Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Historical Archaeologist

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Historical Archaeologist

Article excerpt

Historical archaeologists such as Mark Warner investigate through excavations and written records how people lived in the recent past. History is considered "recent" rather than "pre-historic" when written sources from that period are available. If we already have documentary evidence, then why do we need to dig? In recent history, only a relatively small percentage of the population made efforts to record the events of the day and therefore the lives of many were never documented. For example, we know a great deal about how someone like Thomas Jefferson lived through his writings, but what about his slaves? Excavation of artifacts, in combination with written documents, has been able to tell archeologists stories about how everyday individuals--just like you and me--lived in the past.

Describe this field.

Historical archaeology is quintessentially a social science--we study the relationships between historical objects and texts to discover information about human society. When we conduct an excavation, it is a team endeavor: Some members examine documents in local archives, some use transits to map out the excavation site, and still others excavate and process artifacts. After the digging is over, we head to the laboratory where the real work begins. In the lab, the identification, cataloging, analysis, conservation, and curation of artifacts occurs. This technical work gives us a full record of the dig and all of the objects we recovered. The ultimate goal is to tell a story about how people lived in the past through the artifacts recovered in our excavations.

The basic objective in the lab is to make sure that artifacts do not suffer further damage or decay. In many cases, this is largely a matter of cleaning and storing the objects in chemically stable bags or boxes. Ceramics and glass generally require relatively little in the way of conservation. In contrast, bone and metal preservation can be more labor intensive. A consolidant is applied to arrest deterioration in particularly fragile bones; metal corrosion must be removed through sand blasting or electrolysis and further corrosion is prevented by a sealant application. In addition to conservation, we determine fragment counts for ceramics and glass, reconstruct broken sherds to identify an object's function, and calculate weight estimates based on recovered bones.

A typical day?

For the last eight years, one of my projects has involved working with the Miami tribe of Oklahoma. The Miami Indians were forcibly moved by the U.S. Government twice during the 19th century from their ancestral territories in Indiana and Ohio to Kansas and again to Oklahoma. For 15 years, the tribe has been actively trying to rediscover the history they lost through those relocations. My excavations in Oklahoma, as well as other archaeologists' work in Indiana, has contributed to an understanding of how the lives of tribal members have changed over the past 150 years.

During the summer, when I am running an excavation, I am sort of a "jack-of-all-trades." I keep track of the actions of 5 to 25 excavators, take notes on the excavation's progress, record where all of the artifacts were found, check that supplies are sufficient, or give visitors a tour of the site. …

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