What do archaeologists do?
Once archaeologists find a site that they want to excavate to answer questions about the past, they need to get a permit from the relevant government agency. Archaeologists make a grid of squares with string on the ground and each square is excavated very carefully with a trowel, brush, dustpan and bucket.
Archaeologists record and draw everything that they find on a sheet of paper. They sieve the dirt that they dig up and pick out objects that the people of the past made, used, and threw away, such as pottery, bones from animals that they ate, stone tools, beads and lots of other things. These are put in packets, which are labelled with the date, name of the site, the square and the layer of dirt that the object (artefact) comes from, and what it is. For example:
Little Rhebuck Shelter
Dark brown soil layer
Archaeologists record rock art
Some archaeologists don’t excavate archaeological sites. They study the rock art painted or engraved in the past by ancestors of the San, Khoekhoen and African farmers in Southern Africa.
These archaeologists trace the rock art with special techniques and take photographs. Stories that the San used to tell about their past and their beliefs can be useful in understanding what the rock art may have meant to the people who made it.
Archaeologists work in laboratories
When all the artefacts from a site are brought back to the university or the museum where the archaeologist works, he or she sorts the artefacts into different categories (stone, metal, bone, charcoal, beads etc.) and counts how many there are in each group. They write down what each one is made of, and sometimes they measure and label them. Once this is done, different archaeologists study each type of artefact.
- Some study stone tools: how they were made, what they were made of, and how they were used.
- Some study the bones of animals to see what kinds of animals the people of the past ate.
- Some study plants to see what people ate and what the vegetation and environment of the past were like.
- Some study pottery to find out how it was made and decorated, what the decorations mean and what the pottery might have been used for.
Archaeologists and recent history
Historical archaeology is about more recent historical societies and their settlements. Material culture and archived documents are important sources of information for this period of archaeology. Historical archaeology is thus concerned with the material remains of the modern period.
Archaeologists write about the past
Archaeologists take all their findings and write about the people and places of the past that they are studying. Then other people can read about the past, in books and museums, and find out where ancient people lived, how they lived, what their homes looked like, what they ate, what they wore and so on.
The archaeological enquiry goes back many thousands of years and thus archaeologists often specialise either in different periods or in certain kinds of archaeological evidence. Specialisation starts at postgraduate level. Among these could be human evolution, rock art, stone tools and the archaeology of African farming communities. Archaeological evidence includes human and animal bone, beads, stone artefacts, charcoal, pollen, rock paintings and engravings, buildings, and archival documents. These may require different scientific techniques such as isotope studies and archaeometry.
“Contributed by Bronwen van Doornum, Natal Museum”