Introduction to Human Origins and Prehistory

Doing Archaeology: From Research Design to Excavation

Research Questions Drive Archaeology

Archaeologists don't just go out and dig.

It may seem that way in the popular depictions of archaeologists, but even Indiana Jones had some level of research question in the background when looking for the lost Ark!

Questions may be relatively simple:

    Sometimes doesn't even involve excavation

Sometimes questions seem simple, but are not:

Answering all these questions requires a research design: a sequence of stages that guide the conduct of an investigation. It helps to ensure the validity of results and to make efficient use of time, money and effort.

Ashmore and Sharer (p. 73) discuss several stages

  1. Formulation involves defining the research problem, performing background investigations, and conducting feasibiliity studies.

  2. Implementation involves completing all the necessary arrangements for planning the work
    One of the most difficult parts including everything from finance to permissions.
    Who pays for archaeological research?

  3. Data Acquisition: reconnaissance, survey, and excavation (steps are not mutually exclusive!)
    Reconnaissance is locating sites without excavation
    Survey records as much as possible about sites without excavation
    Excavation exposes the buried cultural remains and other characteristics of sites, recording or retrieving data

  4. Data Processing is the manipulation of materials (raw data) including the treatment of artifacts, measurements, development of records such as maps.

  5. Analysis provides information about each type of data, such as artifacts, ecofacts, ideofacts, features. Some can be done in the field, but much more is done in the lab. Estimates of lab:field in terms of time range  from 5-10 times more in the lab.

  1. Interpretation involves a synthesis of all the results of data collection. What does it all mean? Many models, theories and hypotheses are used in this process.
    Much of this is determined by your theoretical perspective, that is, the way you view the past. Processual archaeologists may ask questions dealing with adaptation to the environment; others might be more concerned with meaning.
    Artifacts don't speak for themselves!

  2. Publication involves distributing the results of the work to colleagues and the publics involved. Often involves both scientific and popular accounts of work

I would add an eighth step!

    8.  Consideration of ethics: As noted many times already, archaeology does not occur in a social vacuum. Lives are affected in many ways by the things we do. We have obligations to those people and to the archaeological record.
            Society for American Archaeology Ethics Code, World Archaeological Congress Ethics Code for Work with Indigenous Peoples spell out concerns.

In  a sense the research design process mirrors the scientific method of observation, experimentation and explanation, moving from induction to deduction to induction and so forth, in a cyclical process.

The process is complex, but crucial to the conduct of any research.

An example:

Claire Smith's proposed project in the Northern Territory of Australia near Burunga.

My friend and colleague Claire Smith at Flinders University has recently proposed a research project at a rockshelter and rock art site called Droopney.

Her research questions have developed over a series of years, in conjunction with other questions asked by many scholars regarding the antiquity of rock art in Australia, as well as its association with peoples actual living areas.

Her questions involve the correlation of material remains, including plant and animal remains found in the midden of the rockshelter where people lived with the kinds of drawing they made on the rock shelter walls.

These questions are both ecological and connection to those elements that have meaning in people's lives.

She located the site during five years of working directly with some traditional aboriginal land owners and custodians.

She worked closely with the community to find out what interested them about the sites, and went with them to investigate many such shelters used for thousands of years.

She also did her library work and found out that no sites had ever been dug in this area of the NT, so in one sense, she was on her own in developing a "culture history" of the region.

Before she could even think about excavation, she had to get permissions from community members, but especially the traditional owner of Droopney and its senior custodian. This took some time, even though they knew and trusted her. She also had to agree to publish the reports of her work in their languages (the local and regional "dialects").

She then had to secure funding. She sought help from the Australian Institute of Aborignal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, a federal agency.

She had to write a proposal, including all I've talked about, but detailing her excavation and analytical methods.

For this she discusses all her field methods, even down to the kinds of soil samples she will take, the number of C14 dates she expects, and how long it will take. She notes the number of crew members and their level of skill. Many other details.

This report is sent out to several reviewers, some of her choice (me), and others selected by AIATSIS who evaluate her proposal.

I had to answer questions about whether her design was adequate, whether she had the necessary skills to do the work, what her interaction with the community is like, whether her budget  was appropriate for the work.

A committee looks over the reviews and says yes or no.

Last year she was denied, but this year she has made the proposal far better, and will likely get the funds.

She hopes to begin work in August, during the dry season.

What if she isn't funded? She may be able to find other sources, or she may have to cut back the project or abandon it altogether.

Field Methods

The text outlines these procedures fairly well, and methods are so variable, there is no real need to repeat them. Rather, there are some key issues.

Archaeology is a destructive process! 

Our work on sites destroys them as assuredly as a bulldozer ripping through them.

What makes our work different is that from the beginning we make an effort to record all aspects of a site.

Ideals of "reconstruction" in the lab

Out concerns about changes in theories which may cause us to ask new questions, or changes in technologies which may allow us to answer new questions: examples are C14 dating and faunal analysis

This has led to a conservation ethic in archaeology, where we like to see at least parts of sites preserved for the future.

Not always possible in CRM.

Meticulous data ordination is the key to all we do in the field!

Archaeologists must be concerned with context. Context is everything

This translates into linking everything we take out of a site into both horizontal and vertical space.

The level of detail at which this is done depends on money, time, skill of excavators, and equipment, as well as the nature of your research questions.

The key elements: grid systems, piece-plotting, care

Control of all materials as they come out of the ground and as they move through the steps in your research design.

Any foul-ups can destroy all your work, or at very least, make is questionable.

Time, Space, Form, Function, and Meaning

Four major dimensions in archaeological research that we try to get at in the field. Some comes from context. Some from interpretation. They are integrally related.

Time: already looked a this, but vertical position my be a key, so context is crucial.

Space: horizontal and vertical position may provide important information for interpretation of function, meaning, and time.

Form: literally the physical and measurable  charateristics of something; attributes

Function: how something was used; what role it played in a cultural system

Meaning: what view the culture had of the artifacts or features; what they meant to them


Back to the Research Design

Archaeologists operate in ways that try to stick as close as possible to the research design.

However, it is difficult to predict the past! We cannot see under the ground, even with tools like Ground Penetrating Radar.

Discovery is part of what drives our work, and what that means is that research designs are made to be broken. Or at least adjusted to fit the circumstances.

A near classic rule of archaeology is that you find the intriguing feature, artifacts, or face the most demanding questions as you are about to close the excavations on the project!