Artifacts, Burials, and Ruins Research Paper

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In the 21st century, archaeology faces many challenges as field archaeologists balance traditional, current, and emerging concepts and techniques. They must apply these to site selection, excavation, recording, conservation, and analysis, for both individual artifacts and their broader matrix in mortuary through occupational contexts. This research paper outlines the broad range of traditional to current approaches for studying artifacts and their contexts, and incorporates selected issues and potential solutions for future archaeology.



As in many fields of study, the archaeology of diverse study areas/periods (e.g., Egyptology, classics, Mesoamerica) has splintered into numerous specialties (e.g., Egyptian archaeology, Egyptian language) and subspecialties (e.g., Old Kingdom Egypt, New Kingdom pottery). Such experts also rely on other fields and specialists for input (e.g., geology, paleobotany, zooarchaeology). This increasing diversification has challenged archaeologists to communicate more effectively than in the past—among themselves and with other disciplines, especially in cross-cultural studies and broader global issues (e.g., the 4.2 K BP event: a global climatic change that affected world cultures differently around 2200 BCE). To anticipate, remain competitive, and deal effectively with a seemingly infinite range of field-specific to site/period-specific requirements, current and future generations of archaeologists must now deal with an ever-growing and indispensable toolkit of varying expertise, technology, and analytical tools.

Archaeology also faces such major and increasing obstacles as global warming, population growth, a worldwide economic recession, political turmoil, urbanization, agricultural expansion, site destruction, and looting. These and other factors impact archaeological remains, whether by exposure of previously submerged, and naturally protected, waterlogged sites, or the targeting of sites for looting and destruction (e.g., the March 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the 2003 looting of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad).

Rediscovering Our Past

The emergence of social stratification and inclusion of wealth in burials has been accompanied by persons interested in retrieving such items, initially mainly for personal gain, and in more recent centuries for material and intellectual enrichment. One of the earliest “archaeologists” was an Egyptian prince, Khaemwaset, who served King Ramesses II (ca. 1279–1213 BCE) and investigated and restored various ancient monuments (Kitchen, 1982, p. 107). King Nabonidus of Babylonia (ca. 555–539 BCE) was another pious individual who investigated, restored, and collected antiques from past monuments. In Europe, the Renaissance (14th–17th centuries CE) marked a revived interest in antiquities: wealthy persons collected antiquities for display in their homes; more meticulous investigators studied and researched various monuments, such as Stonehenge (William Stuckley, 1687–1765 CE) and the Great Pyramid in Egypt (John Greaves, 1602– 1652 CE) (Lehner, 1997).

Although digging began in the early to mid-1700s at sites such as Herculaneum and Pompeii, the first scientific excavation is generally credited to Thomas Jefferson’s 1784 investigations of a burial mound on his estate in Virginia. The landmark publications of geological stratigraphy and evolution, including James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth (1785), Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1833), and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), guided early archaeologists’ concepts regarding the formation and antiquity of the archaeological record. During this period, Jacques Boucher de Perthes’s discovery and publication (1841) of human hand axes alongside the remains of extinct animals slowly began to convince fellow scholars that humanity had appeared much earlier than the 4004 BCE date calculated by some theologians. C. J. Thomsen published the notion of a Three Age System between 1836 and 1848 CE, dating European artifacts to successive ages of Stone, Bronze, and Iron, which remain the basis for many relative chronologies across the world.

This Age of Discovery paralleled a resurgence of interest in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Syria-Palestine, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, the Aegean, and elsewhere. The Napoleonic expedition to Egypt from 1798 to 1800 included over 100 scholars and discovered the Rosetta Stone, which Champollion deciphered in 1822, thereby enabling the translation of innumerable hieroglyphic texts. Botta and Layard led French and British expeditions to Mesopotamia in the 1840s, but cuneiform remained unreadable until Henry Rawlinson deciphered it in the 1850s (Lloyd, 1980). John Lloyd Stephens explored Mayan ruins in Central America in the 1840s, but Mayan texts remained undeciphered until the 1960s. In the 1870s and 1880s, Heinrich Schliemann rediscovered Homer’s Troy at Hissarlik in Western Anatolia (Bryce, 2006). Archaeological skills matured during this period, most notably demonstrated between 1887 and 1898 by General Pitt-Rivers, whose excavations and full publications of Wor Barrow remain a peak achievement in archaeology.

The early to mid-1900s witnessed further developments in archaeology. W. M. F. Petrie introduced a more meticulous approach to excavating and recording in Egypt and is famed for inventing seriation dating at a predynastic cemetery at Naqada. He placed separate pottery groupings in relative chronological order by tracing the gradual devolution of a wavy-ledge handle on a particular longer-lived vessel form. Gordon Childe initiated revolutionary approaches to assessing the origins of cultures in prehistoric Europe, arguing for indigenous factors behind changes in material culture. Sir Mortimer Wheeler applied a grid-square technique of excavation, using vertical soil sections to trace and record stratigraphic layers and phases in relation to architecture at ancient settlements in India.

New scientific techniques for dating the past emerged after World War II, including radiocarbon dating in 1949. The increase in this and other technologies was paralleled by new theoretical and practical approaches to designing, implementing, and analyzing the excavation of sites, beginning with the New Archaeology (i.e., processual archaeology) in the 1960s. This approach was pioneered by Lewis Binford and others, who attempted to explain change and the processes of change in past cultures by using deductive reasoning, designing research questions, testing hypotheses, and quantifying data. This approach was modified in the 1980s and 1990s, using interpretive, or postprocessual, archaeology. This essentially emphasized that each past culture and circumstance requires a specific research design.

Mortuary and Occupation Contexts

The absolute most crucial point in archaeology remains defining and recording the context of all materials and artifacts as fully and accurately as possible. A site can be defined as a place containing traces of human activity that may range from a discarded or lost item along a trail (e.g., a jar) to an ancient city. It is the context that enables one to maximize reconstructions of past lifeways from innumerable components spanning microcontexts (e.g., a vessel’s contents), to medium-scale matrixes (e.g., a chamber/dwelling, an altar/shrine, a body/tomb), and much broader-scale coverage of sites, regions, polities, cultures, continents, and the globe. To maintain this context, it is necessary to isolate and identify all (surviving) materials from a single depositional sequence, or a locus. A locus might reflect an individual act of depositing garbage in a midden, placing an offering on an altar, or interring a body.

By distinguishing contemporaneous materials from earlier worn, or broken, debris within such deposits, archaeologists can begin to make more meaningful assessments about the significance of artifacts within and across a single time frame. It becomes much trickier, however, to link multiple spatially separated deposits the further apart such loci lie within a structure or site, or between sites and across regions. For instance, the emergence of certain material cultural traits in one location may appear later in a more distant region. On the other hand, some artifacts may be retained longer as heirlooms (e.g., royal name seals), thereby generating an unnatural life span for an object that becomes less useful for dating.

Social Groupings

Any assessment of past settlements, burials, and artifacts will almost inevitably be guided by the nature of a given society. Past cultures and site types can be subdivided broadly according to several basic categories of social organization: hunter-gatherers (bands), segmentary societies (tribes), chiefdoms, and early states (complex societies) (see Renfrew & Bahn, 2008). These social groupings often display distinct types of occupation, burials, and artifact types in the archaeological record that enable their differentiation, while other aspects may be more generic. In general, site complexity and social hierarchy increase continuously from prehistoric huntergatherers to early and modern complex state societies.

Hunter-Gatherers (Bands)

Archaeologists have applied systematic and unsystematic surface surveys to detect past hunter-gatherer sites: seasonally occupied base camps, transitory camps, wild vegetation gathering areas, animal migration routes and hunting zones, kill sites, butchery sites, and lithic sources and production sites. Ethnoarchaeological studies have been especially helpful in reconstructing past activities. For example, studies of the Kalahari !Kung San bushmen, Australian aborigines, and other bands reveal that most bands of hunter-gatherers number around 25 persons, with members rarely exceeding 100 people. Their mobile lifestyles and high infant mortality discourage large families. The !Kung San hunter-gatherers also have distinct patterns in their seasonal summer camps, displaying several hut clusters placed closer together according to kinship ties within an extended family. Each hut also has a hearth and an activity area per band member.

When examining ancient seasonal campsites, it is often impossible to distinguish single-occupation phases, which have frequently merged into an admixture of artifacts, bones, and other debris among various features (e.g., hearths), and hut circles. In such circumstances, archaeologists obtain a long-term idea of activity patterns, while a meticulous collation of conjoining bone and stone fragments aids in isolating a series of contemporary activity patterns across a site. For example, Lewis Binford resided among the Nunamiut Eskimo in Alaska to clarify the more generic seasonal movements and the use and discard patterns by modern huntergatherers in order to comprehend better the formation process behind past hunter-gatherer sites and material culture assemblages. His study isolated such generic hunter-gatherer actions as bone-fragment discard patterns.

Site catchment analysis represents a more recent approach to comprehending past hunter-gatherer territories. Ethnographic and archaeological research has demonstrated that the further the base camp, the less apt mobile bands are to exploit resources directly. A two-hour walk constitutes the general radial limit, but may extend between 5 and 10 km depending upon the traversability of the surrounding terrain. One study of a typical huntergatherer group’s range (i.e., site exploitation territory), in the Amboseli region of Kenya, examined every 10 m square grid unit in a 600 square km area. The project collected a sample of 8,531 stone stools, and it was estimated that a band of 25 persons had discarded 163,000 artifacts per year: a daily average of 18 items per person. The artifacts used by mobile hunter-gatherers tend to be less cumbersome and easily carried, often negating the adoption of such things as pottery containers.

Ethnographic and archaeological evidence also aid in clarifying the seasonal availability of food in relation to its exploitation by and the movements of hunter-gatherer bands. For instance, late Paleolithic hunter-gatherers at Wadi Kubbaniya (northwest of Aswan) apparently collected tubers as a staple food (mid-October to mid-August), relied more on fish and mollusks when these sources were obscured during the flood season, and supplemented their diet with seeds and dom palm fruit in briefer periods (November to February and March to April, respectively) (see Midant-Reynes, 2000).

Separate hunter-gatherer bands are also known to meet occasionally for rituals, celebrations, competitions, and other shared activities. A recent example is an early Neolithic, nonresidential, cultic center at Gobekli Tepe in Anatolia, which has at least 20 circular structures with carved animals and insects.

In hunter-gatherer cave sites, where occupation layers are much better defined, it is possible to trace changes in hunting and gathering patterns over time. These can be influenced by changes in climate, sea level, and coastline location. For example, at Elands Bay Cave in South Africa, distinct modifications occur in a hunter-gatherer group during the late Ice Age to Neolithic period, ca. 11,000 to 3,000 BCE. The sequence of faunal debris and cave art revealed a gradual switch from hunting mostly open grassland fauna to exploiting mainly marine species in response to rising sea levels and an encroaching coastline and estuary.

Hunter-gatherers’ burials also provide further information about their mortuary customs and past lifestyles. For instance, some seasonal hunter-gatherers in the Levant practiced defleshing (excarnation) followed by the eventual placement of disarticulated bones in a regional burial ground (Mazar, 1990). Neolithic males from Niger exhibit abnormally high lesions (i.e., mechanical stress, or joint disease) on their arms and feet, reflecting hyperactivity in specific muscles associated with running and probably operating bows and other projectiles in hunting. In contrast to settled populations, prehistoric hunter-gatherer bodies in temperate climates and open grassland tend to be free of parasites.

Segmentary Societies (Tribes)

Segmentary societies (tribes) are often recognizable in the archaeological record through traces of farming; animal husbandry (e.g., meat from livestock); exploitation of secondary products (e.g., milk, wool); a mostly sedentary lifestyle; household craft production (e.g., simple pottery); and a slightly more complex social organization, albeit a generally egalitarian lifestyle. A less visible affiliated group includes nomadic pastoralists, who rely primarily on livestock. In general, a segmentary society may number up to a few thousand persons, and usually resides in either isolated dwellings (i.e., a dispersed settlement pattern) or small villages (i.e., a nucleated settlement pattern). Of the latter housing pattern, some villages represent agglomerate settlements with residential and other units placed adjacent to one another in a tightly packed community (e.g., Catal Hoyuk) (Hodder, 2006). Housing may vary widely, from more makeshift wattle-and-daub structures, evidenced via postholes, to sturdier mud-brick buildings. James Hill’s ethnographic study of Pueblo Indian artifact distributions revealed three types of room use in similar structures to Catal Hoyuk: storage areas, cultic chambers, and domestic quarters (i.e., sleeping, interacting, cooking and consumption of food). He found further gender-oriented room usage, but did not incorporate architectural components into this assessment.

In general, many segmentary societies have a designated burial ground (e.g., long barrows in Wessex), albeit displaying relatively equal ranking in burial goods and status. Estimates reveal that an average barrow could easily be completed by an extended family of 20 persons working for 50 days. A careful scrutiny of funerary goods and burial types associated with different age and gender groupings suggests slight differences in ranking within the limited hierarchy. For instance, compiling a frequency distribution (i.e., a histogram) for the quantities of various artifact types from burials of infants to elderly people would enable one to gauge the role played by ascribed status. In other words, one can determine the quantity and quality of goods associated with key age-groups that could not have earned a sufficient income prior to their interment. Other types of this social organization lack central cemeteries, and may place bodies under various structures, including houses (e.g., Neolithic Palestine).

Many communities contain a focal point, such as a public monument, or ritual center of sorts, maintained by religious elders. For example, segmentary societies represent the most likely social grouping associated with the early megalithic monuments in Europe (Cunliffe, 1994). Renfrew and Bahn (2008, p. 204) calculated that an early Neolithic causewayed enclosure in Wessex (ca. 4000–3000 BCE) required about 250 persons working for six weeks (100,000 labor hours) to complete it. This falls well within the capabilities of a segmentary society. Excavations at these monuments also reveal evidence for public feasting, another component generally associated with such peoples. Adjacent segmentary societies may also contain various shared and distinct traits: Ethnoarchaeological studies at Lake Baringo (Kenya) have revealed that some modern regional cultures distinguish themselves by specific ear decorations, while sharing other items of material culture. Hence, this cautions archaeologists that certain cultural markers may or may not survive to differentiate population groupings.


In chiefdoms, physical remains tend to reveal a more visible hierarchy in settlement patterns, housing types, and burial wealth. Although chiefdoms lack urban centers, the chieftain’s settlement generally dominates the surrounding villages, which may contain a collective population of 5,000 to 20,000 or more persons. An example of this is the 14th- to 15th-century CE site at Moundville in Alabama. This type of social grouping is normally made up of multiple families (lineages), which are dominated by one family whose relations tend to hold various ranks under the chieftain. This social organization often contains warriors and some form of defense (e.g., a palisade). The central settlement is permanent and generally characterized by one or more cultic installations (shrines/temples), frequently affiliated with the chief’s duties; the central settlement has elite residences for the chieftain, his entourage, and specialized craftsmen. There is also normally a redistribution of produce and finished products (similar to taxation) from outlying villages to the central village; the chieftain would redisperse choice items among his entourage. In more hierarchical societies, the surrounding landscape might yield more intensive farming, plowing, and possibly the subdivision of fields into smaller plots. Settlements also yield evidence for local-craft specialization (e.g., metalworking).

Another focal point for chiefdoms may include a largescale monument, such as the late Neolithic mound of Silbury Hill (ca. 2800 BCE) and Stonehenge. Renfrew and Bahn (2008, p. 205) suggest the former structure took 3,000 persons about 18,000,000 labor hours and 2 years to build; using an identical number of workers, Stonehenge would have required 30,000,000 labor hours in a 4-year period to complete.

Regarding burial assemblages, the chieftain and other members of society have much richer funerary goods than the average community member. For example, a chieftain’s remains from ca. 550 BCE at Hochdorf, in Germany, rest in a wooden chamber with a wagon, a large cauldron, golddecorated drinking horns, and other luxury items (Cunliffe, 1994, p. 347). Christopher Peebles’s cluster analysis of 3,000 burials from Moundville (Alabama) also revealed a good example of a ranked segmentary society. The wealthiest burials occurred within and beside the mounds. They yielded specific artifacts, such as copper axes and ear spools, associated with mostly male burials; additional high-ranking males and children are nearby. The next social stratum in this cemetery is located a bit farther away from the mounds: These burials contain both genders and similar funerary items, with the exception of copper. Those of the lowest social ranking are buried along the periphery of the site, having few burial goods.

Early State Societies

Early state societies display greater diversification in social stratification, craft specializations, government, and settlement patterns, with populations ranging from at least 20,000 to several million or more people. Such societies and their hierarchies are sufficiently large and too complex to be kin-dependant: They often contain serfs (agricultural laborers), craftspersons, officials, priests, and an elite and ruling family. There tends to be greater differentiation between rulers and religion, with the ruling elite residing in palaces separated from temples. In ancient Egypt, however, despite having a distinct residence and secular duties, the pharaoh retained close symbolic and functional ties in many aspects of religion, temples, and cults, acting as a mediator and chief priest for the populace. Early state religions are also mostly polytheistic with multiple temples or shrines, sanctuaries, and cult figures. A few monotheistic religions emerge, including the consolidation of Jewish monotheism and the Torah during the Babylonian exile (586–539 BCE) and the exiles’ return to Jerusalem and rebuilding of the (Solomon’s) Temple (Stern, 2001).

A distinct centralized government and capital emerges in early complex societies, displaying palatial residences, administrative offices, temples, public buildings (e.g., granaries, water reservoirs, wells), industrial areas for different crafts, and residences for the elite and lower classes. Some large centers also contain substantial public ceremonial areas: arenas for competitive games and sports (e.g., Greek Panhellenic games, Roman hippodromes and coliseums, Mayan and Aztec ball courts); structures for public performances (e.g., Greek and Roman theaters); and areas for the receipt of materials and products from longdistance expeditions, regional-foreign tribute, and the dispersal of rewards (e.g., Egyptian New Kingdom temple and palace forecourts, podiums in the desert near elAmarna). Many agricultural resources and finished products are sent as taxation, and sometimes as tribute, to the capital for redistribution within it and to the population in general. In many state societies, writing evolves for facilitating administration, communicating across distances, formulating religious doctrine, and expressing other ideas (e.g., laws, king lists, literature).

Aside from their own immediate hinterland, state capitals usually dominate complex settlement patterns containing a ranked hierarchy of provincial centers, towns, villages, hamlets, and farmsteads. Provincial capitals and outlying towns often have 5,000 or more residents, and frequently represent a microcosm of the capital city, but have less emphasis on, or an absence of, certain features, such as major temples and palaces. In central place theory, such settlements are placed in a theoretical and idealized landscape containing neighboring identical hexagons, each of which encloses a central town surrounded by equidistant villages and hamlets. Although few real landscapes approximate this pattern, settlement-pattern studies often incorporate site hierarchy (and Thiessen polygons) in computerized simulation models to assess the significance behind the dispersal and spacing of different settlement sizes and types across widely varying landscapes.

The boundaries of both small and large states and empires are sometimes discernible by the dispersal of particular structures and artifacts. Some states built roadways or other transportation networks between outlying quarries and settlements (e.g., Rome, the Inca, Egypt) and established elaborate systems of frontier forts and walling systems (e.g., Hadrian’s wall in Britain, the Great Wall of China, Egyptian Middle Kingdom forts in Nubia). The Roman empire’s northeastern frontier had a distinct Celtic buffer zone between its monetary market economy and a nonmonetary and marketless economy in Germany. The Celtic region yielded both Roman coins and Germanic products, facilitating trade between two different economies.

Early state societies display many types of burial practices and frequent socioeconomic stratification in their burials. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs received distinct and elaborate burials, especially during the Old and Middle Kingdoms (2700–2200 BCE and 2050–1650 BCE). Their large pyramidal tombs had adjacent royal cult temples, a priestly staff, and associated estates for revenues (Dodson & Ikram, 2008). In contrast, the Egyptian elite and middle classes received a broad range of much smaller and less elaborate subterranean burial chambers and rectilinear superstructures (mastabas) with fewer funerary possessions.

Early complex societies also had varying customs regarding the treatment of the body (e.g., cremation, inhumation, mummification, exposure, secondary burial, and other practices). In Egypt, only the middle and upper classes could afford mummification, with three main gradations of techniques and quality; the poorest Egyptians often received a simple pit-grave burial with minimal if any possessions (Grajetzki, 2003). The location and orientation of the deceased’s remains also varies widely in early states. For example, the ancient Egyptian elite often preferred burial on the Nile’s western side (associated with the setting sun and land of the dead), and usually arranged bodies in an extended position, with the head to the north and face to the east toward the rising sun (associated with rebirth).

Preparations for death also vary widely per society. Middle- and upper-class Egyptian tombs and their furnishings yield a wide range of specific items: an appropriate tomb complex that could function as a dwelling for the spirits of the deceased and family members (some tombs include bathrooms); substitute model workers (shabtis) to work in the place of the tomb owner(s) during the afterlife; statuettes to house the deceased’s ka-spirit in case the actual body perished; lists, models, depictions, and physical offerings of food to sustain the deceased during the afterlife; papyri and other media recording spells to aid the deceased in bypassing diverse netherworld obstacles and attaining a successful afterlife; various garments, textiles, furnishings, and other possessions for the deceased’s comfort in the next life; and a professional mortuary cult, or family members, contracted to maintain the deceased’s tomb complex and mortuary offerings.

Early complex societies also have differences between age-groups and gender in burials. In New Kingdom Egypt (1550–1069 BCE), elite male burials often have a set of three successive coffins placed in a rectilinear sarcophagus versus a set of two for females; the husband’s coffins also generally hold a papyrus document enabling the deceased to achieve successful entry to the underworld. The stark difference between the funerary furnishings for various social strata is also emphasized by the thousands of artifacts found in the relatively minor and virtually intact burial of Tutankhamun (1336–1327 BCE), in contrast to contemporary, simple pit graves for peasants who lacked possessions.


The aforementioned social groupings and contexts have yielded many different types and quantities of artifacts. Various definitions have been applied as to what constitutes an artifact, ranging from all inclusive concepts indicating an item of any size that has been used, altered, or manufactured by human beings (e.g., a pyramid), to more size-specific notions: Renfrew and Bahn (2008) define an artifact as “any portable object used, modified, or made by humans; e.g., stone tools, pottery, and metal weapons” (p. 578). Archaeological organizations, protection agencies, and the public also vary widely regarding the specific age and definition for an (archaeological) artifact or antique. A 100-year benchmark is often used (e.g., the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities). In reality, however, any item used, modified, or made by a human becomes an artifact upon the moment of its initial manufacture or application.

Today, especially in light of the increased global construction and destruction in our urban and rural landscapes, archaeologists should consider all artifacts and time periods equally important within a given site or site component under excavation. For instance, the “modern” debris ignored in excavations 100 years ago are now “antiques.” The following discussion outlines some of the more pertinent aspects of the life cycle of various artifacts (and related contexts), from their raw state to trade and transportation, production, usage, discarding and reuse, preservation, excavation, dating and analysis, and “final” context.

Materials and Sources

Biased preservation tends to place artifacts into organic and inorganic materials, ranging from single material to multicompositional items with specific macro- and microclimatic conditions assisting in their preservation. The materials composing artifacts also become increasingly complex from prehistoric to recent societies. Aside from humans, human ancestors’ (and even some animals using natural cobbles/stones and pieces of bone, shell, and wood as “tools”) earliest and longest-lived artifact is represented by stone tools (from 2.5 million years ago to the present). Despite the application of a broad range of sedimentary and igneous stones for utensils, flint forms a particularly popular material.

The desirability of flint for tools is emphasized by the intense effort put into mining it in Neolithic Europe and at other times and places. For example, the flint mines at Grimes Graves in Britain (ca. 2500 BCE) contain around 350 vertical shafts that were cut between 9 and 15 meters in depth to reach a subterranean layer of high-quality flint. This single mining site may have produced over 28 million flint axes. A similar effort was expended in the Neolithic flint mines at Rijckholt, in the Netherlands, which may have provided 153 million axe heads based on the excavated sample of mines within this area. The labor and technology invested to obtain such axe heads included excavation tools (e.g., stone and antler picks), soil and rock removal devices (e.g., ropes and baskets), mining technology (e.g., ladders, scaffolding, and tunnel supports), support systems (e.g., supplying food to the miners), and artisans (e.g., shaping axe heads and applying wooden handles and bindings).

More labor-intensive and large-scale techniques appear in various prehistoric to early state quarries and mines. For instance, Egypt quarried large to colossal pieces of granite at Aswan to make or embellish statuary, pyramids, temples, and other structures (Arnold, 1991). This quarry’s famous unfinished obelisk measured 42 meters in length, weighed about 1,168 tons, and was quarried by a methodical application of dolerite balls to pound a channel around and under the obelisk. Other societies exhibited a similar dedication to building monuments (e.g., an Inca stone quarry at Rumiqolqa in Peru and a statue quarry at Rano Raraku on Easter Island). Assessing the full range of unfinished artifacts represents one of the best analytical techniques for understanding ancient mining, quarrying, and construction processes. Otherwise, various devices are available, or emerging, to enable a detailed examination of artifact surfaces and interiors (see next section).

Other materials required much less labor to obtain. For example, many past societies used raw and locally available faunal and floral components, such as wood, bone, and shell. These may appear unaltered as artifacts (e.g., cowry shell money, game pieces) and in architecture (e.g., driftwood construction, prehistoric bone shelters). More complex and modified organic materials could be processed further by physically shaping or heating such materials (e.g., timber-frame housing, bone-inlaid wooden furniture, perforated shell necklaces).

Trade and Transportation

Various prized materials and products have been transported from sources that range from the immediate hinterland to destinations hundreds to possibly thousands of kilometers away. Such items could be obtained via direct exploitation, or through other means, from direct trade between adjacent regions to indirect down-the-line trade. An example of down-the-line trade occurs in the Near East: During the Neolithic, obsidian is exported from two distinct sources in central Anatolia and Armenia to two slightly overlapping contact zones in Syria-Palestine and SyriaMesopotamia; Ethiopia supplied Egypt with obsidian from the Predynastic to Ptolemaic-Roman periods (Nicholson & Shaw, 2000). In periods of socioeconomic and political strength, early states dispatched long-distance expeditions to obtain raw materials directly: Egypt obtained turquoise from South Sinai and sent maritime missions to Punt in eastern Sudan to trade for aromatics and African products.

Recent and improving scientific techniques permit us to pinpoint the sources of various materials and theorize about the relations between different regions. A microscopic examination of pottery and stone thin sections helps identify specific minerals and their characteristics, narrowing down their probable source areas. Trace-element analysis, and in particular Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA) and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), provide more precision in detecting sources for pottery fabrics, obsidian, and other stones. Isotopic analysis, including lead isotopic analysis, is best applied to isolating the sources for lead, silver, and copper items. In some cases archaeological and textual-pictorial evidence identify the means by which such materials are transported: Djehutyhotep’s tomb in Egypt illustrates laborers dragging his colossal statue on a sled. In other circumstances the routes and means of transportation are inferred (maritime trade between islands).

Means of Production

Past peoples have applied numerous techniques to make artifacts using diverse and composite materials (e.g., stone, bone, antler, shell, leather, wood, plant and animal fibers, pottery, faience, glass, and metals). Production centers and incomplete products are ideal for clarifying the different stages in the manufacturing process for a given artifact. Stone tools often incorporate flint knapping using stones or antlers to strike blade flakes from a core, sometimes removing smaller flakes to create a serrated edge. Lithics and other tools, in turn, are often applied to manufacture items from bone, antler, leather, and wood.

Further insight into stone tool production is gained by replicating a given artifact by flint knapping, or, if possible, by refitting flakes and pieces extracted from the original flint nodule. Past uses for plant and animal fibers often involved stripping or shearing the fibers from their source, and spinning and weaving them into textiles, garments, and other products. Identifying fiber types and weaving techniques yields much information on the manufacturing process. For pottery, past cultures gathered different clays for specific applications and augmented them by adding a grit and straw temper (for strengthening). Clay was mostly used to make containers by adopting such techniques as pressing clay over a mold, coil building and paddling, and using a slow or fast wheel. The completed unbaked product would be fired using various firing kiln types and temperatures. Ancient potsherds can be refired until a change is noted, using a scanning electron microscope, in order to determine the original firing temperature. A petrographic analysis of a potsherd thin section identifies the fabric composition. The production of faience, glass, and metal items is equally complex. In early copper technology, naturally occurring copper could be cold-hammered, or heated and hammered into shape (annealing); copper ores could also be smelted, melted, or cast in open or more complex molds (e.g., lost wax technique); coppersmiths often combined (i.e., alloyed) copper with some tin to produce bronze. Thin sections of metal items also enable a metallographic examination to discern more details about the manufacturing process.


It is often difficult to extrapolate the general, if not the specific, usage of a given artifact. In some cases, certain stone items are debated as being entirely natural (geofacts) versus human-made/used artifacts. Microwear analysis aids this process of elucidating the potential uses of stone tools. For instance, experimental archaeology has revealed microwear distinctions between stone tools used to cut bone, antler, hide, meat, wood, or other nonwoodlike plants; other wear patterns may indicate whether a stone tool was used for piercing, cutting, or scraping. Similar wear pattern analyses also illustrate the potential applications for bone, antler, shell, leather, and floral artifacts. Plant and animal fiber artifacts, such as garments, retain traces of wear, stretching, damage, mending, and other use history. Such observations can determine whether a garment was made for or placed unworn in a burial, or if it had been used in daily life (Barber, 1991). Residue analysis assesses the contents and hence usage of such things as pottery containers. Ethnographic studies may clarify further our comprehension of past artifact usages by observing how recent and ideally similar populations use identical artifact types. Such studies must be used with extreme caution, however, if extrapolating back in time to a different people and time period.

Discarding and Reuse

All artifacts are ultimately discarded or lost. Some items are made for a specific and very brief use (e.g., an ancient Egyptian bread mold), while others are produced to last for “eternity” (e.g., Tutankhamun’s gold funerary mask). Aside from ornate items produced for purposeful destruction (e.g., in a potlatch), most short-term, functional items exhibit a minimum amount of craftsmanship to enable them to function sufficiently. Artifacts may break accidentally, or through regular wear and tear, only to be discarded on the spot or in an adjacent midden. In other situations, particularly valued, or sentimental, items may be repaired: Egyptian predynastic pottery displays repair holes for lacing; chipped statuary and masonry are also often patched. Already “discarded” antiques may regain a value: ancient Egyptian jewelry, statuary, and other valuable commodities often appear in later contexts as trade items; Early Dynastic and Middle Kingdom stone vessels were exported as “antiques” to a late Bronze Age site at Amman (Jordan) from 1400 to 1200 BCE. Some artifacts retain their value as heirlooms for decades to hundreds of years (e.g., Egyptian cultic and royal statuary dedicated to the Karnak Temple [ca. 2000 BCE to the Roman period]). In many cases, long-lived and valuable materials are reused, smelted, or recut for new purposes. For instance, the Assyrian ruler Sargon II (721–705 BCE) led a campaign into the Levant and removed cypress wood beams from the destroyed palace roof of Ursa. Likewise, the Egyptian New Kingdom royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings were systematically robbed for their gold, silver, and other valuables to replenish the state during the impoverished Third Intermediate Period (1069–664 BCE). Other reuse is evidenced by the sarcophagus lid from Merenptah’s burial reused in a Dynasty 21 burial at Tanis in northern Egypt. Older rubbish is also often reused for diverse purposes: Earlier potsherds often get mixed into the clay for mud-bricks, and subsequently become introduced into later contexts through the disintegration of mud-brick structures.


The greatest impact upon past material culture assemblages is the inherent biased preservation of inorganic materials versus more frequently lost organic materials, especially in temperate climates. However, in sub-zero conditions (cold climates), arid regions (dry climates), and water-logged circumstances (wet sites), organic materials are often wellpreserved, enabling a far more realistic assessment of prehistoric to more recent artifact assemblages. For instance, the permafrost in southern Siberia has preserved many organic remains in steppe burials, including tattooed human skin, clothing, food, animals, and other items. The arid conditions in Egypt’s adjacent deserts have helped preserve human bodies, skin and hair, wooden furnishings, textiles, and papyrus documents. Wet sites, which lack oxygen, also yield wellpreserved organic materials (e.g., bog bodies). The artifacts from wet sites emphasize just how many artifacts may be lost from temperate conditions, with organic items frequently numbering in the thousands and forming 75% to 90% of some assemblages.

Along with climate conditions, certain natural disasters provide exceptional circumstances for preserving organic materials. The 79 CE eruption of Vesuvius engulfed Pompeii in ash, thereby aiding the physical preservation of many organic substances and the formation of encasing molds that retained the exterior morphology of many otherwise disintegrated items (Zanker, 1998). Early excavators poured plaster into such hollows to obtain casts of the exterior features, clothing, and other aspects of the victims and artifacts; more recently, injection of a clear liquid fiberglass enables the observation of both the exterior interface and the interior remains of artifacts and skeletal debris in these hollows.

Detection, Excavation, and Conservation

The available methods for detection, excavation, recording, and conservation have improved dramatically in archaeology over the past few centuries. Remote sensing and other techniques yield increasingly detailed images of artifacts and features beneath the soil, or within contexts that either cannot be excavated or are preferably left undisturbed or undestroyed (e.g., mummified bodies, cartonage coffins). For example, fiber-optic cameras and similar devices enable a microscopic to macroscopic examination of ancient human remains and larger features (e.g., ancient Egyptian sealed boat burials at Giza [Lehner, 1997]). Diverse satellite-, aerial-, and groundbased remote sensing and other technologies detect subsurface architecture, large features, and some artifacts. The technology includes diverse satellite imagery (e.g.,

Landsat, QuickBird); aerial remote sensing (e.g., Light Detection and Ranging [LIDAR], side-looking airborne radar [SLAR]); acoustic and seismic methods (e.g., bosing, sonar); electromagnetic devices (e.g., ground penetrating radar [GPR]); electrical resistivity; magnetometer surveys (e.g., fluxgate and alkali-metal vapor instruments); metal detectors; and smaller-scale, nondestructive technologies (e.g., X-rays, xeroradiography, computerized axial tomography [CAT scanner], magnetic resonance imaging [MRI], fiber-optic endoscope).

Although physical excavation should remain a viable technique for recovering artifacts and their broader contexts, the development and refinement of many nondestructive remote sensing technologies offers increasing alternate means to obtain ever more accurate, high resolution three-dimensional images and interior cross sections of archaeological sites, features, and artifacts. If such technology becomes sufficiently detailed and inexpensive for archaeology, then a point at which excavation becomes largely reduced to specific sites and circumstances is likely, leaving the retrieval of selected artifacts, features, and physical samples for salvage purposes, or further physical and visual analysis.

Dating and Analysis

The introduction of radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology, thermoluminesence, potassium-argon dating, and other techniques enables the placement of absolute dates on past strata, features, and material culture assemblages, including refinement of date ranges previously assigned to more historical periods (e.g., pharaonic Egypt). The growing compilation of long and accurate sequences of annual treering dates (dendrochronology) across the globe, especially in less temperate zones with contrasting seasons, promises to narrow the absolute date ranges currently available through high precision, calibrated radiocarbon dating. The latter technique currently yields date ranges from a few decades to over a century in accuracy. The ongoing refinement of other dating techniques, such as cation-ratios, should refine the dating of rock art and other more elusive contexts that lack better-dated or well-associated artifacts.

Archaeology has also developed increasingly better approaches to analyzing the data from survey and excavation work. Aside from formulating artifact typologies and providing simple descriptions of excavation results, more recent investigations emphasize assessing and explaining broader and more diverse aspects of the past, such as the nature of and changes to the past climate, environment, and landscape, land use, subsistence, health, diet, and beliefs in association with ancient settlements, burials, and their artifact assemblages. To clarify some of these aspects of past lifeways, archaeologists examine such things as textualpictorial evidence (if present); fecal matter; stomach contents; bones (e.g., teeth, collagen); utensils and containers (e.g., associated with food preparation, consumption, and storage); microbotanical remains (e.g., pollen analysis, fossil cuticles, phytoliths, diatom analysis, rock varnishes, plant DNA), macrobotanical evidence (e.g., seeds, fruits, plant residues, wood); microfauna (e.g., insectivores, rodents, bats, birds, fish, land and marine mollusks, worms); and macrofauna (e.g., large animals). The refinement and emergence of new technology should only improve our abilities to assess human material culture, lifeways, behavior, and many other aspects.

Final Context

From an optimistic perspective, many excavated artifacts have reached their “final destinations,” namely in private and public storerooms or display cabinets. Most artifacts are displayed in isolation, however, being removed from, and conveying limited visual and written information about their original contexts. Ideally, archaeological site publications, electronic databases, archives, libraries, and other media should relay and preserve indefinitely the temporal, spatial, and inherent significance of each artifact and its original and varied past contexts. However, aside from the “obliteration” of a given artifact, such as pulverized stone, recycled metal, or decomposed organic materials, the “life cycles” of more durable artifacts in current archives and museum collections are actually still in transition. However, such happenings as the looting of the Iraqi National Museum and history’s lessons on the inevitable rise and fall of past and present civilizations emphasize just how transitory museums can be, leaving open the future contexts and fate of already excavated and displayed artifacts.


In a world fraught with increasing threats to our past global heritage, archaeologists must liaise more effectively with other specialists and the public to optimize the long-term preservation of material culture assemblages and their contexts. One way is to pursue the full publication of excavation and survey results both on a global scale and in a durable format to survive potential local, national, and international disasters affecting and threatening our global community. The emergence of diverse and high-memory electronic storage media and the World Wide Web have also begun to permit the less expensive publication and dissemination of immense quantities of archaeological records and data previously not feasible for most archaeologists. Yet, such rapidly emerging and changing technologies also require either the maintenance of specific machine-readable devices, or the continual transfer of electronic data into new media to keep pace with both emerging and obsolete technologies (e.g., microfiche). Ironically, archaeology is entering into an increasingly more complex world, ripe with expanding technological opportunities, but now also facing rapidly growing and innumerable threats to archaeological sites and materials. Today’s archaeology is becoming more salvage work and highly selective in nature, especially with the opportunities afforded by more accurate remote sensing technologies. Are the more adventurous and romantic days of archaeology over? Is the more traditional archaeologist (“Indiana Jones” to many) doomed to hang up his hat, don a lab coat, and take a “desk job”? Only time will tell.


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