to Videolink arrow

Newton logo to print




Being an archeologist is a lot like being a detective. You spend most of your time trying to find clues, collecting information, and putting pieces together to solve a mystery. Both professions require a variety of tools and draw information from many different scientific disciplines. In fact, the only major difference is that detectives usually can question a witness while archeologists are lucky to find the witness's home! In the hands of a skilled archeologist, however, even a pile of trash can speak volumes. Archeologists must first know where to look for a site . The passage of time and the forces of nature often erase even the sturdiest buildings. Walking an area, archeologists look for special clues that tip them off to human occupation. Some broken pieces of pottery, an old arrowhead, or even a pile of stones can lead them to a site. Before digging, however, they map the surface in detail and sometimes attempt to "see" below the ground with the help of vremote sensing techniques like radar . Once digging begins, workers scrape off each level in neat horizontal layers, a painstakingly slow process. Archeologists carefully observe rules of three important concepts: stratigraphy, superposition, and context. Stratigraphy means that the material covering the site was placed there in layers-or strata . Superposition means that the deeper you dig, the older the material gets. While these rules don't give exact ages, they allow scientists to calculate relative time, which is almost as important. Context is also a critical concept, since artifacts only tell a story through the context in which they're found-where they are found and with what they are found. After uncovering artifacts, an archeologist relies on techniques like X rays and chemical and microscopic analysis to determine what materials were used to make the artifacts, how they were made, their age, and their purpose. If enough artifacts are found, the archeologist puts them together into common groups called assemblages. By studying assemblages, the archeologist can then determine what people did in different parts of the site at different times.


Even before digging a single hole, archeologists develop a working model of what took place in an area. To do this, they conduct a survey to discover all the sites on the surface of the land and to describe what they can see at each site. Pieces of broken pottery, rocks arranged in patterns, and even trees growing in straight rows suggest that people once occupied an area. Using a local park or vacant lot, test your own ability to unravel past events. Materials
  • notebook and pencil
  • ruler
  • magnetic compass
  • protractor
  • large sheet of drawing paper
  1. Select a site for your survey. A wooded park, a campground, or even a vacant lot will do fine. Before starting, ask for permission to enter the property if it is privately owned!
  2. Using your compass to establish north, measure the site boundaries by pacing off the distance in feet in each direction. Log the direction and distance of your site boundaries in your notebook. To calculate your pace size, do the following: With a long tape measure, mark off two points exactly 100 feet (30m) apart. Starting at one point, walk in a direct line toward the other point, counting the number of steps you take to get there. Your steps should be your normal pace. Divide 100 feet (30m) by the number of steps you took. This number is your normal pace size. For example, if you took 25 steps, your pace would be 100 feet divided by 25 = 4 feet/step (30 ? 25 = 1.2 meters/ step). For more accuracy, you should repeat the measurement four times and average your results.
  3. Starting at one corner of the site, walk slowly across the site in a systematic pattern. The best way is to cross back and forth at a regular interval of spacing. Look for anything that appears out of the ordinary-a broken bottle, an old can, a ring of rocks with some burnt material on the inside. Each time you encounter an artifact, describe it fully in the notebook and measure its distance and direction from one of the site corners.
  4. Once you have completed your survey, plot your data on a scale map of the site. With your protractor, measure the compass direction from north and, with your ruler, measure off a scale distance. When all the data is plotted, see if you can find any patterns suggesting how people used the site. Questions
    1. When conducting site surveys, why walk back and forth in a regular pattern across the site rather than randomly?
    2. What artifacts suggest that your site might be old? Which artifacts suggest your site has been recently used?


  • Brain, J. (Ed.) (1976) Clues to America's past. Washington, DC: The National Geographic Society.
  • Corbishley, M. (1990) Detecting the past. New York: Glouster Press.
  • Coville, B. (1990) Prehistoric people. New York: Doubleday.
  • Fagan, B. M. (1992) People of the Earth: An introduction to world prehistory. New York: Harper Collins.
  • Freeman, M. (1967) Finding out about the past. New York: Random House.
  • Scott, A. (1993, Summer) Ancient tech. Invention and technology, pp. 34-44.
  • Willey, G., & Sabloff, J. (1974)