Friday, March 27, 2015

Why the Y in Archaeology is so important

This week our letter is Y and in thinking of topics to cover it occurred to us that perhaps instead of looking at words beginning with the letter Y, we should look at words ending in “y”.  The obvious choice then is the” y” in archaeology.  Archaeology is a science and by mere definition its suffix meansthe scientific study of a particular subject  (Cambridge Dictionary). Archaeology is the study of past human behavior and culture through the systematic recovery and analysis of material remains or objects. Archaeology is a subfield of Anthropology which is the study of all human cultures.  Archaeology is the only discipline that examines all times periods and all geographic regions inhabited by humans. It is through this discipline that we are able to examine patterns of human behavior and how and why cultures change or adapt over time. Making archaeology and anthropology relevant to the general public is our goal and often our biggest challenge. 

Measuring and recording a fire cracked rock feature; evidence of a prehistoric cooking hearth

Archaeologists examine the past through the analysis of remains left by human activity.  We often discuss artifacts that are recovered during excavations in our blogs, but there are also features or cultural activity that is apparent in soils.  Examples include post holes from house structures, fire cracked rock from hearths and refuse pits for discarding of food waste. Artifacts represent the tangible remains of past human activity and are more likely to evoke an emotional bond with other cultures for the general public, but we require more than an artifact to understand its significance. The story or picture of the past is created through multiple processes including analysis of soil disturbances and the artifacts associated with those activities.  Systematic comparative analysis of multiple examples of the same type of artifact provides us with a better understanding of the object’s meaning or function and enables us to make those objects relevant to a broader audience.
archaeological evidence of a house structure dating from the Late Woodland (1550 AD-1000BP) period

Why is archaeology or our cultural heritage important or relative to you and me today? Because as our world changes and we are introduced to other cultures and other perspectives we must have an understanding and appreciation for past human behavior in order to value everyone’s place in society.  Archaeology provides an unbiased description of the past that historians often do not. History is often biased by those who record the events, but archaeology reveals the events based on the scientific evidence. An example of archaeology revealing a more accurate picture of the past is the archaeological evidence of survival at the site of Jamestown in Virginia. (hyperlink ) Understanding how and why cultures have changed in the past, the events or circumstances that evoked those changes provides answers to how we might better adapt to changes in the future.

Isis attack on a museum in Mosul in northern Iraq (image

The destruction of historic and archaeological resources is occurring at an alarming rate and while archaeologists understand the significance of these sites, others often do not.  Most of us are concerned by recent attacks on historic sites in the Middle East, and fear for the survival of artifacts that represent thousands of years of cultural development. Unfortunately, these acts of destruction are not the first time groups have chosen to destroy evidence of the past and it will likely not be the last.  The loss of these resources is painful, but when we consider that cultures have survived these events in the past, we can find hope in their continued survival.  Archaeology and anthropology are important tools in understanding our cultural heritage and provide many of the answers society desires in dealing with the future.

Intern Tam Eichelberger analyzing stone axes in the Science Lab of The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Refit analysis of debitage improves our understanding of lithic technology and stone tool produciton

In summary, the importance of the letter “y” in archaeology is that it depends on “you”. You are the individuals that can value archaeology and our heritage. You are the individuals we want to inspire to learn from the past and for whom we offer museum exhibits and public programming. We hope you will take a few minutes to examine your cultural heritage and the impact that archaeology has provided in understanding our past. Help us to insure that our archaeological heritage is preserved by supporting public programs and preservation laws so that we can protect the past for future generations.

 “Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.” ― George S. Patton

 “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  George Santayana ,The Life of Reason, 1905 

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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