What do archaeologists actually do?


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Archaeology concerns itself with researching human remains and everything else humans have left behind at any point in time anywhere in the world. The goal is to illuminate the environment of past cultures and to investigate aspects of their society. As a cultural science it makes use of natural sciences, with which it is possible to determine definite results and complement the cultural research.

A part of archaeology is archaeobiology. This discipline concerns itself with animal- and plant remains in a culture and tries to research humanity and its relationship to their respective environment. Archaeobiology itself can be further divided into more core disciplines, such as archaebotany or archaeozoology. These sub-disciplines are connected with each other naturally but can also be used to reconstruct the environment of a culture separately from each other. Below, a few aspects of this shall be looked at further with a few examples explaining research methods and results of specific studies.

Archaeobotany is the research of all botanical remains which can be used to reveal anything about life in certain periods or in certain places (or both). Part of this research are macro remains of plants, such as charred seeds found in fire pits or clothing made from plants which can be found for example in a settlement or grave. These macro remains can be analysed and are then used to determine which plants have been used by what culture in which time, and in a best case scenario, also what they were used for. A good example for the actual importance for archaebotanical research is their research into cultivated plants and wild plants. The differences between the structure of these plants in the same species can analysed using different methods an can determine whether for example a Neolithic culture (from around 12 000 before present, starting in the Fertile Crescent) sedentary or not, based on the amount of cultivated crops they use since these plants need great space and a way to be stored. For definite statements there of course needs to be a more differentiated research than just studying plant remains but the archaebotanical research of macro-remains certainly plays an important part.

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Charred seeds with modern, uncharred seeds for comparion

Equally important is the study of botanical micro remains, such as pollen. Micro remains naturally are a great deal shorter than macro remains, but they can be used to make similar statements about something. In palynology (the study of pollen), pollen are examined under a microscope and are used to determine the climate of a certain period, since the distribution of certain trees and plants allows conclusions about cold- and warm stages in the climate. Every plant prefers certain soil and a specific climate, and they cannot survive if it is too warm or too cold. Therefore, the existence of beech pollen in a stratum, for example, can be an indication for an imminent warm stage because beeches are pioneer plants with lower requirements for soil than others and tend to be the first ones to appear once the climate gets warmer. However, other plants have higher and more defined requirements for growth and therefore only grow in certain periods and locations. The analysis of pollen therefore allows a definition of the immediate surroundings of a settlement, for example, so the environment of the people living there can be reconstructed and interpretations about their way of life can be discussed.

10 000 year old pollen under a microscope

Archaeozoology in turn concerns itself with researching animal remains, such as animal bones. Similar to archaeobiology, those findings are used to reconstruct the sustenance of humans since animal bones (and if possible: their DNA) can also be used to determine whether they are domesticated or wild animals. If animals are domesticated, it is usually assumed that there is some kind of animal husbandry involved, which requires pasturage and stables and therefore a settled way of life. Using the bones, different parts of the sustenance can also be determined. For example, a number of rubbish pits from different parts of a town were analysed and it could be determined that people in one part of the time probably were rich than others based on the different parts of animals they ate and therefore had a more nutritious, fat-based diet then others, such as a consumption of mostly tenderloin, which is the most delicate part in cattle), or a more meagre diet (for example using feet- or head pieces of cattle). Apart from bones, any other animal remains can be analysed too, such as wool, leather or others, such as milk-residue on pottery.

A collection of medieval animal bones – Sheep, Goat, and Pig

Naturally, the consolidation of floral and faunal remains in archaeological research has certain requirements. To actually excavate and analyse finds like this, certain conditions need to be given because organic remains are delicate and require specific find situations. Seeds need to be charred or stored in wet soil, otherwise they decompose quite easily. Pollen can be preserved for ten thousands of years but they also need to be stored in wet soil and without oxygen to stop them from rotting. Bones can survive in a variety of situations but need to be in a certain state to be useful for researchers. Very lucky finds, such as in the cases of excavated bog bodies or other mummies, the contents of their stomach can be analysed and whole prehistoric meals reconstructed. As an example, the stomach of Ötzi, the ice mummy in Switzerland, was analysed and it could be determined what he had eaten in his last 55 hours.

However, for these kinds of findings, the way of excavation plays an important role. Since archaeobiological remains usually are tiny, archaeologists need to be extra careful not to miss or destroy anything. To prevent this from happening, there is a way of sieving for tiny remains and where usually, pottery shards were scrubbed to view them proberly, nowadays, many archaeologists pay extra attention to see if, maybe, there is a crust or other remains on a shard or vessel.

Therefore, archaeobotany plays a very distinct part in archaeological research but is also bound to certain conditions and methods that require a close both on the field and later in the laboratory. However their findings show that it is worth to excavate for carefully and make an effort, so living circumstances of earlier cultures can be made a little more tangible.

Lea Hüntemann



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