Physical Anthropology and Archaeology
Chapter 2: Uncovering the Past: Tools and Techniques
Step 1: Archaeological sites are found by specialized scientific and geological methods
Step 2: Archaeological techniques are used for the excavation of the remains
Provenience (or provenance): the location of an artifact or feature within a site; physical
location in 3 dimensional space
*Site level: grid system
*Regional level: map coordinates/settlement features
*Archaeology is DESTRUCTIVE: once material has been removed, all information
regarding its burial has been lost. Therefore, Archaeologists want to prevent illegal/amateur
excavation and apply rigorous methods to retrieve any remains
Material culture: objects that people have and make; it is a direct reflection of human
culture and behaviour (objects have agency on us)
CONTEXT IS KEY
Observed material culture: “Stuff that gets left behind” that an archaeologists finds
Unobserved (past) human/non-human activity: with its limits, take objects and say
something about the past (meaning)
Interpretation of (past) human activity: goal=to publish something telling a story about the
Site Formation Processes
Site formation processes: environmental and cultural factors that affect how and where
materials are deposited at an archaeological site or fossil locale.
Midden: a pile of refuse (trash), often shells, in an archaeological site.
*Garbage can very handy in determining the elements of a human population.
*How a community constructed its dwellings (places of residence) may have an impact on
the formation of an archaeological site (nomadic or sedentary, for example)
*Locations tend to have layers of accumulated materials superimposed by the groups of
people that once lived there (more difficult to determine nomadic settings because they
were constantly on the move, taking their material culture with them)
*Composition and position of materials can affect the preservation of those remains
*Materials are reused and traded over distances
Material culture can have functional, social, and aesthetic purposes
*Some objects lose their usefulness/utility over time (with the coming of age of new
technologies); i.e., pottery (was useful for everyday tasks in the past, now mostly used for
*Some objects have hierarchal or sentimental value, passed on from generation to
generation (social/cultural purpose)
Natural physical processes can affect the survival of artifacts*Climate, temperature, and natural disasters over time all influence the state of an
archaeological site or artifact (erosion, exposure, destruction, especially for organic
material) Non-organic material (such as stone, metals, baked clay…) are favoured within
the archaeological record
Archaeological sites: areas of past human habitation or where fossil remains are found.
Fossil locales: places where fossilized remains of once living organisms (animals) are found.
*Candidate locations are based on the environment that would have existed tens of
thousands or MYA
*Combination of SKILL and LUCK
What Are Fossils?
*An impression of an insect/leaf on a muddy surface that is now in stone OR actual
hardened remains of an animal’s skeletal structure (bone turned to stone)
Fossilization: the process of becoming a fossil by the replacement of organic materials with
inorganic mineral matrix
Process: *right place at the right time
1) When an animal dies, the organic matter in its body deteriorates. All that remains
in the end are the teeth and skeletal structures (which are composed of inorganic
mineral salts) also deteriorate on most conditions
2) Some conditions are favourable for preservation of animal remains: materials that
found a high mineral environment
What Can We Learn From Fossils?
*Palaeontonlogists rely on comparative anatomy to help reconstruct and dissect missing
pieces of a fossil, as well as technologies
*Geology helps Archaeologists understand the changes in environment over the years that
gave us these fossils
Taphonomy: the study of changes that occur to organisms or objects after being buried or
deposited (the science of the burial)
*The key is learning about the original morphology by examining all its fragments
Finding Archaeological Sites
*Can range from small campsite to large city …
*Many archaeological sites are discovered accidentally!
*Precautions: to make sure that cultural heritage is not being destroyed by modern
development (documenting the boundaries of a site)
Intuition, experience, and subsurface inspections will aid in the initial discovery of
archaeological sitesSurface Techniques: archaeological survey techniques for finding and assessing
archaeological sites from surface finds
*Include field walking and field surveying (for signs of artifacts or surface irregularities)
*Appropriate in situations where disturbances have exposed archaeological materials (e.g.
*Human activities like cultivation, construction or forest clearing may help one discover
material culture from the past
*Aerial photography and satellite imaging help one distinguish past changes to the
landscape on a larger scale
Subsurface Techniques: archaeological survey techniques that map features beneath the
*Often, the surface is not enough to determine past archaeological sites; one needs to look
beneath the surface
*Subsurface techniques can be mechanized or electronic:
Mechanical techniques: can be invasive, such as shovel shining, test pitting, or trenching
Shovel shining: the edge of a shovel is used to scrape off thin layers of the immediate and
usually disturbed surface layer to reveal undisturbed soil. The site is further assessed by
systematically removing layers of the surface from a small, contained area. Suitable for
unearthing features like post moulds, hearths, house foundations, or refuse.
Test pitting: A less destructive method of excavation where a shovel is used to determine
different test pit intervals across the site. A test pit is a sample of artifacts that help date the
site’s age and function. The size, depth, and spacing of test pits vary with the nature of the
site deposits, the research objectives, and the resources available.
Trenching: Ideal in instances where material is suspected to be deep beneath the surface.
Its primary assumption is that the distribution of artifacts within the core will be
representative of the distribution within the immediate surrounding area.
Electronic techniques: are non invasive, allow archaeologist to survey/map below the
surface without disturbing the site
Ground-penetrating radar: involves radar waves that map subsurface sedimentary layers
and buried archaeological features. Radar waves “reflect” off subsurface features and
produce pulses that can be detected on the surface. Can help provide relative locations and
depths of features within the site.Electrical resistivity meters: measure differences in the ability of sediments and other
materials beneath the surface to conduct electricity. (some features are more or less
conductive of electricity)
Magnetometer: can measure the relative magnetism of items below the surface
1) Site evaluation: involves an assessment of the size of the site, depth of the deposits,
site formation processes, and function (Horizontal control + Vertical control =
2) The choosing of a sample to be representative of the entire deposit is critical.
Datum point: a fixed, permanent reference point within or near and archaeological
site used to define the location of all information and specimens collected from the
site. As the datum is a permanent fixture, future investigations can be spatially
related to all previous work at the site.
3) Grid system is laid out: divides the site into 1 or 2 meter squares
4) Archaeologists apply different techniques and equipment, depending on the scale
of the excavation
5) Sediments are examined by removing the backdirt (pile of soil left from excavation)
in buckets, and sifting through fine screens to identify small artifacts (smaller screen