So You Want to Be an Archaeologist?

Popular media has taught us that anyone can be an archaeologist. It’s easy, right? All you need is a shovel, a couple buckets, and maybe a cool whip to fight off some Nazis, and you’re all set to discover some nifty caves and make a ton of money off golden idols! Right?

Time for an archaeological dig!

Well, not so fast. What Indiana Jones doesn’t show us are the years of study, fieldwork, and tedious lab work that go into archaeological study. And it definitely doesn’t show that if you want to be a respected archaeologist, you need to join a professional archaeological society and agree to abide by its standards of ethics.

That’s ridiculous, you say; the archaeological record is available to everyone and shouldn’t be restricted to a bunch of snooty professionals. I should be able to dig up whatever I please, you say, because history belongs to everyone!

Thing is, that’s not really true. There are a number of groups with specific cultural ownership of archaeological remains, and archaeologists have to respect that ownership and act accordingly.

First and foremost, the descendants of the group or culture being studied have a right to their history. This means a number of things for archaeologists. Firstly, graves should not be excavated without the permission of the descendant community, no matter how much information could be gained from the excavation. The pillaging of sacred Native American graves by white North American archaeologists in the past caused a great deal of backlash, resulting in legislation like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990. This also means that archaeologists need to maintain open and respectful communication with the descendant communities that they are working with, when both planning an archaeological project and interpreting its results.

Don’t be this guy. Bald eagles will get really mad at you.

Apart from descendant communities, the public has a right to the archaeological record. You can’t just dig stuff up, put it on a shelf, and not tell anyone about it; you could be hiding away new information that might change the way history is taught or help us think about some of the challenges facing the modern world. In its Principles of Archaeological Ethics, the Society for American Archaeology lists just a few of the possible audiences for archaeology, which include students, politicians, journalists, and many more. Archaeology should be a tool to promote learning and come to new understandings about the past and the present, not just to add to your collection.

Whoever put together this arrowhead collection was not complying with archaeological standards of ethics. These are artifacts, not wall décor!

Finally, future archaeologists have a right to the archaeological record, too. That’s why stewardship is the first principle in the SAA’s list; archaeologists are obligated to preserve sites so that future archaeologists with better technology and different perspectives can also learn from them.

So the next time you’re tempted to start digging for treasure, remember that the archaeological record doesn’t just belong to you, and put that shovel away.


Further Reading:


On the Society for American Archaeology’s ethical standards:


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

National NAGPRA. National Park Service, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <>.

“Principles of Archaeological Ethics.” Society for American Archaeology. SAA, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <>.

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

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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.

Not Just a Pile of Bones

Context is very important. Context is especially important to archaeology and the study of artifacts. Without context, the artifacts have no meaning, a piece of glass is just a piece of glass, and a plate is a plate. If we don’t know where an item was found and what it is in relationship to the site and the site’s past then it means nothing.


Is this just a pile of bones? or with context could this mean much more?

For instance, a bunch of cow bones is just a pile of animal bones, until we factor in that it was found in the dump site of an 17th century pub and inn, and the cut marks on the bone shows that it was hand sawn and the cut of meat that it was shows the socioeconomic class that the people who ate the cow were in, and therefore reveals the people whom the pub catered to. Any other bones can do the same thing. Different fish are found in different areas, and different people and social classes eat certain kinds of fish. By finding a particular fishes bones in the inn we know that they fed and whom they traded with, as well as at that time, and what was available to them. Bones, as well as many other artifacts, such as plates and ceramic bowls, can be very useful in finding this type of information out, but only if there is context and background.

for this to mean anything, we would have to know the where, and what and who

for this to mean anything, we would have to know the where, what and who

The different patterns on plates can tell us if they were decorative or used in every day life. The type of style and skill that went into the plates can also tell us how they were used, when they were used, and who used them. The same goes for ceramic bowls, for if only the outside was decorated, that means that it was a larger bowl or vase, with a smaller opening on the top, or that it was meant for other people to look at, while decorations on the inside means that it was small or meant for more personal use. Still, context is very important. If this was found in the inn, then we know what it was used for, and if they were nice plates and bowls, what types of people they housed.

This idea of context can also be applied to where in the site it was found. Many hours are spent labeling the bags where the artifacts have been placed, with detailed locations of where the artifacts were found, at what test pit, with a unit number and other specific location identifiers. Location is very important to context and the meaning of an artifact, for if bones were found in the dumping site of a house, then they would mean a totally different thing then if they were associated with a barn or pub.

In general, artifacts aren’t just pieces of pottery, or a pile of bones, they are items and objects that, because of context, lend themselves to a bigger picture and a better understanding of our world.


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.

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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:

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“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:

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A view in Catskills

Acorn Hill, Catskills Mountains

Through a hole in the fence we entered the wilderness. With countless fallen tree branches and slippery mossy stones jutting out the ground, we needed to be as swift as a deer to jump over the obstacles. It is a paradox that we could not really act like a deer, because the nearby hunters thinking we were deers might mistakenly shoot us. This trek fitted perfectly with a stereotype regarding to archaeology–archaeologists are always accompanied by mysterious forests, poisonous bugs, and hands full of dirt. We were in a forest, we had dirty hands, but no bugs, if frogs did not count, probably because we all had sprayed ourselves before. However, the excitement of going on my very first real field trip dissipated  all the concerns and made me enjoy it.

In the woods of Acorn Hill.

In the woods of Acorn Hill.

Askohan Reservoir in the Catskills Mountains, lying ninety-three miles north of New York City, was completed in 1915 to provide clean water for the city. While water was transporting through ninety-two miles long aquaducts to slake the thirst of New York City, eleven towns and thousands of arces of farmlands were vanished underwater. Hoping to know how the construction of Askohan Reservoir affected local people’s lives and reshaped rural landscapes, we were here.


Olivebridge Dam under construction to build the Ashokan Reservoir circa 1910.



The Ashoken Reservoir seen from Monument Road in Ulster County, New York, USA.

 Finally, we reached the site marked by a washing machine in 1940s, and spilt into three groups to start working. Two groups were dealing with a sampling unit, with each of the three members in a group responsible for different jobs, describing the artifacts, writing down the descriptions, and drawing pictures in the notebook. Instead of staying motionless beside the unit, my group with Dr. Beisaw walked around to gain a better understanding of the adjacent area. There were several piles of stones not far away, on which scattered all kinds of glass, ceramics, metal cans and even shoes. According to Dr. Beisaw, these piles of stones were remains of houses of domestic people, while the bigger piles of soil to the right were industrial records of the exploitation of bluestone in quarry for the construction of the dam over the reservoir. Moving on, we were amazed by a huge man-made platform of stone about six feet high, because there used to be a entire mountain of stone over fifty feet, which completely disappeared after being quarried. At last, we drew a simple map of the area near the sampling unit and highlighted the piles of stone and soil, road and quarry.

During the field trip, what I enjoyed the most is to listen to the stories of every artifact, feature, and ecofact I encountered. They are alive. Trees were not only trees. Their composition and postion suggested that this was a farmland before being abandoned. Stones were not only stones. Their size and shape showed that some were walls to mark the rim of the farmland, some were to support domestic houses. The miscellany of artifacts told a more comprehensive story. Dining ceramics and a metal pan embodied that people were cooking on their own and eating near the quarry. Perfume and nail polish bottles manifested that some people here were in families. Archaeologists cherish the information more than the value in artifacts, because with information, they can reconstruct the past society. Even when you took a piece of gold to an archaeologist, the typical answer would be, according to Dr. Beisaw, “Gold? So what? Give me information!”


Search result of Ashokan Reservoir,

A.J.Loftin, The Ashokan Reservoir: The creation of the Ashokan Reservoir changed the Catskills forever

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I Got a Rock…

When Charlie Brown said that on Halloween, he was less than excited. But that’s because he wasn’t doing archaeology, where finding rocks, especially those that are part of foundations or walls, is awesome! Getting a rock for trick or treating is less fun but I digress.

When you think of archaeology, you probably imagine giant excavations, where people are uncovering dinosaur bones or ancient cities. When I went out to do fieldwork for the first time, that wasn’t exactly what we did nor what we were looking for. Surveying is a technique to find archaeological data, which doesn’t include any digging but thoroughly scanning an area (on foot, in our case) looking for evidence on the surface. It often comes before excavation (well, you have to find sites before you can dig, right?).

So basically, we went exploring in the middle of the woods. No trails and lots of tree roots hidden under leaves waiting to trip you up (living dangerously). As we navigated the hilly terrain (a great work-out, by the way) we were keeping our eyes out for evidence of a town that used to exist in Richardsville, near Kent, New York.

Boyd's Corner Reservoir Kent Cliffs


A photograph of the Boyd’s Corner Reservoir

New York City took over the area to make and preserve reservoirs for the city in the late 19th – early 20th century, so the town was abandoned. Dr. Beisaw wants to examine how the uprooting affected the local people and culture. Conclusions drawn from the past can help determine how regulating people for environmental reasons will have an impact today and how to lessen said impact. That’s the point of archaeology, to use the past to help improve the present and future! For anyone interested in learning about the watershed conservation controversy, here is an interesting segment about it from WNYC radio.

The reality is that if you haven’t already explored the area you’re researching, there is no way of knowing if anything is there. My group’s trails didn’t seem to be yielding many results. However, when we reached the end of our assigned area, we did end up finding something! We came across a large, curved stonewall and a metal sheet (part of a roof, perhaps?) propped up on rocks on the inside of the curve. We speculated that there might have been construction in the area, especially given the concentration of large boulders and other rocks that most likely were not deposited by nature.



This is similar to the metal sheet we found. It doesn’t look like much, right? Well, when you come across this in the middle of the woods, after hours of looking for evidence of human habitation, this is one of the coolest things ever.

Overall, fieldwork has to be approached with an open-mind, open eyes, and the energy to hike! And we didn’t just end up with a rock, we got a whole wall of rocks!



Beisaw, April. “Field Survey Manual”. 2013. Web. Access October 6, 2013.