Five Things I Learned As a Non-Archaeologist Doing Archaeology

By Alyson Layne

My name is Alyson, and I usually spend my days as a Registered Dietitian working with families on healthy eating.  When I’m not working, I help my husband with his archaeology projects.  This post is for all the non-archaeologists out there interested in archaeology.  Here are five things I have learned over the years:

Figure 1. My dad and his family lived in a coal camp in Manton, KY, where my grandfather was a coal miner.  Archaeology in coal camps like this adds to their history.  My grandmother later ran the post office at Manton, and the picture on the top is the post mark.  The picture on the bottom is machinery at the coal mine at Manton, operated by Turner Elkhorn Coal.

1. Egyptology is archaeology, but not all archaeology is Egyptology.

It’s not all mummies and pyramids, people!  Most archaeology actually looks at everyday objects and places from the past.  In Kentucky, this can include things like the remains of Native American settlements from thousands of years ago, European-American settlements from hundreds of years ago, and even people who lived just 50 years ago – like the coal camp where my dad grew up (Figure 1)! Archaeology doesn’t have to be Hollywood to be important.

Figure 2. Using a brush to excavate a 500 year old Native American ceramic pot.  Brushes are often used in the final stages of excavation or to clean off fragile artifacts.  This shows the pot during excavation (top) and after excavation (bottom).

2. Using a brush during an excavation is not as common as one would think, at least based on all the archaeology movies out there. 

Most of the time archaeologists are digging with shovels and sifting the soil through wire screens to find artifacts.  They only stop to get out the brushes when they find something fragile or unique.  But wait, there are other fun tools!  When I helped on a project in Greenup County, excavating at a 500 year old Native American village site, I was assigned to dig in an old house lot (Figure 2).  We discovered a ceramic pot that had been set into a storage pit in the ground (kind of like a root cellar).  We got out all the fun tools for this rare discovery:  I used a trowel and an old kitchen spoon to remove the top soil, and a pointed bamboo stick to carefully remove the soil from the broken pot.  And, at the very end, I got to use a BRUSH!

Figure 3. Using water from the Ohio River to remove artifacts from soil during excavations.

3. It’s really messy; I’ve never been so dirty in my life (Figure 3)! 

Figure 4. Archaeologist taking notes during an excavation in Greenup County.  Notice the tape measure on the ground, a photo board in the excavation unit. The archaeologist takes measurements, notes, and photographs to keep track of where artifacts were located in the ground.

4. Indiana Jones was a bad archaeologist. 

Today we would call him a “looter.”  To be fair, until about the 1930s (when that movie was set), archaeology was mostly focused on finding (i.e., stealing) rare items to display in museums.  Today, archaeologists use scientific methods to excavate and record artifacts and sites (Figure 4).

Figure 5.  Many types of artifacts found behind a Native American house: animal bone (food waste), pottery pieces, stone tools, and ashes and charcoal from a fire hearth.  They were tossed in a trash pile 700 years ago.  The hole in the middle was dug by a looter many years ago.

5. You might hear about them all the time, but Kentucky archaeology is about much more than just arrowheads.

Archaeologists find all sorts of different cultural remains.  I personally have helped excavate plant remains, bones, pottery, shells, metal, plastic, glass, and wood (Figure 5).  Every period of Kentucky history has different types of artifacts and it is fun to learn about how people lived in the past.  The important thing is that you team up with a trained archaeologist that knows how to correctly document artifacts and sites.

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