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Archaeologists as Detectives

How has the study of ancient humans changed over time?


How do we know about ancient humans? Many traces of these ancient people and societies still
exist. We have discovered human and animal remains, tools, art, and pottery. There are ancient
buildings, oral stories, and written documents. These all provide clues about who these ancient
people were and what their lives were like. The trick is how to interpret them.
Archaeologists are social scientists who study how people lived in an earlier time. They examine
the remains of what those people made and used. They are like detectives. They investigate the
clues left behind and piece together the story of how ancient peoples lived.

The Study of Artifacts


Many archaeologists today work for universities or museums. They often travel to the location
where ancient people lived to search for artifactsremains and objects. What they find provides
them with information about what early life was like. These artifacts are particularly important
for learning about people who did not have a written language. Archaeologists must carefully
record and analyze the artifacts they find. They then share this information with others. Books
and museum exhibits explain what they have learned and how they learned it.

A Developing Science
Today, archaeology is a science, but it did not start out this way. In the early 1900s,
archaeologists were explorers. They were often driven by curiosity or greed. Most archaeologists
were field workers at dig sites, or excavations, at ancient cities. Often, they focused on finding
valuable items that could be sold. Early archaeologists did not always take the greatest of care
with smaller, fragile artifacts that they believed to be less valuable. Many artifacts were
destroyed. Little serious study was done on what survived. In an atmosphere like this, it was easy
for trickery to occur. In 1912, British lawyer and amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson claimed
to have discovered an early human skeleton. Piltdown Man, as he was called, turned out to be
made of a modern human skull and animal bones. The situation began to improve in the middle
of the 1900s. By the 1960s, archaeology had become a more exact science.

Word Bank: Archaeologists as


Detectives

Artifact: objects or parts of an object;


usually referring to something old or
ancient

Ancient: belonging to the past


Exhibit: publicly display, like a
painting or other piece of art

Interpret: figure out something


Excavation: digging something up,
especially archaeological sites.
Archaeologist: scientists who study
how people lived in earlier times
Analyze: look at closely

Tools of the Craft

How do archaeologists examine a site?

Archaeologists often search for years before they find a site to dig. To find a site, archaeologists
consider certain factors. They look for elements that would help the creation of a civilization.
They search in places close to water and with good soil quality. Sites of large cities or societies
are likely to contain more artifacts. Sometimes, important sites are accidentally found by people
other than archaeologists.

Once a site has been located, the archaeologists must deal with the climate. They often work in
extremely hot or wet weather. The next step is to recover the artifacts. Unlike the early
archaeologists, modern archaeologists do not focus only on valuable items. Instead, they collect
everything they find. Fossils and other artifacts help to explain who lived in certain areas and
when they lived there. Old tools reveal information about the technological abilities of a people.
Sculpture, art, and pottery provide clues about ancient cultures and the peoples beliefs.

Careful Study
Carelessness was common in early dig sites. Present-day archaeology has worldwide rules for
digging. Shovels and picks are used only for a small portion of the work. Much more is done
with much smaller instruments to avoid destroying anything. Small, shovel-like tools called
trowels are used to remove the dirt.

If large objects are located, they are dug up, or extracted. Archaeologists use small knives that
look like scalpels. They are called penknives. The artifacts are then brushed off to remove the
remaining fine dirt and other material. They are then placed into plastic bags and labeled.
The artifacts are recorded and reported. Sometimes they are displayed in museum exhibits.

Research and Teamwork


The found objects are also studied extensively. Laboratory analysis is performed to see how old
the material is. Often scientists from other fields examine the artifacts, too. Their knowledge
contributes information that the archaeologist might not have.

Archaeologists also compare artifacts to other known samples from the time. They look for
similarities and differences in construction or style. Human skeletons are examined for injuries
and for signs of medical work, such as broken bones that may have been set. All of these clues
help to create a clearer picture of what life was like long ago.

Word Bank: Tools of the Craft

Fossil: the remains of a prehistoric plant or


animal, saved as a frozen cast

Examine: look at closely


Extracted: taken out
Climate: the weather of an area over a long
period of time