Archaeological efforts tell the story of history

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Jonathan Smith

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Sunday, May 13, 2018

Archaeology is the study of the human past through its material remains. The information archaeologists use to help them have a better understanding about the past comes from artifacts and archaeological sites.

Artifacts and sites are located either through surface finds or beneath the ground, or water, itself. Artifacts are objects left behind from past peoples that they made or used in their time period. There are three different phases that archaeologists must follow.

Phase I, Identification: The purpose of this phase is to determine if there is a presence or absence of an archaeological site. Archaeologists complete background research of written material on the time period and the place of interest. Field walking surveys are done to locate artifacts on the ground by walking up and down cultivated fields and exposed ground surfaces. Shovel test pits are performed to find out what lies beneath the soil.

Phase II, Evaluation: Archaeologists want to determine if the artifacts found during Phase I have any historical or cultural significance. More shovel test pits are completed to collect data on cultural background, site boundaries are determined, and testing methods of soil samples may be conducted. The stratigraphy of a site is examined and drawn, and a site report is written to determine the preservation and research potential.

Phase III, Data Recovery: If it is determined that the site has historical or cultural significance, a full-scale excavation is carried out to recover more data and expose artifacts from the site. This phase is more extensive than Phase II; a broader area is excavated, tested, and mapped, and artifacts are analyzed on the site or sent to a lab. An archaeological report is written and submitted to a proper agency such as the State Historic Preservation Office.

When artifacts are found at a site, information must be recorded and placed into labeled bags with the unit and level for which the objects were found. At the end of each excavated unit level, field notes should be completed. These notes should include: location, site number, and map number; types and number of artifacts found; site observations such as discoloration in the soil that may indicate different cultural layers, fire pits, postholes, etc.

At the end of an archaeological excavation or just a rainy day, archaeologists bring all the properly labeled bags of artifacts and paperwork back to a lab. Here, artifacts are washed and cleaned, numbered with field specimen numbers, sorted by artifact category, and boxed for later study or conservation. Most artifacts you see in a museum have undergone conservation in some way. Broken ceramic vessels are mended, corroded iron objects are addressed, and wooden objects are dried out and preserved with a special chemical.

If you believe you have an archaeological site on your property, please contact your local museum or the N.C. Office of State Archaeology.

On June 16, the Museum of the Albemarle will be opening its newest exhibit; River Bridge: Sunken Secrets. Excavations at a site along the Pasquotank River have yielded more than 10,000 artifacts, dating from the middle of the 18th century to the early 20th century. View the exhibit, explore an interactive space, and take part in hands-on activities.

The Time Team America (PBS, 2009) episode on Fort Raleigh will be shown on each hour beginning at 11 a.m. A ribbon cutting will be held at 10 a.m.

Jonathan Smith is a Public Information Specialist at Museum of the Albemarle.