The Creation and Discovery of Skara Brae – The Power of Storms

The now-archaeological-site, once-village of Skara Brae on the coast of the Orkney Islands of Scotland was subjected to huge storm during the late Neolithic period – burying its structures deep under a layer of sand, which acted as a preservative for the buildings and their contents for multiple millennia – four to be exact. The protective quality of the sand kept the structures and everything within them shockingly intact since around 3200 – 2200 BC. The very gradual drift of sand after the storm embedded the village of Skara Brae into the earth, making it uninhabitable for the original Stone Age villagers.

So, was it the storm alone that drove away the native inhabitants of Skara Brae? Not exactly. “The fall” of Skara Brae as a society and abandonment of it as a geographical location was actually due to long term erosion along the coast and changes in the society’s needs, not only the single event of the storm (though the storm did intensify and speed up erosion) (Orkneyjar). Even before the major storm, island conditions such as the spray of salt water and sand probably made the land virtually unworkable and unfit for food production. While that may have been okay for a while, eventually people moved away to more productive areas where they could get a more constant supply of food. The few who remained most likely finished out their lives in Skara Brae without repopulating the area.

Outside view of a Skara Brae building, separated from others by a passage.

But how was Skara Brae found if it was under a massive layer of sand? Well, another natural disaster occurred 4,000 year later in 1850, a violent storm “whose winds and extremely high tides” ripped up the earth and grass from Skerrabra – a large mound on the island (Orkneyjar). Foundations, walls, and remains of stone buildings and houses were discovered underneath the mound, to the surprise of those living there at the time. But 75 years later, in 1925, another storm came around, damaging the excavated ancient structures. Accordingly, preservation efforts were put in place through the construction of a sea wall (an embankment erected to prevent the sea from encroaching on an area of land), which actually exposed even more stone buildings! During this time period, most archaeologists believed the settlement to be from the Iron Age – around 500 BC. But finally, as we know now thanks to radiocarbon dating in the 1970s, the buildings were proved to be from the late Neolithic period and inhabited for 600 years.

Excavation of a Skara Brae home, complete with artifacts and features such as furniture and drains.

Excavation of a Skara Brae home, complete with artifacts and features such as furniture and drains.

While so far storms seem to have acted in an oddly beneficial way for the archaeological preservation and exposure of Skara Brae’s long-hidden cultural artifacts and features, an increase in erosion rates have posed an environmental and archaeological threat. Steps are being taken to minimize the effects of this accelerated erosion due to natural and human causes.

For Further Reading on Skara Brae:


Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2010. Print.

An Artifact is Only Worth the Information it Brings

It’s difficult for people to plan for the future.  It’s so much easier to be so focused in the present that one does not realize that to make a better future one has to be cognizant of what is currently happening around them.  And, not surprisingly, looking into the past can help change and perfect what is happening in the present, therefore creating a better future.  It’s pretty simple, but then comes the issue of not only knowing what happened in the past, but knowing how it affected communities in the present so that we can be proactive in planning for a better future.  Are you surprised to hear that the answer to the question is (drum roll….) archaeology!

By using the archaeological record, which is growing over time, archaeologists can discover an enormous amount of information about past cultures and how their ways of life affected their communities. By studying agricultural techniques of past societies, their failures and achievements, we can alter the way we use agriculture to be more sustainable. For example, by studying the past cultures who came up with the three-field system of agriculture, where land and what is being grown is rotated to allow the nutrients to replenish, archaeologists found that this system works and benefits the communities; thus, today we have a better understanding of how to rotate crops and fields to keep the soil fertile.  This understanding makes us more sustainable in the long run, our future.  Understanding the conflicts that caused wars between past societies can assist us in avoiding these conflicts, and prevent unnecessary wars.  A poignant example is wealth distribution; when unequal, we end up with the haves and the have nots, with a top 1%.  This frequently leads to resentment, which leads to conflict and war. Therefore, archaeologists can evaluate how past societies best distributed resources to create the best environment for all. Looking at how cities were planned out and maintained, and consequently if they could survive disasters can help us plan out current cities in the most logical and beneficial manner to support development and growth. Archaeology has a place in many contemporary social issues that need to be evaluated in the present to preserve the future.

Visual description of three-feild rotation

Visual description of three-feild rotation

Distribution of worlds wealth, the unevenness a source of conflict

Distribution of worlds wealth, the unevenness a source of conflict


Everyone knows that archaeology is the study of the past. However, most people don’t understand that the knowledge archaeologists learn from the past can be applied to the present to better the future.  The excavation and “cool” artifacts the archaeologists discover seem to steal the image for archeology.  It’s important to understand, however, that what archaeologists learn from artifacts, and apply to the present, is what makes them truly valuable.

Works Citied:“climate-policy-is-redistributing-the-worlds-wealth”/

Further Reading:

Sabloff, Jeremy A. Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2008. Print.

Behind the Scenes Archaeology

Who would have thought that walking around aimlessly for hours in the woods is the easy and quick part of archaeology?  All in all, the stereotype that archaeologists spend most of their time in the field excavating and collecting artifacts is completely untrue.  Previously I had just accepted this to be fact from readings and lecture concerning the intricacies of archaeological research. However, recently I’ve been able to experience the full brunt of the life of an archaeologist through lab, and it is not an easy one.

the first image that comes up upon Googling "Archaeology"

the first image that comes up upon Googling “Archaeology”

Lab work is an imperative part of archaeology, providing for much of the actual results and findings that occur. Rarely is a piece ever just picked up in the field, examined right then and there, then accepted as fact and put away. In lab the artifacts are observed, recorded, sorted, and in some cases put together again from tiny fragments. So, lab work comes with many more subtle complications than field work. In the field the general dangers of spending so much time performing strenuous work in the outdoors are present, and can take an exhausting toll on the body. Similarly, lab work can take a toll on the mind, as classification systems and identification becomes increasingly difficult to do once the artifact has been through a dozen hands, some of which might be mislabeled or broken.

have fun sorting that...

have fun sorting that…

The images that come to mind in thinking of archaeology are mostly that of field work but the meat of the field of anthropology is lab work. The lab work I performed was more than anything rebagging and assorting hastily labeled and disorganized artifacts with a colourful history of tug and pull. They had belonged to private hands, and was to be possibly donated to a museum, but as the bill ranked up for the archaeological work to be done on the artifacts(evidently archaeology is not for the frugal of heart) ownership became complicated up until the point where they are just being borrowed indefinitely for the time being. This contributed to the clutter of the artifacts worked on. Thusly, my initial sentiments toward lab work was that it seemed like some cruel joke, bagging and rebagging bags upon bags of stuff that was sometimes more dirt than artifact, and squinting at a tiny bone for ten minutes to figure out whether it belonged to a bird or an annoyingly small rabbit. Once you get into though, the work itself is incredibly simple. Half the time spent in lab was sifting through a pile of similar centuries old objects and playing One of These Things is Not Like the Other. This becomes the essential component of lab, recognizing when an artifact needs to be classified separately than the material it was grouped with before, and vice versa merging groups of items together for the sake of coherence in sorting. Although archaeology is thought of many times as the dangerous and exciting field work of the likes of Indiana Jones, the work that goes into labeling it all is the vital step that gives an artifact meaning, putting it into context of where it was before and how it played into the lives of the people there years ago.

– Bernardo


Ashmore, Wendy and Robert J. Sharer. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. New York: McGraw- Hill, 2012. Print.

The Secrets Revealed in Lab Work

What comes to mind when you think of archaeology? Do you think of the archaeologist who seeks to learn and preserve the past—the archaeologist who sees a broken glass bottle as treasure? Or do you think of the stereotypical archaeologist who digs up mummies and gold? Regardless of which you picture, you think of the archaeologist as working in the field. Rarely do people picture archaeologists in the lab. What does archaeological lab work really entail? How do archeologists find out information about artifacts? I didn’t know what to expect when I went to my lab work, but I was excited to find out.

When I walked into the lab, there was a long table with two boxes full of plastic bags in the center of the room. I sat down and took a peek at the contents of the boxes—from my quick glance, I saw bags full of pottery, bones, and broken glass. My professor walked in and told us that our task was to sort and organize artifacts from a site in Annapolis, Maryland. And with those instructions, my first archaeological lab work began.


The first bag I grabbed contained many different buttons. There appeared to be different types of buttons—some were white and shiny while others were rusty and black. After separating the buttons into categories based on appearance, we determined that there were six plastic buttons, eight glass buttons, two metal buttons, and two oyster-shell buttons. One of the metal buttons had an emblem on it—and with some research, my professor determined it was military button from the Civil War period. Thus, we could conclude that soldiers must have been in the area—but for what? Were soldiers just passing through the local tavern? Or was a solider returning home after battle? This question is left hanging until more research is done.


My group sorted about twenty bags of artifacts—some containing rusty nails others with pieces of glass. My two favorite artifacts were the broken pottery pieces and the animal bones. By looking at the material and color, we could sort the pottery pieces into types and estimate the time period it came from. Some of the pottery was white-ware while other pieces were buckley ware and others earthenware. Similarly, by closely looking at the bones, I sorted them into bird, reptile, mammal, and fish bones (with help of course). By working with my professor, I was able to see difference in each type of animal bone. For example, mammal bones are thick and dense while bird bones are mostly thin and hollow. Understanding these differences helped bring me one step closer to being an animal bone expert!


While fieldwork might provide an exciting adventure, it is in the lab that artifacts’ secrets are uncovered. In the lab, archaeologists can learn about the change of artifacts over time, their importance, and their relevance in history. Simply stated, it is in the lab where the past is revealed.






Ashmore, Wendy and Robert J. Sharer. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. New York: McGraw- Hill, 2012. Print.

Image 1:

Image 2:

Image 3:

Lazy Friday Afternoon, Let’s do….Lab Work?

I’m just going to come straight out with the most exciting, best learned lesson from lab work. I’m a bone expert and can tell the difference between mammal, bird and fish bone to a T. Impressive I know. Besides this mind blowing fact that has changed my view of myself, I was pleasantly surprised to find out two things. First, that archaeology has a lot of work (aka lab work) to do once done with the grueling excavation process most people think to be the only part of archaeology, second that it can actually be quite entertaining and fun.

An array of bones

An array of bones


One could almost deduce that excavation is the easy part. After that, one has to take everything found, and separate it into bags according to what it is. If thats not a lot of work, you have to label everything exactly where it came from. And although we did not need to do this during our two hour lab experience, one also has to clean the artifacts and perve them. A challenging aspect of our lab work, specifically, was having to relabel and separate bags already labeled, we had to fix inconsistencies for artifacts, and didn’t always have the information right or in some cases at all. Therefore, having to label them as surface finds, in a case of a medicine bottle that came with no information. This emphasized the large importance of small details not being overlooked and following protocol to clearly and correctly label everything that needs labeling.


The grandeur of lab work

I think its pretty clear that there are many stereotypes about archeology, how it is basically Indiana Jones, right? Even if someone has overcome that stereotype, many people still don’t picture archeologist in a lab, sitting on turning chairs, in nice work clothes, listening to music, with bright pink painted nails, sorting through everything found at a site. But it is a large part of archaeology, and this lab experience showed exactly this. That without this last step in the lab, excavation would be worthless.

My statement earlier might be misguided though. Sitting in air conditioning singing along, or I was singing my heart out, while my classmates gave me a quizzical glances, to songs I love, learning about history and sorting through artifacts that were actually really cool and intriguing was something I enjoyed on a Friday afternoon.  More importantly though, something very necessary and important to the process of performing an archaeological excavation on a site. People tend to not look past whats put in front of their eyes. In this case, seeing artifacts go straight from digging to a museum. They miss one of the most important steps, and without this step, archaeology would not let us look back in the past, to help the better the future.




Ugh, Lab Work. So Boring…Right?

What people think archaeologists always do...

Archaeological field work…

When most people think of archaeology, they probably picture someone digging in a jungle searching for hidden treasures, or perhaps uncovering the tomb of some great pharaoh in Egypt. Sitting in a well-lit and comfortable lab re-bagging artifacts while listening to music usually doesn’t factor into the adventurer stereotype that many people may assume is what archaeology is all about. Working in a lab may even sound incredibly dull and uninteresting. However, this simply isn’t the case, and I can attest to the fact that lab work can actually be incredibly interesting and fun- while still fulfilling its primary purpose of processing, identifying, and analyzing artifacts.

...and what they actually do a lot of the time.

…vs. lab work.

Though originally our groups had no idea what to expect from our two-hour long lab work session, we took to our task of re-labelling and re-bagging artifacts fairly easily and quickly. The work was relatively simple when we got into a rhythm, but still managed to hold our attention. Even the seemingly endless fragmented animal bones were exclaimed over when we were told what part of the body they came from. Teeth, ankle bones, even bits of turtle shell were the source of many “Cool!”s and “Wow!”s. There was never a moment of boredom, and the time flew by because we were constantly learning more and more about the artifacts we were handling.

Despite being genuinely fascinating, lab work also serves several important purposes. As was the case with the artifacts that we were working with, sometimes mistakes in labelling or sorting are made in the field and accounted for and fixed in the lab. For instance, within bags that were predominantly mammal bones, we sometimes found a stray fish bone or bit of shell that had to be removed when we re-bagged the contents. Lab work is also important because it allows the archaeologist to clean and then more closely analyze the

Drill bits can be used in the lab to find the diameter of a pipe stem and thus determine what time period the pipe is from.

Drill bits can be used in the lab to find the diameter of a pipe stem and thus determine what time period the pipe is from.

artifacts. An artifact may be wrongly identified in the field for a number of reasons, and, upon analysis in the lab, be properly identified and dealt with accordingly. It may also prove difficult to determine what time period an artifact is from in the field, and access to special equipment, texts, or other tools that aren’t available during field work may be necessary.

Even though lab work may initially sound dull when juxtaposed against the “adventures” of field work, processing artifacts can, in fact, be just as enjoyable and interesting as finding them in the first place. Lab work allows the archaeologist to learn more about the artifacts they’ve found so they can accurately analyze them within the context of history. Because of this, lab work is a major pillar of archaeology that is necessary to understanding history to the best of our ability.

 Works Cited:

Image 1:

Image 2:

Image 3:

“Archaeological Methods.” Alabama Archaeology. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.          <>.

“The Dig: Adventures in Archaeology.” ThinkQuest. Oracle Foundation, n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2013. <>.

Tiver, Donald. “Becoming a Well-rounded Archaeologist.” Day of Archaeology. N.p., 29 July 2013. Web. 9 Nov. 2013. <>.

Beer Jugs, Pottery and Archaeological Analogy

I was able to participate in archaeological lab work this week and I do not think I have ever been so excited to look at broken fragments of beer jugs like the one below.

19th century beer jug

Looking at a variety of artifacts from an excavation site in Annapolis, Maryland, I saw bags containing fish bones and mammal bones and at first look they all look the same. However, my professor was an expert in identifying bones and was able to explain distinctions between them. Small details like size and curvature along the bone edges can indicate to which animal a bone belonged. Over a course of two hours, I got pretty good at identifying pig toes. Also, we looked at different glass and we learned that vessel glass was most likely used as a container because it is identifiable by its shape. It is rarely flat like window glass.

Lab work was a chance to conduct cultural and historical interpretation from the artifacts we examined. For example, pieces of a jug we looked at like the one below shows agricultural adaptation specifically because of the small opening at the top. We can likely infer that this type of jug was used for liquids or the people who owned this jug wanted to regulate exactly how much they wanted to come out of the jug or put in. This piece of pottery is technological evidence that with analysis can give clues on the activities of the community during a time. An archaeologist can have an idea of the tool and pottery advancement, which can be telling of the social systems, and ideology of the people in the past.


The purpose of lab work is to reconstruct the past and archaeologists use analogy to help. In archaeology, analogy is used to infer the identity of and relationships among archaeological data by comparing them with similar phenomena documented in human societies that are living or recorded historically (Ashmore, 180). Unknowingly, I was using analogy during my time in the lab. When examining the beer jug, I was comparing it to what I had previously seen today’s society. I thought about the evolution of the beer jug turned beer bottle and noticed that because of its similarities in form, reconstruction was easier to understand.

Artifacts provide information about societies’ cultures, environments, people, and animals. Artifacts are common but it is the history behind the item that reveals the value; thus, all artifacts should be respected and deemed valuable.

For further information on archaeology analogy, check out Wendy Ashmore’s and Robert J. Sharer’s book Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology.

Works Cited:

Ashmore, W.J., and Sharer, R.J., Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. 6th Edition.

Archaeological Lab Work: Buttons, Marbles, and Glass, OH MY!

Have you ever wondered what the job of an archaeologist entails? Is archaeology as action filled as it is depicted in the Indiana Jones movies?


(For your listening pleasure!)

This past Friday, I was lucky enough to put some of my own lingering questions about archaeology to rest. Through laboratory work with my archaeology class, I got a glimpse into the life of an archaeologist. Unfortunately, I did not take down any bad guys or run through any deserts, but needless to say, the experience proved to be quite interesting.

My hopes were not especially high for the lab work section of my archaeology course. Frankly, I was under the false impression that it would consist of manual labor in an eerie basement (plus, who really wants to do any sort of work on a Friday afternoon). However, I quickly realized just how terribly I had misjudged archaeological lab work.

Upon opening my first bag of artifacts from the Dunn Site, I became invigorated by the idea that I held ancient relics in my hands and that they represented a little piece of history. Most intriguing to me were not the well-preserved glass bottles and pottery, but rather, the little pieces—the buttons, the marbles, even fragments of glass. Was the button that of a rich man or did it belong to a little girl? Did a little boy use this marble in the schoolyard? Each of these items awaits an archaeologist to uncover its unique story

Native American Marbles

Native American Marbles

US Armed Forces Button

US Armed Forces Button

After recovering an artifact from a site, an archaeologist must create some order in what otherwise may appear to be a random set of objects. Thus, they work to classify the artifacts according to certain criteria. First, artifacts are generally classified according to material: glass, metal, ceramic, or stone. Within these groupings, archaeologists may sort them further. For example, glass may be sorted into two divisions: window glass and vessel glass. Once categorized, artifacts can be stored and then labeled based upon their respective trench unit and stratigraphic layer in which they were found.

While many people believe that an archaeologist’s main focus is to find an artifact, in reality, all of this work is completed with the main goal of finding out the effect that an artifact had on a culture–to determine that the button belonged to a rich man and the marble was, indeed, used by a boy in a schoolyard. In the end, the tiniest of artifacts can reveal the most about a past culture.

Works Cited:

Audio 1:

Image 1:

Image 2:


Object Biographies and the Developments of Classical Archaeology

Classical archaeology does not have the most reputable status in the history of archaeology; it has overlooked much of ancient Greek society because of its preoccupation with the treasures of the elite. Looters and treasure-seekers have given the discipline a bad name, as have the biased analyses of looking to prove myths and the narrow aesthetic focus on monuments. Over the past forty years, though, Sofia Voutsaki argues that much has changed for the better. Voutsaki states that the “Great Divide” between classical archaeology and other forms of archaeology, such as prehistoric and medieval archaeology, is closing; classical archaeology is no longer only “concerned mostly with high culture, monumental temples, artistic masterpieces and urban elites.”[1]

Classical archaeology has come a long way from its origins in pillaging, but there are still several short-comings in the archaeological log. Classical archaeology could be charged with breeding carelessness within its own field: “There is a tendency for well-known objects of high aesthetic merit to lose their archaeological and cultural contexts when placed in the broad narrative of Greek art history.”[2] Take for example the Polyphemus amphora from Eleusis[3] – it is given precedence in major art history books for being a classic 7th century BCE style funerary vase, and yet it is rarely mentioned that this is a child’s coffin.[4] By placing the object in the larger context of art history the vase has lost much of its human significance; classical archaeologists only analyze the vase for style, form, and function to give the piece meaning within the pre-determined chronological spectrum of vases. Studies of this kind, however, ignore the social meanings of the artifact, a problem object biographies try to correct.

Object biography “seeks to narrate the accrual of social meanings over the lifespan of an artifact. The approach is attractive for its narrative structure and post-processual emphasis on the active nature of material culture.”[5] Object biographies confirm classical archaeology’s growth in the last 40 years. Not only does this academic practice seek to use its knowledge for more than classifying objects into art historical categories, it seeks to understand every aspect of society within its cultural context; classical archaeology has moved past mere cultural historical study and has begun to emphasize post-processual investigation.

The culture history approach creates a normative model of culture that ignores the processes of change over time.[6] The processual approach addresses these processes, but again is normative and ignores individual agency. Post-processual approaches, such as object biography, strive to explain the importance of non-material factors in society. However, one approach is not more important than the other instead they should be built on top of each other to gain a complete understanding of human culture. Classical archaeology’s ability to address all three of these approaches proves that it has transitioned from treasure hunting to new humanistic approaches to better understand all aspects of Ancient Greek culture.

[1] Voutaki, Sofia Pg. 21

[2] Langdon, Susan. Pg. 579

[3] 3-p55-medium 3-p54-medium

[4] Langdon, Susan. Pg. 579

[5] Langdon, Susan. Pg. 579

[6] Ashmore, Wendy. Pg. 40


Images from:



Ashmore, Wendy. Sharer, Robert. Discovering Our Past: A brief introduction to Archaeology.      The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc; New York, New York. 2014.

Langdon, Susan. “Beyond the Grave: Biographies from Early Greece.” American Journal             of Archaeology. Vol. 105, No.4. Oct., 2001. Archaeological Institute of America.     <>

Voutaki, Sofia. “Greek Archaeology: theoretical developments over the last 40 years.”      TMA jaargang Mediterrane Archeologie No. 40. 2008. Pg. 21-28.             <            over_the_last_40_years# >