So You Want To Be An Archaeologist? - Core Skills
Stratigraphy & Context
I assume if you follow my work that you have an interest in archaeology, or anthropology, or both. As a blend between a humanities discipline and a science, the field of archaeology has its own rules and axioms, most of which are invisible to the final reader of a news article announcing some big find or result. I’ve covered the various routes one could take into archaeology, if one was interested enough to get some dirt under their nails, and now I’ll take some time to present the internal workings of archaeology for the lay reader. This is important if you are someone who tries to keep up with the news on a favourite time period or area, since knowing how archaeology is done helps you decide whether what you are reading is true and accurate.
We start off our ‘core skills’ with the foundational principles of how to dig stuff out of the ground, and what makes it archaeological in the first place. Stratigraphy and context - understanding these is crucial to making sense of techniques like radiocarbon dating, site interpretation and wider changes in climate and geography as we go back further and further in time. Put simply, stratigraphy is a way of describing how layers of soil and human activity develop, one on top of another - while context is a full description of the area that an artefact was found in. Without these we are blind. When someone hands you a stone tool or piece of pottery, you may be able to say something about how it was made, or even a rough time period. But without knowing the context you cannot say anything much more meaningful. We don’t just want to know about the pottery, but where was it made? Was it made on site or somewhere else? Was it part of a local or wider tradition? Who made it and how did their lives relate to their neighbours and their ancestors? This is what separates archaeology from say, an artistic interpretation of an artefact, or merely its worth as an antique?
Stratigraphy - Layers of Time
Before geology there was no archaeology strictly speaking, only antiquarianism. Stirrings existed in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, China and elsewhere, where efforts were made to understand artefacts together, to place them in a sequence. But without stratigraphy they could only get so far. Geology invented stratigraphy, and its laws:
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