What Do Archeologists Do?

Archeologists work in a wide variety of settings, including in governmental agencies, museums, parks and national monuments, colleges and universities, and in private cultural resource management (CRM) firms or branches of larger companies including those specializing in engineering and environmental services.  The roles and research aims of archeologists are as infinite as the places they work.  Some archeologists act as administrators, managing and protecting archeological resources for the public and the future.  Other archeologists specialize in artifact analysis, preservation, and replication.  Many archeologists teach, either in public or university settings. Others specialize in computer applications and modeling, or even artistic illustration.

Clearly, archeologists do much more than dig.  However, in all settings, archeologists share an interest in the material remains – artifacts, ecofacts, features, and sites – that show evidence of past human activity.  In the field, archeologists work to locate and identify material remains, and in the office or lab, archeologists work to analyze, explain, interpret, and preserve the often ephemeral clues of past behavior recovered during survey and excavation.  The methods and techniques used by individual archeologists are as varied as the archeologists are themselves; however, all archeologists practice to some extent within the broad categories of research, survey, excavation, artifact processing and analysis, reporting, and preservation.

Research

Archeological research primarily aims to build a foundation of knowledge about a given area or site prior to conducting fieldwork in the form of survey or excavation.  Such research may include exploration of existing archeological, historical, ethnographic, and environmental data.  Data sources range from published books and articles, oral traditions and reports, historic documentation such as land claims, mining records, and early explorers’ accounts, cartography and geographic information systems (GIS), museum files, and various governmental databases.

Survey

Survey accounts for the initial in-field investigations of a region, and aims to record artifacts, features, and site locations of archeological interest.  Some surveys are conducted specifically for research, whereas others occur as part of planning for development and construction with the aim of identifying archeological resources potentially in danger from human activities.  An archeological survey is typically accomplished by a crew of people systematically walking transects, or linear, evenly spaced lines, across an area of interest, although aerial inventories are also possible with the use of small planes, helicopters, and even satellite imagery.  Although the primary aim of survey is to locate and identify archeological resources (a type of cultural resource), it is also the job of the archeologist to evaluate the potential significance of artifacts, features, and sites, and to recommend eligibility of archeological resources for the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).  The NRHP, eligibility evaluations, and significance of archeological resources are major components of CRM, a type of archeology practiced in North America and discussed in detail on the CRM page linked at the bottom of this page.

Excavation, or the “Dig”

Archeologists excavate buried cultural remains to both gather information about past human behavior and to preserve and protect cultural resources from destruction, either from human or natural processes.  In fact, most archeological excavations in North America now occur as a part of CRM practices, and typically only if the site is a) significant, as defined by the law and regulations, and b) in danger of damage or outright destruction. 

Archeological excavations, or “digs,” are conducted using very specific methods and rigorous vertical and horizontal spatial controls.  Some important aspects of archeological excavations include the removal of overburden, or the soils overlying the cultural materials, either by hand or machine; photographic and cartographic documentation of artifacts, structural components, features, soil types and changes, and other indications of human presence within a site; careful screening or sieving of soils to ensure all important artifacts and ecofacts are collected from the site; and careful documentation of field procedures, personnel, and equipment.

Artifact Processing

Artifact processing refers to the management of archeological material.  Processing decisions begin with a research design, which lays out the specific questions and aims of an archeological project.  The research design helps direct decisions about in-field collection of artifacts and samples, and later laboratory cleaning, sorting, inventory, and storage.  Archeologists carefully document how artifact processing for a given project proceeds, including the methods used in cleaning specific artifacts and artifact categories, labeling techniques, and laboratory sampling procedures.  This information is later supplied to the museum or curation facility that will house the artifacts once the project is done, so that future researchers will have access to processing techniques employed on the collection.

Analysis

Many archeologists are specialists in specific archeological material classes, such as flaked stone, ceramic, shell, faunal bone, or textiles.  Some analyses are conducted in laboratory settings, and others consist of replication and experimental work.  While archeologists frequently analyze artifactual material on themselves, many other materials, such as pollen and charcoal, are sent to specialists for analysis.  Specific analytical techniques are intimately tied to the material under examination; therefore, many of the important analytical techniques employed by archeologists are explored in detail in the “Artifacts and Features” and “Methods” links and in the associated fact sheets.

Reporting

Dissemination of archeological information to the public and peers is one of the most important jobs of the archeologist.  Archeologists share their findings and ideas through various venues such as professional journals, books, conferences, documentaries, and public outreach events.  Archeologists also host open houses at excavations, allowing the public and colleagues to the work in action and too ask questions in person.  Members of the press are also often provided information about the progress of archeological investigations, opening another venue for information dissemination.  Sharing archeological information with the both the public and archeological communities generates continuing interest in archeology and preservation efforts, and maintains lines of open communication regarding explanations and interpretations of the archeological record.

Preservation

Preservation is perhaps the most important task of the archeologist. In fact, preservation is so fundamental to the operation of some archeological programs, that the National Park Service (NPS) “is charged to preserve [cultural resources] unimpaired for the enjoyment of present and future generations.  If they are degraded or lost, so is the parks’ reason for being” (NPS:1).  Preservation occurs on many levels, ranging from the curation and care of artifacts and important biological remains, preservation of information through documentation, and preservation of entire archeological sites and landscapes.  Preservation requires that archeologists participate in public outreach and education, building reciprocal relationships with modern communities in what the Center for Desert Archaeology calls community-based archeology, or archeology that gives back to the community in which it occurs while promoting respect for, and interest in, archeological resources. 

References Cited
National Park Service (NPS)
NPS-28: Cultural Resource Management Guideline