A: The scientific study of past human cultures and the way people lived based on the material evidence (artifacts and sites) they left behind.
A: Archaeologists are scientists who seek to understand past human cultures by careful study of the artifacts and other evidence from archaeological sites. Not only do they investigate sites and artifacts to answer specific research questions, but they also help to save cultural resources from destruction (from either human or natural forces). Archaeologists strive to investigate and preserve the finite and fragile clues of former cultures in order for us to understand our link to the past. They study both ancient and recent historic periods. Archaeology is one way we have to study people who left no written records; in North Carolina, this includes almost 97 percent of the human occupation span—all of which comprises the history of Indian peoples who preceded the arrival of Europeans in the 1500s.
A: The period of human experience prior to written records; in the Americas, prehistory refers to the period before Europeans and their writing systems arrived, covering at least 12,000 years.
A: The Paleoindian period is the time of the earliest generally accepted arrival of people in the southeastern United States – about 16,000 years ago, or 14,000 B.C. Although earlier migrations of people into the New World have been hypothesized, currently there is no firm evidence of people anywhere on the continental United States prior to 14,000 B.C.
Our level of understanding of the Paleoindian period across the state is highly uneven, due to both the history of North Carolina archaeology and environmental and geological factors.
A: Many archaeological sites in North Carolina fall on private land and you must have the landowner’s permission to visit them. There are, however, many prehistoric and historic sites that you can visit without permission! These sites can be found here: North Carolina Archaeological Sites.
A: Archaeologists look for and sometimes excavate sites for two main reasons. First, they may have a specific research question about the past that makes it necessary to search a certain area for certain types of sites or to excavate a site. Second, sites may be endangered by a development project or natural erosion, requiring archaeologists to salvage what information they can before the site is destroyed. In both cases, archaeologists structure the way they collect data so they can address a variety of research questions.
State and federal laws require that land use decisions take into account, among other things, the effect of a project on archaeological and historical sites. These are commonly called cultural resources. The laws apply to all federal and state lands, including those administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the military. They apply, too, to projects on private land that use federal or state funds or that involve issuing a permit of some kind. Any project that could disturb the land’s surface requires consideration of cultural resources. Typically, the company or agency proposing the project pays for the archaeological work.
To date, only a small fraction of the country (probably less than 5 percent) has been systematically explored for cultural resources. Thus, the archaeologist’s first step is to review existing records to see if the affected area has been examined already and if any sites are recorded for it. In North Carolina, the Office of State Archaeology in Raleigh maintains a central record for the state. The archaeologist may also check with colleagues based at universities and Indian tribes within the project area to see if they have concerns or know about areas of importance.
If an area has not been explored, the archaeologist conducts a survey. This is a systematic examination of the land looking for sites. Typically, archaeologists search for sites on foot, although aerial surveys are used to reveal sites that are invisible at close range and where the terrain makes walking difficult. How they conduct the pedestrian survey depends on the lay of the land. It may also depend on why the archaeologist is conducting a survey. If, for instance, a new power line is due to cut a 20 mile straight swath 60 feet wide, then archaeologists survey the straight line’s area. A reservoir, whose boundaries snake within 400 square miles of several drowned rivers, needs a different approach. Because archaeologists often cannot walk every inch of land, they search where experience has taught them are likely places to find sites. Sometimes, they map out an area in sections and survey a sample of sections.
Archaeologists use several tools to do surveys. These include clipboards and paper to make notes; bags to label and contain samples of artifacts; geologic maps to learn about the lay of the land and to record site locations; a compass for orientation; and a camera to capture photographic records.
During a survey, archaeologists look for anything that is not natural to the area. They are alert to things like a row of rocks (possibly the remnant of a wall), depressions or mounds (buried structures), chips of stone (debris from stone tool manufacture), dark soil (possible middens or garbage areas, hearths, or burned structures), and pottery sherds. Because archaeologists want to know how people used resources in their environment, information about where sites aren’t is also very important.
In the humid southeast, many sites are not visible on the ground’s surface. Often the sites are buried, and archaeologists check eroded hills above stream banks and plowed fields for evidence. In densely vegetated areas, archaeologists will sometimes dig a small hole every 50 feet or so, sampling the area to see if evidence of buried sites shows up.
When they find a site, archaeologists make notes and record its location on maps. Back in the laboratories, they give each site an identification number and fill out a site form. Information about the vegetation, soil, elevation, and location is recorded on the form, as well as a description of the site and the artifacts present. Any photographs are attached, and a master map is made. The site is also evaluated for its information potential, and a determination is made about whether or not the site has buried deposits.
A: If a site is to be excavated, archaeologists prepare a research design. This outlines what questions the archaeologists will try to answer and the techniques they will use to excavate and analyze the data. The agency or landowner that manages the land, the state archaeologist, and archaeologists from either a university or a consulting firm will each review the research design to assure it meets professional standards. A permit is required to excavate on federal or state-owned lands.
Before the excavation begins, the directing archaeologist assembles a team of excavators. This group may include geologists, botanists, historians, students, and trained amateurs as well as archaeologists. The first step is to clear vegetation from the site and establish a grid on the surface.
Establishing the grid is a key step. The grid is the primary way to maintain context, which is the relationship artifacts and features have to each other. The process of excavation destroys a site, and once it is dug, you can’t go back and do it differently. Researchers of the future can study a site they never saw if good notes and maps are made of the excavation. Recording context is the key to interpreting the site from records.
The grid is a Cartesian coordinate system. It is established and marked off in relation to a datum, which is a stable point of reference from which all measurements occur. Archaeologists set up the grid using a survey instrument (usually a transit), measuring tapes, wooden stakes, and strings. Squares are marked on the ground using stakes for each corner and string to connect them. Usually, squares are measured in meters, 1 or 2 meters on a side. Each square has a unique identifying number based on its grid coordinates. A map is made of the site on graph paper; the graph squares correspond to the squares on the ground. Any artifacts, samples, or features (such as a hearth) that are found in a square are labeled with its grid number and the depth below the ground surface at which they were discovered. Sometimes, when there are distinct layers in the stratigraphy, the layer in which an artifact is found is recorded also.
Using shovels, trowels, screens, and measuring tapes, archaeologists uncover a site square by square. They move dirt slowly because they don’t know what they will be uncovering, and they don’t want to destroy something by being in a hurry. The locations where artifacts are found are carefully recorded. The excavated dirt is put through mesh screens. Some are trays you shake back and forth so that the dirt falls through, and artifacts are left on the screen. Others use water to push the dirt through a series of screens with graduated mesh size.
During excavation, numerous maps, drawings, and photos are made. Each references the grid location. Artifacts and various kinds of samples (animal bone, plant remains, pollen, charcoal) are sent to specialists for analysis.
Once the excavation is completed, the site is usually back-filled with the excavated dirt. This excavation procedure is followed regardless of whether archaeologists are doing salvage work before a development project or doing basic research funded by universities or foundations. If a development project spurred the excavation, the project would now be authorized to proceed.
A: Months after the excavation is finished, results of the analyses will be ready. Most people do not realize that the time archaeologists actually spend excavating is the least time-consuming aspect of their research. Processing samples and interpreting the data take several times as long as excavation. Artifacts, records, and photos are turned over to a university, public museum, or to the Indian tribe with jurisdiction after the analysis is complete. Regardless of where they are stored, artifacts and information should be available to future researchers, as well as for use in displays.
Tackling analysis, archaeologists make extensive use of computers and statistical data analysis. Guided by their research questions, they compare new data with that derived from other studies. They may use ethnographic analogy — studying modern groups of people for clues about what archaeological patterns might mean or how artifacts might have been used. Sometimes they experiment with replications to learn what methods of manufacturing may have been used.
A strong professional ethic dictates archaeologists publish excavation results so that the information is available to everyone. While publications have often been written in the idiom of professional archaeology, there is a growing commitment by archaeologists to also present information in ways the general public can read and learn from.
A: You don’t have to be a professional archaeologist to identify and register an archaeological site with the state. In fact, thousands of recorded sites in North Carolina were reported by amateur collectors.
If you have found (or know about) an archaeological site (for example: a mound, village, campsite, scattering of artifacts, arrowheads, an old house place, shipwreck, etc.), please report it to the NC Office of State Archaeology. You can do so by filling out an “Amateur Site Form”. Once the NC OSA reviews the location, they will assign it an official state site number and it will be added to the state’s collection of nearly 50,000 archaeological sites!
Remember, it’s important to refrain from digging on archaeological sites. You should also report any construction, destruction or land-altering plans which involve an archaeological site as soon as possible to the NC Office of State Archaeology so that the information found there may be collected and saved.
A: Any object made, modified, or used by humans; usually this term refers to a portable item.
A: Archaeologists do not sell artifacts nor do they keep them for themselves. They study them, write a report about the findings and then the artifact is curated. Additionally, archaeologists are not looking only for the most spectacular artifacts. Often the dullest piece of pottery will tell the most about a culture that once inhabited a place. In fact, thousands of artifacts are curated each year that may never be seen in a museum display, but these pieces tell archaeologists invaluable information about past cultures.
A: It is best to leave the artifact where you found it. But, you should try to record as much information as possible about it. This information includes: a description of the artifact, a drawing and/or photograph of it, and the location it was found (ideally by marking it on a USGS topographic map or taking the GPS coordinates). Share this information with your state archaeologist.
A: That depends on where the artifact is found. It is against the law to collect artifacts from state or federal property without proper authorization. It is against state law to disturb marked or unmarked graves or burial sites on private or public property. It is illegal to collect artifacts from the bottoms of navigable bodies of water if the artifacts are more than ten years old. It can be a trespassing violation to gather artifacts on private property without the permission of the landowner.
A: Everyone has the opportunity to touch the past and to access information gained by archaeological research. Sadly, however, that opportunity is disappearing in North Carolina. The number of sites that have not been disturbed or looted is dwindling at an alarming rate. Greed and ignorance rob us of our heritage and the chance to experience and connect with the past. For Indian people living in North Carolina today, archaeology is the only way they have to supplement the knowledge handed down by their elders through legends and oral histories. Sometimes, archaeology is the only echo of their ancestors’ voices.
An illegal and thriving market in antiquities supports the destruction of sites by looters in search of artifacts. Vandals dig up Indian villages and burials, ignorant or uncaring of the fact they are destroying information or desecrating places of spiritual and historical significance to Native Americans. Also, many people innocently collect a few projectile points, glass beads, or rusty horseshoes, not knowing they are walking away with the data archaeologists rely on to study the lifeways of past people.
State and federal laws protect sites on public lands, but law enforcement is only part of the solution to protecting our past. Education and teachers can influence whether the school children of today will know and experience North Carolina’s rich cultural legacy as the adults of tomorrow.