We, humans, are always fascinated by our past. Not only by our own, ‘personal’ past but also by the collective family tree of all humanity, the history of civilizations that existed thousands of years ago. But have you ever wondered: how do we actually learn about the past?

If you think it’s as easy as walking into an ancient temple filled with treasure, like Indiana Jones does, well, you’re wrong. Reality may be less ‘glamorous’ but we do still rely on what was left behind by past humans. Every person that ever lived has left a little piece of himself or herself behind – from the most intimate, their own bones, to all the things they were using in their everyday life. The people who study these things are called archaeologists.

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How do we know that people of the Stone Age were great hunters? How do we know what an ancient Egyptian would eat for lunch? How do we know the routes traders would use to connect the vast Roman Empire?

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Archaeologists face two challenges:

– First, they must find something. Objects of the past are most often buried in the ground with little clue on the surface as to what lies beneath. Generally, the further back we want to go in time the deeper we have to dig. During this excavation process archaeologists remove layers of soil and carefully record every object found in each layer – a broken piece of someone’s bowl, a sharp stone scythe, a part of somebody’s skeleton.

 

– Second, they use all these finds to piece together who left them behind and how that person was living. By finding such remains from many individuals they can eventually understand how a whole society was structured. This task is actually the most challenging. How would you go from a tray of broken shards to describing an entire ancient society?

Societies change through time and so do the things people leave behind. The further back in time an archaeologist wants to go the deeper they have to dig!

The most obvious way to start is by looking. You would have to describe each find and try to compare it with what is already known. One important problem with this approach is that in the beginning archaeologists had no way to accurately date finds in order to tell how old they were. They were only able to tell if something was older or younger than something else, as available technology as well as fashion changed through time. Another issue is that a simple description of an object does not necessarily capture why it was used and how it was made. Only knowing that your laptop has a 15″ screen doesn’t reveal much about its function.

In the 1970s things changed. Analysing archaeological finds using methods from fields like physics or chemistry provided archeologists with information that would otherwise remain hidden:

Different types of archaeological finds need to be examined in different ways to reveal useful information. Sometimes one type of find can hold more than one type of information!

 

– Accurate dating techniques based on radiocarbon (14C) meant that bones, teeth or even coals from an ancient hearth could be placed at a precise point in time.

– Bones and teeth hold clues about an individual’s diet and whether or not they had been moving from place to place during their lifetime.

– Objects made out of materials like ceramic, metal or glass, contain information about how they were made and where. By examining such objects we can understand the technology these people used and also if there were trade contacts between distant lands.

For the past 50 years this collaboration between archaeology and other sciences has flourished and expanded into a field called Archaeological Science. Archaeological science is a great example of how people with different backgrounds work together to inform each other and enhance collective knowledge. From cutting edge laboratory instruments and large-scale data analysis to satellite imaging and 3D digitization, archaeologists now, more than ever, have a diverse set of tools at their disposal.

Remember: archaeologists may be looking into the past, but they still live in the present!

Think like an archaeologist

Imagine you are an archaeologist living 1000 years in the future and you are looking back at our society. What types of objects would you find? Would you be able to understand how a smartphone was used if you were not able to turn it on? Would you find clues of an economic crisis if you had no written reports of it?  What would this world look like to you?

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