What is Archaeology?

    • Learning about the past by looking at the things they left behind is called archaeology (pronounced ‘r-KEY-oh-low-GEE’). People who do this are called archaeologists.

      You can find out more about what an archaeologist does from the real thing - The American Natural History Museum has an interview with archaeologist Chuck Spencer.

      What do archaeologists look for?

      Archaeologists look for artefacts, which are the remains of things that were made but were never living (for example jewellery, pots and so on).

      Artefacts can be found almost anywhere humans have been. Imagine if you left something in your back garden – it would eventually be covered in leaves or trampled into the ground.

      As things get buried they form layers. This is called stratigraphy. These layers can look like the layers of a cake – Past Explorers can explain more.

      Archaeologists dig down very carefully into the soil to uncover the layers: the ones nearest to the surface happened most recently, and layers at the bottom happened the earliest. When archaeologists do this it is called an excavation or a dig. They can look like the picture below.

      photograph of iron age archaeological dig© Michael Trolove (image cropped)
      Tyne & Wear Museums have a great archaeology game where you can try identifying different layers, as well as practice some other archaeological skills.

      How do archaeologists find artefacts?

      Archaeologists need lots of equipment to help them find sites and then dig up objects. What do you think archaeologists need to pack to go on a dig? Have a go at packing a bag on the Past Explorers website.

      The American History of Natural History also has a game on their website which can tell you more about the kind of tools archaeologists use to find sites, as well what they use to dig up objects and examine them.

      What happens after a dig?

      We spoke to an archaeologist to find out what happens to a dig site after the archaeologists leave – you can read all about it here. But what happens to the artefacts?

      Once archaeologists have found some artefacts, they then carefully remove them from the site and then study them in a lab. The Museum of London has a game where you can handle an object in 3D to find out more about what it is made of and how it was used.

      Archaeologists use all the information they have to put together a picture of the past. They might even have to put objects back together if they’ve been broken. Repairing and looking after artefacts is known as conservation.

      Have a go at putting an object back together yourself with the British Museum’s Piece by Piece game.

      Artefacts are then stored by museums and archaeological services. In this video from the Museum of London, the manager explains what it’s like to be surrounded by millions of objects that used to belong to someone else.

      Find out more

      The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in the US has a great game that takes you through all the different tasks and skills archaeologists need.

      If you’d like to try archaeology for yourself, why not join the Young Archaeologists Club (YAC)? They have branches all over the UK that offer young people aged between eight and 17 the chance to learn how to do archaeology themselves.

      See if there’s a branch near you here.

      They also have some useful information on how to become an archaeologist.

      To find out more about archaeological digs happening near you, check out Current Archaeology.
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