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Tools and Techniques Used in Archaeology

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  • 0:04 Three Main Techniques
  • 1:03 Reconnaissance
  • 1:53 Survey
  • 3:17 Excavation
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

Today's lesson will explain the archaeological techniques of reconnaissance, survey, and excavation. In doing this, it will highlight the terms, artifacts, site mapping, pedestrian survey, and the different types of excavation.

Three Main Techniques

My sister does everything very systematically. When she recently moved, it was like watching a scientist. On a reconnaissance mission, she spent days upon days researching areas to look up school ratings and hospitals, and since she was going to build a new home, interviewing contractors. Once she honed in on a particular area, she flew out to visit. Putting her boots on the ground, she personally surveyed the landscapes, the neighborhoods, the cultural offerings, and so on. Feeling confident that the area was the place for her, she then hired a contractor, and a few months later, began digging up the site of her new home.

Like I said, she works like a scientist, so much so that her moving process is an excellent analogy for the techniques an archaeologist uses in his craft. Just like my sister planned out where to live, an archaeologist will use the techniques of reconnaissance and survey to plan which areas to excavate and study. Going deeper into these terms, today's objective will be to define the three general archaeological techniques of reconnaissance, survey, and excavation.

Reconnaissance

We'll start with reconnaissance. Stated simply, reconnaissance is a wide array of techniques used to locate archaeological sites. Like my sister who first began researching where to live, reconnaissance is usually the first step archaeologists use to determine where to begin their study.

In reconnaissance, archaeologists use everything from aerial photography, historical records, interviews with the area's native populations, even legends and folklore to make their determinations on where and how to begin their study. If they are dealing with underwater areas, perhaps looking for the fabled lost city of Atlantis, reconnaissance can also include using things like sound waves and underwater sonar to explore the depths of lakes, oceans, rivers, and seas.

Survey

Once their reconnaissance has led them to a specific area to study, archaeologists will then begin to survey. Just like my sister actually flying out to visit and walk around her chosen area, a survey is a process of data collection in which archaeological finds are collected from the ground surface of sites and then evaluated. In other words, this is where archaeologists put their boots on the ground.

Again done very meticulously, survey often takes on the form of pedestrian survey, in which surveyors spaced out at specific distances from each other actually walk the site. Sort of like a group of people walking slowly trying to find a lost ring in the sand, pedestrian surveyors walk side-by-side, carefully combing the area. This is often done in order to prepare a site surface survey map, a detailed and accurate map of the intended archaeological site and its surroundings.

In short, surveying helps to establish the best areas to begin excavation. Rather than just going into a site rather willy-nilly, surveying sort of predetermines where things like structures, and dense areas of artifacts, objects made by humans that hold historical interest, may be found. Because one of archaeology's main goals is to disturb as little of the natural environment as possible, surveying is an extremely important step in the archaeological process before any excavation begins.

Excavation

This brings us to our last technique, excavation. As the main tool of archaeology, excavation is the scientific retrieval of material remains, digging, or recovery work that is systematically controlled to harvest the maximum amount of data about a past people group.

With this term being familiar to most of us, we'll look into two of the main types of excavation. First, there is open-area excavation, which occurs when large horizontal areas of land are opened up in order to uncover single time-period artifacts close to the surface. In simpler terms, open-area excavation doesn't usually see archaeologists digging deeply into the soil, unearthing layer upon layer of different ancient cultures existing one on top of the other. Instead, they are usually only studying one culture at a time. Great examples of this are the excavations that occur in North America, places like South Dakota or Nebraska, in which archaeologists have found prehistoric tool artifacts very close to the surface.

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