The year I turned 10 a set of encyclopedias arrived on our doorstep. In an era before cable TV, the internet, videos, and CD’s, I was captivated by all the images displayed on the pages of this amazing set of books. I vowed to read them all cover-to-cover. When I got to the section on Archeology, I knew I’d found my calling. Years later, after a few twists and turns of fate, I loaded my tent and my field equipment into a University van and set out to do field work at a Native American pueblo in Southwestern New Mexico.
So what was it about this unconventional profession that captivated me as a child and called to me again in adulthood? To the average person, the word “archeology” immediately calls to mind a whole spate of images…the pyramids, the Parthenon, golden scepters, cave paintings, spear points, beautifully decorated pottery, dinosaurs…no wait…dinosaurs! Actually this is a common misperception. Archeologists don’t study dinosaurs; Paleontologists study dinosaurs. The last of the dinosaurs died out about 65.5 million years ago. Archeologists only get involved after humans show up on the scene, sometime around 1.5 million years ago… a long time, but only a minor blip on earth’s 4.5 billion year timeline.
Archaeology is a sub-field of anthropology which is the study of all human culture. The difference is that archeologists study humans who lived a hundred or more years ago. Studying our ancient ancestors is like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle that illustrates our varied history on Earth. From the small nomadic bands that congregated around small fire pits or in natural caves to great civilizations with their monumental structures, the story of these early people can be told by studying the physical remains they left behind. These physical things consist of objects or artifacts such as food remains, household items like pottery, stone tools, artistic objects, living spaces such as pit houses, and everyday implements for hunting and cooking. When removed from the earth in a systematic way, these physical remains provide a window to the past that not only helps us understand our own culture, but adds to our broader understanding of all human cultures.
Archeologists don’t all study the same time periods or the same places. For example, some prehistoric archeologists only study million-year-old fossilized remains of our earliest human-like ancestors in Africa while others only study early man in North America. Historic archeologists study people, places, and things from a time when written records and oral traditions were part of the cultural tradition. In general, an archeologist will “specialize” in a particular time period and some only study particular types of artifacts.
So why do archeologists spend time and money doing what they do? This question is especially relevant in a time when economic interests dominate our collective mindset. First, there are laws that safeguard cultural resources. The United States and most countries worldwide recognize the value of their archeological sites as part of their national heritage and seek to protect them from wanton destruction.
Second, we study the past to acquire a broader and richer understanding of our world today and our place in it. There is a delicate and complicated interplay between people and the environment in which they live. Studying past human behavior can provide insights into our search for solutions to today’s problems because understanding how those problems developed and how people might have approached similar difficulties in the past gives us a better understanding of where we are going in the future. Hopefully, lessons learned from the past can influence the social, political, and environmental actions we take today.
This blog will take you on a tour of some of Earth’s fascinating archeological sites. It will focus on the innovative people who created beautiful and functional artifacts, the places they lived, and the structures they left behind. Hopefully, this journey will awaken in you a sense of awe for ancient people who, with their supposedly “low-level” technology, had the vision and ingenuity to produce such amazing objects.
If you are interested in learning more about the field of archeology, I invite you to check out the following web sites: nps.gov/archeology/PUBLIC/INDEX.HTM, saa.org/publicftp/PUBLIC/home/home.html, archaeological.org/