The actuality of archeology

What actually is archaeology? How is it useful to us? Archaeology isn’t the glamorous profession of finding gold and precious objects that many people believe it is. It also doesn’t involve excavating everywhere either. Archaeology can be conducted in many different ways other than excavation. Surveying the land is an important aspect to the archaeology process, through this process you detect and record any and all surface features on the land. By surveying the surface you can make conjectures about the subsurface features that could also be there.


Mapping and using gps is also important in real life archaeology. Unlike movies and other stereotype filed media, archaeologist don’t just stumble upon caves and marvelous ancient artifacts. They do extensive mapping and record keeping, in order to survey the land and find features that could hold keys to the past. Shovel test pits are used to locate artifacts as well as learn about the stratigraphy of the soil. This is also contrary to the idea of archeology brought about by movies and television.



There are also many ways of doing archaeology that you might not think of, just ask Joseph Zarzynski who is an underwater archaeologist. He did work in Lake George where he and his team uncovered a warship from the French and Indian war. They then turned the site into an underwater research park where scuba divers can come and observe the wreak and learn more about American history as well as archaeology. Many people wouldn’t believe this is a type of archaeology but then again many people don’t know what archaeology is. All of these techniques are useful and allow us to learn about our past to better our future.



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


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A Discarded History

Archaeological dig

this is not what it is always about.

Archaeology is not about finding an object. It is not about an object at all. Archaeology is about finding the story behind the object, the history of the person who made it, owned it, or took care of it. The artifacts mean nothing if there is no context. Without this context, you would not understand the past or the lives of the people throughout history.

If you were trying to find out about a culture, a tribe, a family or a single individual, where would you look? Do not look in the most obvious places, where you know you are guaranteed to find something, or you know what it is you will find. Look places that you would never have though of looking, or where maybe the treasure isn’t (if there is any) because the real treasure is finding something that tells you about the person or people that you would have never know before, something about their “secret lives”. This could be anything, what they did when they are not being watched by the authorities, or by their neighbors. A hobby, a skill, or a lover can be discovered. A stereotype can be broken. Something about a culture could be found, that you never thought could be possible.

When a person or a tribe moves a place, they don’t leave what is important to them, they leave what they think they don’t need, that they can survive without, that they find unimportant. But this is just as useful in discovering the past, because by knowing what they didn’t need, we find out just as much about them then knowing what they brought with them. Looking in doorways, where people drop items out of their bags or pockets, or trashcans and dump sites, can be just as important as looking in a temple or a grave. Both in modern and ancient times, surveying or excavating a place where people might leave things behind, discard items, or not be in the public view, you get a sneak peak into the real, unfiltered life of someone.


why would he leave something so important behind?

I think this is what I have really taken away from my learning and increased knowledge about archaeology. That it is the little things that count, the artifacts that tell you something about someone that maybe they didn’t want to be known, or finding something that breaks assumptions, changes stereotypes, changes peoples opinions about a culture. I think from now on I will see archaeology as a way to find things about the past, so we can better help the present and future. Archaeology is finding artifacts that explain a different outlook than the written records, providing a deeper insight into the public’s perception of what happened. With archaeology you can reevaluate history and change peoples perspectives.

Laila Blumenthal-Rothchild

Picture links:

Aerial Survey: Archaeology from a Bird’s Eye View


It’s a bird!  It’s a plane! It’s aerial survey archaeology!

Aerial photography, the most common type of aerial survey, has revolutionized the archeological community over the past hundred years.   The seed was planted in 1858, when Gaspard Felix Tournachon took the first recorded aerial photograph from a hot air balloon.  His plan was to use the photos to create maps, but the idea of aerial survey began to circulate, and the first aerial pictures of Stonehenge were taken in 1908.  With the onset of World War I, Europe experienced a significant advance in aviation technology, and archaeologists began to fully realize aerial photography’s potential to revolutionize the field.

Aviation technology has made leaps and bounds since 1918, and so has aerial photography. Today, archaeologists divide photos into two distinct categories: vertical and oblique.  Vertical photos are taken at high levels, usually from planes, while oblique photos are most commonly taken closer to the ground, with handheld cameras.  Within these types, there are three stages in the process of aerial photography.  First, the archaeologist takes the pictures, which is called reconnaissance.  Then, he or she looks at other surveys of the same land to identify changes in the landscape.  This is called the archive search.  Finally, comes the mapping stage, in which he or she interprets the information gained from the aerial photographs.

So, why do we need aerial survey?  What can it tell modern archeologists that surface survey and excavation cannot?  Aerial photography is crucial when it comes to identifying burial mounds or other surface characteristics not necessarily visible to someone on the ground.  In addition, archaeologists can use it to detect the presence of demolished houses or buildings by observing “soil marks” (distinct coloration of the soil as a result of past archaeological features).   The presence of subsurface archaeological remains can also change the color and height of crops.  These “crop marks” are another way that archaeologists can gain evidence about what lies below the surface of the site prior to the excavation. 

Non-photographic aerial survey is also useful, because it employs tools such as radar and thermography to penetrate vegetation, and detect archaeological features based on their temperature in relation to the soil.

Aerial survey has revolutionized the field because it allows modern day archaeologists to get a sense of the layout of their sites before excavation, or even surface survey begins.  Additionally, it provides many clues about potential features that surface survey cannot. But most importantly, aerial survey injects a sense of the big picture into a field dominated by minute details. While these tiny pieces of evidence are crucial during surface survey and excavation, a larger perspective, or a bird’s eye view in this case, can make all the difference in understanding the past.

Works Cited:

“AARG: Short Introduction to Aerial Archaeology | Aerial-Archaeology.” XML. AARG, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2013. <>.

“Aerial Photography.” Learning Archaeology: Pre-Ex:. Past Perfect, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2013. <>.

“Aerial Survey for Archaeology.” English Heritage Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2013. <>.

Sharer, Robert J., and Wendy Ashmore. Archaeology: Discovering Our past. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Pub., 1993. Print.


Further Reading:

Childhood Archaeology

When I was a kid, summer weekends meant time at the family country house in Western Massachusetts without any cell phone service, Internet connection, or television. Built on an old 18th century farm, there simply isn’t the infrastructure to support those 21st century luxuries. As it turned out, my inability to watch Saturday morning cartoons was a blessing in disguise.
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Every morning at the crack of dawn I left the house and walked around looking for things. I wandered the lawns and fields and brook looking for things that stuck out from the landscape. I found rusty nails, old bits of tractors and cars, animal bones, bricks, and remains of toppled buildings. I imagined the stories of the items I had found, and like many people who have dug up rusted bits of metal and bone on their property, I thought I had made some pretty important discoveries. “Look!” I thought as I held a rusty piece of farm equipment that I had taken out of the brook that morning in my hand, “this shows so much about those people’s lives!” But what had I really learned? That there had been a farm here? That metal rusted over time? I knew all of those things; I hadn’t learned anything from my precious artifacts.

Like so many “backyard archaeologists” I had failed to see my finds in their archaeological context, forgoing any real knowledge of history I could have acquired from them. It simply didn’t occur to me that to learn anything, I couldn’t just go around picking up pieces of metal and gleaning facts about them Sherlock Holmes style. I should have mapped out the section of the brook, record the artifacts precise location, asked myself more questions that had never occurred to me. Was this artifact in its primary context? Or had it been uncovered and washed down the brook to where I picked it up? Would further excavation have turned up more artifacts and features? Was the user of this tool the same person who built the stonewall that stands 25 feet up the bank? I didn’t ask any of these questions, I simply pictured some farmer from blurred decades and centuries tossing junk into the water.

As I’ve become more aware of the complexity of the archaeological process, from surface survey to excavation to data analysis, I think of those artifact I found as a child not as individual pieces of rusted junk, but as a trail of bread crumbs; which upon proper analysis could lead to insights about the history of the property and its transformation from working farm to family house. Maybe next summer I’ll excavate the area of the field where a barn burned down in the 1960s. And this time I’ll actually take the steps necessary to learn something valuable from those little pieces of metal I find.

Givin’ Credit Where Credit is Due

The architectual, artistic, scientific and technological achievements of human antiquity seem to be universally awe-inspiring, but our sense of wonder and thirst for knowledge about human prehistory and antiquity often makes us vulnerable to wacky theories and misunderstandings about the past. These theories include but are not limited to: worldwide alien visitations, diffusion of all forms of civilization from a single mythical race of higher intelligence (Atlantis), ancient predictions of doom, etc.

Most of these myths have already been addressed in this blog already, so the focus of this post will be more about the fictitious mysteries we create, the real mysteries we want to solve, and how archaeology as a science can go about investigating them.

Many famous ‘mysteries’ surrounding artifacts and monuments such as the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, the statues on Easter Island and the Mayan Calendar are usually spurred by misinterpretations or misrepresentations of human antiquity.

If the world really ends in 12 days, I'll have spent my entire life in school. Let's just take a moment to think about that.

The purpose of archaeology is to unveil these purported ‘mysteries’ through the scientific method. Because the past is gone, we are all forced to construct an image of the past in the present. This is where we begin to go awry and to allow our imaginations to run wild. Take a look at this website called “Truth Is Scary”: It hosts a plethora of misinformed ideas about human antiquity and ‘mysteries’ that are really not ‘mysteries’ at all. Many of the ‘facts’ can be easily disputed by anyone with historical, archaeological, geological or cultural knowledge of the particular people and places under discussion. The trouble lies in the average person’s easy acceptance of ‘facts’ that they can neither prove nor disprove themselves. This is where science comes in!

The goal of scientists is to construct images of the past that are verifiable (meaning that they have tried and tested evidence at the basis of their arguments – evidence that should be easily accessible to scientists and the public alike). According to Ashmore and Sharer, authors of Discovering Our Past, A Brief Introduction to Archaeology: “Science is concerned with gaining knowledge about the natural world by observation. Science is not concerned with things that cannot be ovserved or examined; these are the subjects of theology, philosophy, the occult, or pseudoscience” (Ashmore&Sharer 2012:11).

Most of the ‘mysteries’ surrounding famous monuments such as the Egyptian Pyramids can be solved by archaeological investigation. How were they built? Artifacts such as measuring tools, copper chisels and wooden mallets, wooden pulley wheels and even some rope fragments, not to mention wall paintings depicting construction processes and the nearby quarries from which the limestone blocks were carved, have been discovered by archaeologists and Egyptologists. Through science, we gain a greater understanding of how the ancient Egyptians accomplished such magnificent enterprises.


‘Real’ archaeological mysteries lie more in the ‘whys’ rather than the ‘whos,’ ‘hows’ or ‘whens.’ For example, the prehistoric (and stunningly beautiful) cave paintings in France and Spain, (some 37,000 years old based on radiocarbon dating), continue to captivate and elude us in many ways.

Were they ceremonial or part of shamanistic practices? Did the depiction of animals function as hunting magic – a sort of wishful thinking on the part of the prehistoric hunter-gatherers? Were they created purely for the joy of the creative process – art for art’s sake? We just don’t know.

One of the reasons why we believe so many ‘mysteries’ is due to our “intellectual and temporal conceit” (Feder 2011) resulting in a great underestimation on our part of the intelligence and abilities of human antiquity. Based on analysis of cranial capacity and intercranial impressions of prehistoric human skulls, our species have had the same intellectual capacity for about 195,000 years (Feder 2011).

Real mysteries currently under archaeological and scientific investigation should challenge us to accept the amazing capabilities of our ancestors, not to invent some outside source of intelligence or inspiration that undermines the ingenuity and hard work of prehistoric or ancient peoples.



Feder K. 2011. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1221 Avenue of te Americas, New York, NY 10020.

Ashmore W, Sharer R. 2010. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

Archaeology’s Shy Side

When people think of archaeology, their mental image is skewed. They either believe it to be some big, exotic adventure constantly or some kind of trickery. People tend to believe archaeological discoveries are nothing but adventures and proving outrageous legends because most of the “discoveries” that are being spoken of in the news and on the internet are the stories of these means meant for personal gain and not reliable stories that one can trust. These “discoveries” continue to be published because they are what is thought to be interesting and exciting. They are most closely related to what the average person associates with archaeology. The tall tales are what reach the public’s ear because they are fast and easy. People in today’s society do not like to wait for results. To have to wait for an article to pass through the long process of reviews and edits is much too long for the average person’s attention span. A quick Google search is the answer that most people’s hearts desire. When I Googled “current archaeological discoveries”, this was the first website on the list:
This website was a sort of compilation of other sites that can be added by users. There is no way for average people to know if any of these sites have any credibility to them whatsoever. Anyone can contribute and people will take it as truth. Minds are very mold-able.
Perhaps the thing people associate the least with archaeology is sitting at a desk all day long. But, as I discovered, that is a very large part of archaeology. Archaeologists do not just run off to a site and start digging

around. There is a lot of planning and pouring over maps that happens prior to any survey of excavation. I sat at a desk for 3 hours staring at map after map after map comparing the areas surrounding the Ashokan Reservoir and seeing how the areas have changed over time. A large part of archaeology is understanding how large changes to areas can impact everything that has any sort of relationship to the area. The maps have to be overlaid and surveyed to note changes in towns, like if they move to a new location or if they are no more, and roads, and the like. What is now

underwater needs to be noted as well. After all these notes are made about the areas, you need to look at maps of public access areas and compare them to the topographical maps so you can see what possible sites are readily available for surveying and possible excavation. When you are first getting oriented with the maps, you get completely and utterly confused. However, the confusion aids your work, ultimately. It helps you work harder to try and understand just what it is you are looking at and for. Once you work passed this bewilderment, you get into a flow and can continue the work with slightly more ease. After

plotting all these sites and pouring over these maps, your brain does start to hurt, though. I found that listening to David Bowie and Elton John helps that particular affliction.



The “Evidence” of Pseudoscience

Although there is substantial historical, archaeological, and geological evidence that refutes the existence of Atlantis, people continue to search for Atlantis. I think people ignore the abundant evidence because Atlantis has a certain mystique. Like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, people find “evidence” of Atlantis because they want to believe so badly that it does exist. But this is one of the things that separates the science of archaeology from pseudoscience. Archeologists do not work to prove something because seeking a certain outcome, setting out to prove a theory results in bias.

The general public doesn’t care about the archaeological evidence because they don’t understand it. The video we watched in class on Tuesday about Robert Sarmast’s search for Atlantis (skip to 3:15). In his search for Atlantis, Sarmust is extremely excited by the discovery of a wall. This may seem like sufficient evidence for the general public and affirm their faith in Sarmast’s capabilities as an archaeologist, but upon closer inspection we notice that the wall Sarmust finds is completely straight but all the maps of Atlantis, feature curved, semi-circular walls. Sarmast may have found archaeological

this map of Atlantis features curved, not straight walls

evidence of some feature but there are a lot of straight walls out there to be found, what makes him so positive that this is Atlantis? All other possibilities must be eliminated before Sarmast can truly claim his as Atlantis. Simply finding one wall isn’t good enough, yet this seems to satisfy the general public’s need for evidence. Sarmast’s evidence is similar to Erich von Daniken’s use of irrelevant statistics to prove the existence of prehistoric aliens. In his documentary “Chariots of the Gods” von Daniken provides the viewer with completely irrelevant data, such as the distance of a certain road, or the height of a certain monuments: von Daniken seems to bombard the general public with statistics in order to distract them from the absurdity of his theories.

While the truth of pseudoscientists’ “discoveries” is certainly questionable, this does not stop the general public from playing into the hands of entrepreneurs who take advantage of the general public’s fascination with these theories and discoveries. For example von Daniken’s mystery park is a theme park completely devoted to his theory of ancient aliens (and making money). Entrepreneurs have also profited off of the general public’s fascination with Atlantis by constructing an aquatic themed resort in the Bahamas that invites guests to discover the mysteries of Atlantis.

Guests can pay exorbitant amounts to "discover" Atlantis in the Bahamas

While archaeologists can’t necessarily dissuade the public from believing what they want to believe, the best they can do is to continue to provide actual scientific evidence to refute the ridiculous claims of pseudoarchaeologists like Sarmast and von Daniken.

The Archaeology of Fantasy

Any child who read the Harry Potter series has probably spent hours imagining and hoping that the world of Hogwarts was more than just a fantasy. Late nights were spent concocting polyjuice potion in the kitchen, and countless hours were lost stalking the mailman on our 11th birthday. Eventually though, we grew out of our fantasies, but we still had a warm place in our heart for Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Hogwarts.

A rendering of Atlantis from the website. Sarmast claims that he found Atlantis after detecting circular like structures near Cyprus, but surely such a glorious empire should yield more material evidence.

Certain legends, however, have withstand the test of time and consistently blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. In Plato’s dialogues, Timaeus and Critias, he wrote about a war between Ancient Athens and the Empire of Atlantis. This story has spawned countless theories and books about the reality of the lost continent. Some individuals go as far as pouring millions of dollars of resources into locating it by using “archaeology,” such as the case of Robert Sarmast’s “Discovery of Atlantis” project. Modern archaeological methods and geology have disproved the myth. For instance, no one has ever found any physical remains of advanced naval ships, buildings, or bones in any supposed location of Atlantis (Beisaw), and the processes of plate tectonics rule out the possibility of a submerged continent (Feder 220). Furthermore, by learning about the cultural context of Plato’s era, the reader can understand that Plato used Atlantis as a plot device to convey a moral lesson. In his story, the protagonist, the Athenians, defeated the technologically advanced but morally corrupt empire, Atlantis (Feder 200). Therefore, Plato’s primary goal was to extol the virtuous society of the Athenians and the Greeks in general.

Oddly enough, I rarely believed that Hogwarts was real, and yet, before this course, I actually thought that Atlantis existed. They’re both magical places written down on text, so why did I doubt the existence of one but not the other?  Personally, I believe that the primary reason is cultural familiarity. Originally, my unfamiliarity with the ancient culture of Plato’s times led me to indulge in romanticized notions about a lost world. However, once I learned more about the ideals and patriotism of Plato’s culture, I could look past the fantasy. I realized that Plato wasn’t trying to document a lost world. He, like JK Rowling or any other author, was just trying to convey his ideas about his culture through literature.

Therefore, I believe that the public form misconceptions about archaeology because they do not understand the anthropological theories about cultures to interpret archaeological data objectively. On top of material analysis, archaeologists learn about the literature, history, and art of a culture in order to detect cultural bias and sort through the reality from the myth. There’s nothing wrong with the usage of text to locate a site, but it is crucial to familiarize ourselves with the text’s cultural context and history so we can look past our own beliefs and interpret material and written records objectively. For instance, Robert Sarmast became so infatuated with his romantic ideas about Atlantis that he ignored the lack of real archaeological data. I wouldn’t be surprised though if in a couple of hundred years people unfamiliar with Harry Potter and our culture will try to “prove” the existence of Hogwarts.

Actually, Hogwarts has already been found in Universal Studios at Orlando, Florida. This is a joke.


Archaeologists: Seekers of the Truth

As humans we tend to believe without question claims that support our beliefs or make us/our ancestors look good. These claims include that Indians were not the Moundbuilders, the Hebrew stones were real and Columbus discovered America.

Serpent Mound found in Ohio

Archaeology seeks to find the truth in these allegations. Despite popular belief, archaeology isn’t just digging in the dirt. Archaeologists work hard to find concrete evidence before coming to conclusions and they disregard their own bias to prevent tampered evidence.

Cyrus Thomas is a prime example of an archaeologist trying to find the truth. He only asked one question: “Were the mounds built by the Indians?” He went about answering this question by refuting five key claims that supported that the mounds weren’t built by Indians. Thomas disproved each claim with ample proof. Many people still ignore the evidence that keeps piling up supporting that Indians made the mounds because it conflicts with their preconceived notions of Indians as primitive and barbaric. If the Indians made the mounds, then the Europeans would look bad for almost wiping out a race that was impressive and civilized. They have a motive for believing that the Indians didn’t build the mounds. It’s important for archaeologists not to have any motives such as nationalism, money, fame, racism, and religion.

A claim relating back to the mystery of the mound builders was that they were descended from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. The series of stones found to support this assertion

The Decalogue stone was written in more ancient Hebrew than the Keystone

were a mix of ancient and modern Hebrew which led to skepticism. Eventually the hoaxers were caught. The whole motive behind this hoax was to prove that the native inhabitants of the old and new world were decedents from the Bible and could be traced back to the first people God had created. This was a religious motive.

The last example is the debate over who discovered America. We glamorize the fact that Columbus “discovered” America by celebrating Columbus Day. In reality, there’s no way that Columbus discovered America. We only celebrate it because we like to believe our ancestors are superior and successful. It’s obvious that someone else discovered America first because there were many civilizations living there when Columbus arrived. Although we aren’t sure who the first people were on America – whether it was the Vikings, migrants across the land bridge, the Clovis culture or even another group – there is no way it was Columbus.

Besides having an ulterior motive, all of these examples also dealt with identity. Your identity has something to do with your ancestors; what they do or who they are says something about you. This is why Europeans still don’t want to admit to killing a culture of civilized people or give up the idea that Columbus discovered America. It’s the reason people wanted the Hebrew stones to be real. Sometimes society might not like these identities, but archaeologists disregard that; they seek to find the truth.

Remember to Find The Proof in the Pudding

Sure, I am proud to be an American and be part of the American culture, but I am not willing to accept ridiculous claims about our heritage.  The public must be critical of archaeological finds, because not everything is true.  Greedy, egotistical, and tricky schemers create hoaxes that while appealing, are not backed by substantiated evidence.

The Cardiff Giant

Let’s look at the Cardiff Giant.  The Cardiff Giant, one of the greatest hoaxes in American history, was claimed to be a fossilized giant, similar to giants described in the Bible’s Book of Samuel.  Really a statue, buried and then dug up on a farm, the Cardiff Giant became an instant tourist attraction as people flocked to see remains of Goliath.  With many visitors and economic impact, how did it take so much time to figure out that the Cardiff Giant was a hoax?

The answer is simple: humans have an amazing ability not to question when they get what they want.  1869 was a religious time, creationism was popular, and many people read the Bible literally.  The Cardiff Giant appeared as physical evidence that proved that Goliath existed as the Bible claimed.  The public did not question the finding because the evidence was desirable and questioning it would have negative consequences.

Also, the discovery was exciting and fun.  People love mystery and the unexplainable.  As Kenneth Feder says in Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries,  “perhaps it was the simple romance of such an amazing discovery that played at least a secondary role in convincing people to part with their hard-earned money to see what was clearly a gypsum statue” (Feder 62).  The Cardiff Giant is only one example of an ancient discovery without evidence: they are all over ranging from the Loch Ness Monster to ancient aliens.

Nationalism is a third reason for embracing hoaxes.  People in America were proud that Goliath was found in this country.  The discovery advanced and bettered America’s history, so why question it?  As an immigrant nation, there is no common ethnic background. As Philip Kohl puts it in Nationalism and Archaeology: On the Constructions of Nations and the Reconstructions of the Remote past, “the process of national identity formation is continuous and ongoing” (Kohl 235).  If Goliath was American, there is more meaning behind being American.  Nationalistic biases are not unique to America; hoaxes have occurred throughout the world, such as the Piltdown hoax in England and Shinichi Fujimura’s hoax in Japan.  Power and prestige are associated with age so these hoaxes create a false national history and pride.

The Piltdown skull combined a chimpanzee jaw and a human skull in an effort to make the English have the oldest ancestry in the world.

Shinichi Fujimura was caught by hidden camera planting artifacts in an attempt to make Japanese ancestry older.

Even after experts identified the Cardiff Giant as a hoax, the public still believed it was real.  It took time, a confession, and many scientists to prove the Cardiff Giant was nothing but a recently buried statue.  As with many other hoaxes, we must learn this lesson: be wary of ridiculous claims and no matter what ask for evidence—do not trust findings unless there is evidence.