jones thing," says Annabel Ford, an archeologist
with the University of California. "It's often hot, tiresome and boring. The
findings are much more often pollen grains and pottery than beautiful artifacts."
When doing fieldwork, archeologists often travel to a remote location and
set up camp. They're responsible for preparing the site by surveying it and
then mapping it out. They then begin to excavate, or dig.
They slowly remove soil until they come across artifacts. Then they have
to record the exact position of their findings. When they have finished the
excavation, archeologists write up reports of their work.
Fieldwork is physically demanding. It can require long periods of hiking,
bending over, lifting heavy equipment and standing in the hot sun. Dangers
of the wilderness, like wild animals and poisonous snakes and insects, come
with the territory.
In spite of the more tedious aspects of fieldwork, most archeologists say
excavation is their favorite part of the job.
Every archeologist has a favorite discovery. "Mine was an 8,500-year-old
dog burial at Koster. That showed that kindness and concern for a family pet
can occur in all kinds of societies -- not just civilized ones," says Carlson.
While fieldwork is what most people associate archeologists with, 90 percent
of an archeologist's time is spent elsewhere. Many are professors at universities.
They spend their time teaching students, applying for grants to fund their
fieldwork, documenting the findings of a dig, researching the work of other
scholars and writing academic articles.
The contrast between fieldwork and academic settings means an archeologist's
schedule and working conditions vary a great deal. Sometimes it's a 4 a.m.
start at a plot in the hot sun of remote Southeast Asia until sundown. Other
times it's a 9-to-5 day in front of a computer or in a classroom.