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Archaeologists investigate sites and artifacts to answer a specific research question or to save cultural resources from destruction, either from human or natural forces. Archaeologists strive to investigate and preserve the finite and fragile clues of former cultures in order for us to understand our link to the past. They investigate historic as well as prehistoric sites. Archaeologists do not sell artifacts nor do they keep them for themselves. They study them, write a report about the find and then the artifact is curated. Additionally, archaeologists are not looking only for the most spectacular artifacts. Often the dullest piece of pottery will tell the most about a culture that once inhabited a place. In fact, thousands of artifacts are curated each year that may never be seen in a museum display, but tell archaeologists invaluable information about ancient and historic cultures. Archaeologists study past cultures through artifacts, or items people have made, used or modified.
The following are the steps an archaeologist follow in order to investigate a site:
Research -Before an archaeologist begins a site survey, the area's background must be researched. The history can provide information about who lived there, what structures may have been in the area, and how the landscape has changed over time.
Survey - An area is inspected to record and collect artifacts found on the surface or in subsurface tests to determine potential significance of a site and to decide where it would be appropriate to conduct further testing or excavation.
Excavation - The portions of the site to be investigated are usually divided into 1 meter square areas that are meticulously excavated until no more cultural material is found. The site is not dug just with shovels. Soil may be removed with trowels, paintbrushes or dental picks. Larger artifacts are left in place until entirely uncovered, photographed and mapped. All soil removed is carefully screened so that small artifact pieces are saved. Artifacts are bagged and labeled with information on the soil layer from which they came, the excavator's names and site number. Each site is given a number that has its state's archaeological number, county abbreviation and distinctive number.
Artifact Processing - Artifacts are taken to a laboratory to be cleaned and catalogued according to classification.
Analysis - The archaeologist examines the objects to learn how and when they were made and used. Artifacts that are difficult to identify are replicated and experimented with to determine how they may have been used.
Reporting - A report containing all information gathered from the site must be written.
Preservation - Artifacts are curated, or safely stored, at a state archaeology office, museum, or research facility so they are available for future study. Exceptions to this include all human bones, funerary objects or sacred items identifiable to a specific historic Native American tribe. Items such as these are only recovered in order to save them from destruction. After being examined, bones would be reentered in a state-designated cemetery or repatriated to the appropriate tribe. Sacred artifacts would be returned to the appropriate tribe.