Anthro: Field/Lab Work
Research & Collections
Decorative Arts
Fine Arts
Field & Lab Work
Survey Sites
Excavate Sites
Laboratory Studies
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Anthropology Collection
Collection Basics
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Excavating Sites 

Once a site has been located and surveyed, archaeologists must decide if the site should be explored further through excavation. To make this decision, they must answer certain questions:
  • Is the site in immediate danger of being destroyed (for example, is construction planned on the site)? 
  • Is this site likely to give information that will help answer the research questions the archaeologists are asking?
  • Is there money available to fund the work?
If the answers to these questions are "yes," then the archaeologists may decide to excavate. 

Crew ExcavationWorking as a Team
On site, Museum archaeologists work in teams, or crews. Each member of the crew has a specific responsibility during the excavation, ranging from organizing the work schedule to caring for the tools and equipment. The type of land at the site influences the methods the archaeologists will use. Sometimes, heavy equipment (like a backhoe) is needed to move the top layers of dirt and vegetation so that older sediment is exposed. Flat-edged shovels may also be used for this purpose and to create a flat ground surface. 

Gridding the Site
Excavations are carefully planned, and mapping the excavation site is an important part of the work. Often a geometric grid is laid out across the site using string and stakes, and certain measured sections, called units, are selected for excavation. Archaeologists document the coordinates (locations) of these units (on special forms); how, when, and where each artifact is found; and its surroundings. 

Dig with TrowelDigging
Most of the crew spend long days digging in the sediment for remains of past human activities. They use trowels, brushes, and sometimes dental picks to do the more delicate work. Using these tools and working close to the ground, archaeologists look for changes in the sediment color and texture. They look for evidence of where dwellings once stood and where tools were made, or even where ancient garbage was disposed. 

They recover artifacts and items such as stone tools, stone flakes, and broken pieces of pottery (sherds) and record them on maps, in field notes, and in drawings and photographs. Later, in the laboratory, other archaeologists can use this information to help put together a picture of the past.

SiftingScreening and Flotation
After they document the characteristics of the sediment and artifacts in a layer, archaeologists continue to dig to find more clues about the people who lived there. The removed sediment is carefully sifted or washed through a screen to recover small remains such as flakes of stone, nuts, and animal bones. 

Samples of sediment are saved for another process called flotation. During this process, the sediment is gently washed through fine-mesh screens while in a larger containter to recover tiny remains like seeds, snails, rodent bones, and very small stone flakes that float to the surface. 

When studied together, these items give archaeologists a sense of what ancient environments and climates were like and what sorts of food people ate. The remains collected are brought back to the laboratory for study.


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