This is a part of the What is … Wednesdays feature, where we take scientific topics that might seem convoluted to some and make them more understandable.

The basics on archaeology

Indiana Jones is probably the most famous archaeologist, real or fictional. His movies depict daily life as an archaeologist to be a dangerous adventure. But archaeological research today involves little fighting, a bit of finding treasures, and a lot of surveying and analysis. 

Archaeology involves using excavations and analyses of historical sites to document human history and prehistory. It is a subset of the field of anthropology, which is the study of humans. Primarily through archaeology, we have discovered how past peoples lived. 

Archaeology is different from paleontology. Paleontologists study fossilized life while archaeologists study human history through material culture. 

Besides excavations, archaeologists also conduct preliminary fieldwork by staking out sites and other tasks without using spades and trowels. Surveying of potential sites is an important thing to be done before excavations can begin. And after excavations are complete, artifacts and remains are brought to a lab for analysis.

Archaeological analyses use advanced scientific techniques such as radiocarbon dating and mass spectrometry. Archaeologists also make use of magnetometers, topographical maps, and aerial photography, among other aids. Indeed, the study of archaeology is a bit more scientific than some might suspect. Like any other science, careful documentation of research is of utmost importance in archaeology. 

The morality of archaeology

Some ethical and legal issues come with the practice of archaeology

Early sensationalized archaeological “adventures” like those in Egypt involved indiscriminately exhuming burial sites and removing sacred artifacts. Up until the mid-20th century, archaeology was often motivated by racism or colonialism. Disturbing culturally significant areas in this way is no longer considered acceptable by many archaeologists. 

The World Archaeological Congress (WAC) is a non-governmental organization focusing on the conservation of cultural heritage sites of indigenous peoples, minorities, and the poor. A number of Codes of Ethics adopted by WAC encourage archaeologists to do fieldwork in accordance with those principles.

Some archaeologists who study human remains believe they act as a voice for the deceased. When used with respect and regard to native peoples, skeletons can be a valuable tool to get a glimpse into the past. DNA contained in bones, teeth, and nails can reveal much about a person’s geographical origin, diet, and any diseases they had. 

In the modern day, many nations have mostly outlawed the excavation of human graves or other archaeological sites. For instance, the United States protects artifacts located underground on state or federal grounds. That means excavation of public lands can only be done with a permit. Obtaining a permit usually requires permission from the relevant culture and any identifiable descendants.

Repatriation is increasingly in popularity in the archaeological community. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) ruled that Native American, Alaskan, and Hawaiian remains contained in public institutions and museums must be repatriated to the appropriate parties. However, a 2010 NAGPRA amendment now allows remains to be returned to potentially unrelated tribes. 

There is still much work to be done so that archaeology consistently respects native cultures. Repatriation of human remains and obtaining permission to excavate are a good start, but should ancient artifacts also be repatriated? 

Do your own dig

Simulate an archaeological dig by hiding pieces of a broken clay pot in a sandbox or a marked-off patch of dirt in your backyard. You may choose to leave out some pieces to emphasize how archaeologists have a hard time finding complete specimens. A slightly safer version of this activity can be done by using various material goods instead. Can you tell a story from the artifacts that you collect?

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