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Archeology for Kids
Uncovering the Mysteries of Our Past 25 Activities
By Richard Panchyk
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2001 Richard Panchyk
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How Archaeology Works
Howard Carter, a 49-year-old archaeologist, had been working in Egypt for years. He was certain that the tomb of King Tutankhamun lay in the bedrock under the hot sun of the Valley of Kings, where more than 30 tombs had already been found. To some people, it seemed unlikely there could be any more tombs crammed into the Valley, but Carter was insistent. He based his beliefs on the discovery of a blue-glazed cup and some jars containing linen used to wrap mummies. Both of these finds carried the royal seal of Tutankhamun.
Carter persuaded a rich Englishman, the earl of Carnarvon, to fund the excavations in Egypt one last time, as he had done for the past 15 years.
The years flew by — 1918, 1919, 1920, 1921 — and no significant finds were made. The digging seasons were short due to the weather conditions in Egypt, not to mention the flood of tourists that visited the already popular Valley of Kings. It was frustrating to have to wait for the months to pass until the next season. In 1922, Carter met with Carnarvon in England, and learned that Carnarvon wanted to call off the expedition and cut off the money. Without money, Carter could not pay his workers or buy the necessary supplies and food. "How can he do this to me?" Carter must have thought, but Carnarvon's doubts seemed reasonable. If the tomb had not been discovered yet, what made Carter think it would be found this time? After pleading with Lord Carnarvon, Carter finally got his wish. Work could carry on.
On November 4, 1922, workers found a staircase leading to a doorway. The doorway was only feet away from the entrance to the excavated tomb of another king, but Carter still thought this could be it. He ordered the trench filled until the patient Lord Carnarvon could make the trip from England.
On November 26, Carter and Carnarvon stood at the doorway to the antechamber. The air was thick with anticipation as Carter opened a hole into the room. When his candle brought the first light the tomb had seen in centuries, he was amazed at what he saw. He described seeing "strange animals, statues, and gold — everywhere the glint of gold."
That day was one of the most important in all of archaeological history. Though the tomb had been partially looted (things had been stolen by thieves, perhaps not long after the burial), it was mostly intact. Inside the tomb were unimaginable treasures: gilded and inlaid chairs, stools and tables, game boards, gem-encrusted jewelry, statues of gold and silver, musical instruments, solid gold daggers, works of art, and of course, the beautiful golden coffin of Tutankhamun.
* * *
As spectacular as it was, in many ways the story of the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb is typical of everyday archaeology.
Most sites are not found instantly. Though people often focus on the moment of discovery, they often forget how long it takes to find the site in the first place. Archaeology is expensive, as Howard Carter knew. By 1922, Lord Carnarvon had spent what amounted to millions of dollars in modern money on Carter's digs. In real life, big announcements about spectacular archaeological finds often come after the excavations have been going on for years. Because they take so much time and money, you would think that excavations are not often done; however, modern laws often require areas be checked for possible archaeological sites before anything is built on the land. Even then, research should still take place before any real digging is done.
There are eight basic steps to archaeology. Understanding what they are will help you discover how archaeology works.
1. What do you want to find?
The first question an archaeologist should ask is: What do I want to find? Though many times strange and wonderful things are found that were not at all expected, it is better to first have a specific plan. Howard Carter wanted to find the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Along the way he found other artifacts, but he had a specific goal. The famous German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann set out to find the mythical city of Troy, as you will see in Chapter 5. Even with prehistoric cultures, a specific goal is possible. In these cases, archaeologists may be trying to answer questions such as: What kind of religious ceremonies did the people have? or, How did their diet change over time? Whatever their goals, archaeologists still collect all the evidence they find, not just the artifacts that will help them answer their questions.
Once a goal is set, it is time to hit the books. The great civilizations that began about 5,000 years ago are usually mentioned in various historical accounts. Unfortunately, by A.D. 400, the world's greatest ancient library in Alexandria, Egypt, with more than 700,000 rolls of papyrus, has been destroyed by invading armies.
Early books were handwritten and did not survive well. With the invention of the mechanical printing press in 1454 by Johannes Gutenberg, many more books could be printed than before. Now the old, handwritten texts could be mass-produced, including some of the earliest Roman and Greek legends and histories.
Have you ever played the game of Telephone? If so, you know that as time passes, information can get mixed up and details can be lost in the translation. That is why early texts are valuable resources for archaeologists. The closer in time the writer is to the event being written about, the better. In the pictures on the next page, you'll see a page from a history of England written in Latin and a page about the history of Rome written in an early form of Italian, both dating to the early days of printing. What important information do you think an archaeologist could get from these pages?
The first books to be printed on Gutenberg's press were copies of the Bible. Archaeologists have been referring to the Bible for many years, especially the parts of it that tell stories about horrific battles and invasions, large armies, great fires, mythical ancient places and monuments, and the reigns of many different kings. There is a whole division of archaeology called Biblical archaeology devoted to uncovering the places and events mentioned in the Bible. Some scholars even prefer to go back to earlier versions of the book, written in Hebrew and old Greek, thinking that something might have been lost in the translation to English.
The Bible is by no means the only book to refer to. Many civilizations have left behind fragments of texts and other clues. The explorers and conquerors, beginning with Alexander the Great and Marco Polo and continuing through time all the way to Lewis and Clark, also saw things on their journeys and told others or mapped them out.
The study of people who lived during times that were well documented — about whom there are many books and documents, maybe even photographs — is called historical archaeology. As you will see later, research is a very important part of historical archaeology.
Archaeology became a true science in the late 19th century, when people like Heinrich Schliemann carefully recorded their finds. The development of the science of geology (the study of rock formations over time) helped scientific archaeology become possible, as people realized the true age of the earth. Today, in the 21st century, archaeologists rely on the scientific research done by archaeologists who came before them.
Without funding, there would be no archaeology. Ever since the first real archaeological excavations took place about 150 years ago, money has been an issue. As you saw before, Howard Carter's excavations used up lots of money. If he did not hire workers to dig, it would have taken him perhaps a hundred or so years to find the tomb by himself — never mind that he died at the age of 66! A modern excavation needs many workers, tools for digging, equipment to analyze the artifacts, and housing and food for the excavators. While these days college students often work at digs for free, just to get experience, excavations are still expensive. Universities and other groups sponsor research, offering what are called grants — money set aside for a specific research purpose. Archaeologists write grant proposals and compete for the money to fund their research. Sometimes, as in Howard Carter's case, a single individual is willing to fund work — remember in the movie Jurassic Park, the old bearded man named John Hammond, who owned the park and was funding the work of the paleontologists who were looking for dinosaur bones?
Funding can pay off nicely when an important site is found. Modern universities compete with each other for the prestige of conducting major excavations. The better the reputation a school has, the more students it attracts, because the students know they will have better chances of getting jobs if they graduate from a prestigious university. Of course, when more students attend, more money comes into the university.
Recently, money has become less of an issue for archaeologists. New laws make environmental and archaeological investigations a required part of many highway and building construction projects. Before anything can be built or bulldozed, archaeologists investigate the area and write a report with their findings. If they discover a valuable archaeological site, they excavate and try to save as much as they can. Funding comes from the state or sometimes the federal government. This type of archaeology is known as cultural resource management.
Once a goal is set and funding obtained, the exact site has to be selected. Survey is the best way to do this. There are different kinds of survey for different conditions. In the dry and isolated regions of Peru, for example, surface survey is possible because there are probably clues right on the surface of the ground. Aerial surveys are good for spotting patterns in rocks, or discoloration of plants due to buried walls. This cannot easily be seen from ground level. The next time you are in an airplane, look out the window and see how clearly you can spot the different features of the land below. Sometimes, an "aerial" survey can be done from a nearby hilltop.
Other kinds of survey are done below ground. Using electrical current, or detection of magnetic patterns, you can figure out if there are buried features. By running a grid of wires through a site, you can see where current flows freely and where it is disturbed by something buried in the ground. This only works for large things such as the remains of walls.
A full-blown excavation is not done immediately after the survey. Even if the survey indicates a major site might lie a few feet underground, test digging is done to pinpoint the best location to excavate. The potential site is mapped out on a grid, and a few different locations are picked for the shovel tests. In a shovel test, small pits, usually less than a foot in diameter, are dug so that archaeologists can take samples at different places and map out what they have found. It is also a chance to preview the stratigraphy, or layering of the soil, throughout the site. This will be discussed in more detail in upcoming chapters.
Let's say you do a few shovel tests and find stone tools known as arrowheads at about 2 feet below the surface each time. You can be fairly sure the site is about that depth. It doesn't mean you can be careless when excavating, but you can certainly go faster when digging through the first 1½ feet of soil.
Finding the arrowheads at different depths in different places, say 2 feet, 3 feet, and 4 feet, could mean that either a force of nature changed the layering of the ground, that what is now flat land used to be hilly, or that human intervention has changed the location of different levels of soil. Can you think of one activity that modern humans could do to disturb a site?
Each shovelful of dirt from the test pits is sifted through a screen to let the dirt pass through, leaving only pebbles, rocks, and possible artifacts. Whatever is found is kept for reference. If the archaeologist decides not to excavate at the site for some reason, future archaeologists might be able to look through the test finds and decide if they want to work at the site.
Once a site is selected, the head archaeologist looks at all the information that has been collected about the site and picks one or more 5-foot by 5-foot squares to excavate. The word excavate comes from the Latin word meaning "to hollow out." Entire sites are not normally excavated. First of all, most sites are very large, the size of a village or even a city. It would be too expensive and take too much time to excavate everything. For example, the famous Çatal Höyük site in Turkey was first discovered in 1958, but only about 1/30 of the site has been excavated! Parts of ancient Pompeii, Italy, are still being excavated, 250 years after its discovery. Besides cost and time, the most important reason of all not to dig an entire site is that once something is taken out of the ground in which it was buried, its context is lost forever. Context is what surrounds an object and helps to give it meaning. A crayon in its box with the other 63 crayons is in its context. By itself, it is removed from its context and you cannot get as much information about what it is and what it does. If you were an archaeologist in the year 4000, and you did not know what a crayon was, it would be easier to figure out if you saw it in its context in the box with the rest of the crayons.
When artifacts are placed in museum displays, they are often hundreds or even thousands of miles from where they were found. Though we can learn a lot from the artifacts alone, it is important to preserve their context at part of the site. Future archaeologists may have better technology at their disposal, so they might learn even more from excavation.
When the 5-foot by 5-foot squares are selected and the digging starts, archaeologists and volunteers work long days throughout the length of the excavation season. For Howard Carter, the season was between October and December, but for most modern excavations it is during the summer, since some archaeologists are also college professors, and their students are usually the volunteers who help excavate during summer breaks.
Excavation itself is slow and requires close teamwork. A single 5-by-5 square can take more than a week, especially the deeper the site is buried. Dirt is not removed with a shovel, it is scraped away with a trowel. Every inch of dirt must be run through a screen, removing the soil and leaving twigs, rocks, and possible artifacts. Excitement buzzes around the camp when a major artifact or feature is found. The head archaeologist is called over to examine the find. The artifact is photographed and plotted on a map of the site, so that once it is taken from its context, there will be a way to figure out where it went, kind of like having a drawing of the crayon box mentioned before. Though some large artifacts may be kept in place for a while, if excavators don't remove the finds, they can't continue digging to what may be an older level hidden beneath. Plastic tarps can be used to cover and protect the site when rain arrives, but even after the rain ends, the ground still has to dry out for hours, or sometimes even days, before digging can resume. Can you imagine trying to dig in mud?
When the season is over, work stops until the next season begins. Unfortunately, sometimes damage is done to the site over the off months. Natural forces like storms and erosion can cover up parts of a site, and sometimes people come and take artifacts or vandalize sites.
7. Dating and Analysis
Though many artifacts are examined while the digging is still going on, there are usually many thousands of artifacts found at each site. The artifacts go back to the university leading the excavation, where students and archaeologists can study them during the school year to help them prepare for the next season's dig.
There are lots of things about an artifact to analyze. What is it made of? Where did that material come from? How was it made? What was its purpose? Is it rare or common? This is the time to hit the books again and see what else has been written about similar artifacts.
This is also the time to catalog each artifact. Howard Carter's finds in the royal tomb were photographed as they were found, with a small numbered piece of paper laid on top of each item. These hundreds of items were then removed from their context and studied and catalogued. Each artifact was examined carefully. Exact measurements were taken and descriptions were written.
The date of a site is often the most important single fact to emerge from the whole excavation. If Joe Smith, for example, found that the date of the site he was excavating did not match up with what the myths said about the lost city of Pacifica, it would be very important. It might mean that the legend was wrong, or perhaps the site he was excavating was not Pacifica, but some other lost city. Maybe he would become discouraged and want to try excavating somewhere else.
Excerpted from Archeology for Kids by Richard Panchyk. Copyright © 2001 Richard Panchyk. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: What Is Archaeology?,
1 How Archaeology Works,
2 The First People,
3 The Ice Age and the New Stone Age,
4 The First Civilizations,
5 Greece and Rome,
6 The New World,
7 Historical Archaeology,
Web Sites to Explore,