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The history of past cultures has been a fascinating topic of debate and discovery for hundreds of years. From the discoveries of fossilized elephant bones leading to the legends of the gigantic Cyclops to the modern day discoveries of the remains of ancient Mayan temples and the shaman that lived there, archaeologists have been bringing the facts back to life. Man has, of course, always been interested in the question of his origin, and as prehistoric remains so often lie near the earth s surface especially flints and stones- they had not escaped the notice of our ancestors (Eydoux 9). These clues about the past lead to interest and eventually serious inquiry as to their origins. Archaeology is the study of past human culture and activities from the beginnings of human population to the present. These human behaviors of the past are studied through examination of the physical remains of past human civilizations. The archaeologist does not observe human behavior and culture directly but reconstructs them from material remains: pottery, tools, garbage, ruins of buildings, and whatever else a society has left behind (Nanda and Warms 4). Archaeology is an important field of anthropology. Anthropology is the study of human culture and biology, mainly in the present day sense. Archaeologists focus on the study and reconstruction of past communities and the eventual changes experienced by those societies over long periods of time.
The immense stock of information can be found in any area of the world that is or has been occupied by humans. Through the use of careful field excavations and laboratory scrutiny, archaeologists can piece together the story of the lives of that group of people. Unfortunately, time is of the essence. Many of the remains of the civilization can disappear through weathering and erosion, vegetative overgrowth, and being buried under eons of dirt layers. The bits of information that have survived the millennia have done so under positive preservative conditions. The most common survivors include stone and some metal tools, bones, teeth, stone buildings, and pieces of pottery. This affords the scientists with a partial view into the world of the ancient civilization they are studying. The lack of a complete history lends itself to educated reasoning and supposition as to how things were.
From the highly publicized findings of archaeologists, people get a glimpse of only part of the total amount of investigating that takes place. This work in the field is what the public sees. What they do not see is the painstaking research performed in a laboratory setting. Of the two, the work done in the field is more often publicized, especially the aspects that support reverie about romance, glamour, perhaps buried treasure, and travel. The fruitful and unspectacular work of laboratory analysis and description, the library and museum research, the historical scholarship, and the financing receive less frequent attention (Meighan 9).
Archaeologists have had to employ many different tools and techniques since its official beginning as a profession in the late nineteen hundreds and early twentieth century. As in all other professions, technology has advanced the methods of gathering information, fossils, and clues for the archaeologist. In the early years, archaeologists used simplistic tools for excavation as well as cataloging an entire site by hand. They employed small rock hammers, shovels, crude brushes, and intensive labor to remove the layers of time from the site. Today, archaeologists enjoy computer technology for cataloging, metal detectors for locating treasure, sonar imaging, and radio imaging for looking in the earth before actually digging. Of these technological advances, the computer stands out as the most versatile. At the simplest level, computers can store vast quantities of data, making it feasible to create national databases of sites, monuments, and other archaeological discoveries (McIntosh 168). By recording this information into computer databases, scientists all over the world are able to search through the information without having to make long trips to a physical archive and spending countless hours looking through volumes to find what they are looking for. The computer is a powerful tool for the archaeologist. It has been used to map surrounding areas of dig sites, as well as the site itself, generate virtual reality images of what the buildings and a city in general would have looked like, and a myriad of other applications involving the coordination and use of sophisticated equipment as well. These tools of the trade lead the archaeologists along a fantastic trail of mystery and discovery about peoples that have been long forgotten.
Archaeologists study from as far back as four million years to trace the lineage of hominids that lived then. These lineages are followed through, to name a few, Australopithecus, Cro- Magnon man, Neanderthals, Homo habilis, and Homo sapiens. This lineage is called a chronology of events and people. The establishment of chronological events is the first goal of archaeology. From this the scientists can derive a picture of the past that follows the advancements and discoveries made by early humans. They can follow the spread of new technologies and discoveries to other groups and regions. By establishing these sequential events, archaeologists can demonstrate a long timeline for past human cultures.
By following the chronology and information gathered at sites as well as the surrounding area and environment, archaeologists can begin the reconstruction of the group. This reconstruction of the life of early humans gives an up close look at the way things possibly occurred in every day life. These aspects could include eating habits, food gathering techniques, rituals and religion, architecture, and any other part of their lives. The restoration of what might have been can then be used along with modern models, experiments, and examination of the world today to attempt an explanation of these past groups and what may have happened to them along the way. These explanations can vary greatly. Many scientists have very different opinions on what happened in every day life of early man and more contemporary cultures.
These issues are often hotly debated. Unfortunately, archaeologists are not always able to absolutely support or discredit many of these suppositions. Whether or not these findings can be completely substantiated, the world would be at a loss if not for the dedicated men and women in the field of archaeology. Without their painstaking research, excavation, and explanations, we would not have the tombs of the Pharaohs, the city of Troy, the meanings of the hieroglyphs, or any idea that other humans lived on the earth. Any information gleaned from these ancient cultures can be credited to the hard work of the archaeologist.
1. Eydoux, Henry- Paul. A History of Archaeological Discoveries. London: Leisure Arts Limited Publishers, (no date given).
2. McIntosh, Jane. The Practical Archaeologist. New York: Checkmark Books, an imprint of Facts On File inc., 1999.
3. Meighan, Clement W. Archaeology: An Introduction. San Francisco, Chandler Publishing Company, 1966.
4. Nanda, Serena and Warms, Richard L. Cultural Anthropology. Belmont, CA., West/ Wadsworth, 1998.
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