Read an interview with Dr Diane Davies on what it is like to be an archaeologist and digging in the Maya rainforest
What is Archaeology?
Being an archaeologist, I try to understand how people lived in the past by looking at the things they left behind. Archaeologists are sort of like detectives in that we find clues about the past through digging (excavation) then piece these clues together to create a picture of what life might have been like in the ancient world. From this we also try to make a chronology, that is a sequence of events and dates through time.
We do need to be careful though when making interpretations about the past as of course we can’t ask the ancient people themselves and so we speak for them. There can be many different scenarios for how an artefact was used, so archaeologists then need to look at all the different scenarios and then choose the one that has the best evidence to support it.
While it is wonderful to find objects of beauty, the past is about people not objects and what is more important is the story behind the objects. We can only tell this story if the artefact is in its original resting place and has not been moved. It is for this reason that objects found through excavation are especially important because being underground they are often protected from nature and humans.
Archaeologists work all over the world from fields in England to the deserts in Peru, to the jungle of the Maya, which is where I work. Sometimes we are known for our spectacular discoveries such as Howard Carter’s find of the tomb of Tutankhamun, one of the rulers (pharaohs) of Egypt as well as proposing new archaeological techniques such as Sir Williams Flinders Petrie or Sir Mortimer Wheeler.
One of the reasons why I enjoy doing archaeology so much is that it is made up of many different subjects. We use maths in measuring out our square test pits as well as in finding patterning in different pottery or tool types. We use geography when we look at maps and aerial photos. We use science in many ways, from following the scientific method in collecting data and conducting experiments, the dating methods we use and working with the environment in plants and bones we find.
Of course, we use history too for chronologies, but archaeology goes one step further than history in looking at societies without writing. History is restricted to the past 5000 years when writing has been in existence, whereas archaeology has no time limit and can go back to around 2.5 million years, when our ancestors lived. Also, history also focuses on societies with writing and those who knew how to write were usually those the richest and most powerful people in these societies (the elite), in archaeology we can gain information about all members including rich and poor, men and women and even children. What remains do you think a child would leave behind?