Scuba divers examining a shipwreck underwater.
Virtual Fieldtrip
Come learn about archaeology, Maryland's history and some sites at the Park.

Archaeology FAQ

"Archaeology is not what you find, it's what you find out.”
by David Hurst Thomas, archaeologist

Here are some common questions about archaeology.
Click on a question to find out the answer. Clicking again will hide the answer.

What’s the difference between an archaeologist and a historian? Or a paleontologist? Why don’t archaeologists dig dinosaurs?

Archaeology is the systematic study of the human past – it is focused on human societies and behaviors and all the materials that people create and leave behind.  Archaeological sites can range in age from yesterday to about 4 million years ago. Archaeologists study all aspects of material culture; some examples include documents, buildings, landscapes and smaller artifacts such as glasses, dishes and personal items.

Historians also focus their research on the past but primarily use documents to understand how things occurred – they do not dig in the ground for evidence. Because they rely on documents, historians do not study prehistory (the time before writing was developed), which covers much of human existence.

Paleontologists study the prehistoric life of all organisms.  They are mostly concerned with fossils and are not focused on humans, except for how the human species evolved.  At some older archaeological sites, archaeologists will work with paleontologists to gain a better understanding of how early humans interacted with animals and the environment. Because humans and dinosaurs never existed at the same time (dinosaurs were much, much earlier) archaeologists never study dinosaurs!

Do you have to go to school to be an Archaeologist? Where do Archaeologists work?

Yes, archeologists all go to college and most go on to get graduate degrees and advanced training.  They are also required to attend a field school, where they learn how to excavate sites, as well as catalog and analyze artifacts. Archaeologists can get jobs in a variety of places – including museums, federal, state and county Government, private companies, and universities.

Why do Archaeologist dig in squares or trenches?

Because archaeologists are interested in systematically studying the past, they pay careful attention to where all the artifacts are found. Digging in regular shapes, like squares, or long trenches, allows archaeologists to track and organize data easily. Each of the squares (archaeologists call them units) or trenches is aligned with a geometric grid that covers the entire site.  In this way, the location of anything that is found can be recorded accurately.

How do you know how deep to dig?

Archaeologists are interested in finding and understanding past human activity. One of the most important clues they use is the soil itself.  Soil layers are created by both natural and human events.  Archaeologists look at the stratigraphy of a site to see how the soil was created – stratigraphy just means the order of soil layers in the ground.

Archaeologists excavate down until they come across soils that have not been changed by humans – this will tell them they are deep enough. They call these undisturbed, natural layers “subsoil.” The subsoil depth depends on many factors: Is the site primarily rural or urban? Was there a long period of human activity there, and what type of activity was it? How many new layers have been deposited by natural or human processes? Some sites are very shallow – only a foot or so below the ground surface. Other sites are deeply buried by sediments and can be 20 feet or more underground! Often rural and urban sites look different.

 (Mouseover images to see larger view)

Below are examples of rural stratigraphy and urban stratigraphy.PThis is a typical soil profile from a site found within a farm field. The top soil layer is from the plow blade mixing the upper foot of soil as the farmer prepares the field for planting - archaeologists call this the plowzone. Below that, features from both a prehistoric and historic occupation have been dug into subsoil. Even though they are close to the same depth, they were created hundreds of years apart. The number and letter combinations are part of what is called the Munsell color system and indicate the specific color of each item. Archaeologists use the Munsell system to help standardize the naming of soil and feature colors, and making it easier for them to share the information with other archaeologists.

Urban Plow ZoneThis is a hypothetical profile from an urban site.
As you can see, it is much more complicated than the rural site profile, because there has been a long series of occupations and activities at the same location. More recent events, like the utility trench, have cut into and destroyed part of the older layers. This profile is also deeper than the rural site profile.                                             

Why do archaeologists want to preserve sites and not excavate them all now?

Archaeology is the scientific study of the past. In general, archaeologists only excavate sites when they have specific questions to answer about that specific site.  These are called research questions, and are part of a larger research design.  Even then, archaeologists leave large sections of sites undisturbed so that future archaeologists can have the opportunity to work on them using newly-developed techniques and equipment.

Who owns the artifacts?

In the United States, the artifacts are owned by whoever owns the land where they are found.  If the government owns the land where a bottle is found, the government owns the bottle.  If private landowners find artifacts on their land, they own them.  The exception to this is human burials.  No one can own a burial.

How many archaeological sites are in MD? How do they keep track of them?

Archaeologists have identified more than 13,000 sites in Maryland, and hundreds more are being discovered each year. Of these, over 700 have both terrestrial and underwater sections to the site, and 235 are solely underwater archaeological sites. Archaeological research in every county has revealed important information--knowledge that can be stitched together to create a greater understanding of the cultural fabric that is our heritage.

The Maryland Historical Trust is the state agency responsible for tracking this information.  All the sites are numbered according to the county where they are located and the information from that site is stored in a library for future researchers.

Do archaeologists get to keep or sell the artifacts?

No, the artifacts belong to everyone.

Archaeologists make discoveries for public understanding, not personal gain. This is how they differ from treasure hunters. Archaeological artifacts are held in museums and other public facilities. Like all scientists, archaeologists publish their findings and contribute to our knowledge base. Artifacts from past eras provide clues about our shared history. They help us understand what it means to be human—offering evidence of where we’ve been. Archaeologists are our guides on this journey.

Why do you do archaeology? What do we learn?

The goal of archaeology is to learn about the past and how people lived and changed over time.  Archaeologists piece together the past from what people made, used…and discarded. They also examine the landscape for clues to how people changed their environment. Archaeologists can shed light on events and people that would otherwise remain hidden.

How do archaeologists know how old things are?

Archaeologists use a variety of techniques to date objects. Sometimes the dates are relative: older objects are often buried deeper than younger objects. Sometimes the dates are absolute: radiocarbon dating can determine the specific age of certain objects. Dating modern objects can be as easy as looking up manufacturing data on the Internet. Archaeologists also use stylistic elements – specific designs on plates for example, that change over time – as a clue to the age of some artifacts.  In other cases, archaeologists have developed formulas for dating specific kinds of artifacts.

Why can’t archaeologists dig faster?

An archaeological site is like a book that can only be read once. Digging into a site changes it forever. The location of specific objects on the site, their physical relationship to one another and subtle differences in the environment around them represent valuable evidence that helps archaeologists understand a site’s story.  Digging carelessly is like losing pages from a book.

Every detail of a site is recorded and documented before anything is removed. Archaeologists move slowly, cautiously and carefully. They use a variety of methods and procedures to transfer their three-dimensional site onto paper or into a computer so that it can be studied in the future. Poor documentation can silence an object’s or a site’s story forever.

What are the most interesting artifacts archaeologists find?

Things that make them say, “wow!”

Archaeologists are primarily interested in the objects that tell the most about the past. Often that is a very mundane artifact that most people would not think twice about. But when the public asks this question, they usually mean, “What is the coolest thing you have found?” And indeed, some objects catch the archaeologist’s eye because they are beautiful, display great craftsmanship or were preserved against all odds. Here are a few examples from the collections at JPPM.

Bone PinDecorated Bone Pin, Reeves site
This intricately decorated bone pin was found at one of the few excavated Woodland Indian village sites on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. This pin, which dates to AD 1000-1600, was probably used as a fastener for hair or clothing. This is the only object of its kind in the State of Maryland’s archaeological collections.
Punch Bowel
Mochaware Punch Bowl, Schifferstadt site

This bowl, made around 1830, was used to hold punch, an alcoholic beverage made from rum, sugar and fruit juice. The decoration, called cabling, was created by pouring blue, white and black colored liquid clays onto the orange body of the bowl from a three-chambered cup.

Fish PetroglyphFish Petroglyph, Susquehanna River
This depiction of fish was carved into rock along the Susquehanna River. Prehistoric Indian rock art was common in the area. Its meaning is debated, but it may have been an effort to ensure the renewal of the annual shad run in the river. The age of this petroglyph is unknown.

What happens to the artifacts after they are excavated? What is conservation?

The artifacts are taken to a laboratory where many will be gently washed to remove the soil.  Others are carefully brushed with soft brushes, since water damages some materials. All the artifacts will be cataloged and stored in a stable environment to prevent further damage.  Where possible, conservators are brought in to care for the artifacts.

Conservators act like object doctors. They use a diagnostic approach to ask questions: Where was the object found? Was it buried? What is it made of? The answers to these and many other questions help the conservator decide on the best treatment plan – a way to stop the artifact from deteriorating further.

Conservators stabilize objects to assure their availability for future study – this is called conservation. This rarely means returning an object to its original condition. The information that an object contains about the past more than makes up for what it may lack in beauty.

Why do archaeologists write tiny numbers on the artifacts?

Archaeologists write those numbers in order to track each artifact and where it came from on the site.  All the artifacts recovered from a site are cataloged and labeled.  Cataloging creates a listing of each artifact and its main characteristics, such as what it’s made of, what it was used for, or its color and shape, and each object is given a unique number.  Then many artifacts are labeled – their catalog number is written in archival ink on the surface so that archaeologists can handle them and put matching pieces of a vessel back together without losing the information about where they were found.  Artifacts can then also be displayed in an exhibit.

Why do archaeologists store everything they find?

Archaeological collections are like reference libraries. They provide a resource to help archaeologists identify or date objects, make new discoveries about a site, teach students about the past, create exhibits for the public or answer questions to be asked by future archaeologists.

New research techniques provide fresh opportunities to learn from collections. But predicting how future archaeologists will use these collections is impossible. Fifty years ago, no one would have guessed that prehistoric oyster shells and pollen grains might hold the keys to understanding global warming. Who wants to take the chance of throwing away information that could help solve future problems?  So we keep it.

How do archaeologists find sites?

Usually through a lot of hard work!

Sites on land are found through a combination of research – looking at historical documents and previous archaeological work in the area – and fieldwork.  Evidence of a site’s presence is sometimes visible on the ground surface, such as a foundation or artifact scatter.  But other times archaeologists will have to test (excavate) to determine where a site is located.

See “What Lies Beneath” to learn more about how underwater archaeologists find and record sites.

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Links to a larger image view of decorated bone pin. Links to a large image a the Mochaware punch bowl. Links to a larger image of the petroglyph. Links to a larger image view of plowzone profile. Links to a larger image view of the urban profile.