I really want to study archaeology and I am choosing my subjects to study at high school. Do you have any suggestions? / Hi, my daughter Hannah in year 9 is considering archaeology as a career. Besides history, which other GCSEs does she need to choose?
Brad (age 13) / Hannah's mum, Joanna
Hello Brad and Hannah (and Joanna),
You have both asked the same question so I'll address my answer to both of you if that's OK.
I realised that it's actually quite a tricky question to answer once I started thinking about it!
You'd think that History would be an obvious choice, but an in-depth understanding of 20th century European politics is not going to help you on a Bronze Age settlement site for example. That said, I think it's an interest in history that drives most people who take up archaeology, and obviously we often dig sites that fall within the historical period, so all-in-all History is probably a good place to start.
Now, a lot of what an archaeologist does is all about communication and the main way we do this is through the written word. I think that you'd be surprised to learn just how much an archaeologist, even one who's just starting in the profession, has to write things down. We start out by writing Context Sheets and Site Registers to record what we dig and these constitute the written record or archive. It is vital that these records are accurate, clear and concise so that a written report of the excavation can be produced. Also, as you advance through the profession, it may be you that has to write the site report and maybe even write up the site for publication in an appropriate archaeological journal. I would, therefore, suggest that English be a subject you take.
Now, as I'm sure you know, archaeology is very much a multi-disciplinary subject drawing on many scientific strands. I would, therefore, suggest that if you wish to pursue a specialism in your career (archaeo-osteology, archaeo-metallurgy, archaeo-environmental, archaeo-dating etc) it would be a good idea to study the sciences.
Finally, it may be an idea to study physical geography. This can help as it is often important to understand the physical geological process by which a site becomes incorporated in to the archaeological record and, therefore, determine the best way the site should be excavated.
For myself I studied Archaeology (I was very lucky that it was offered as a subject where I was educated), English, Maths, Ecology and Human Biology.
Hope this helps you both.
I would like to add that choosing your subjects is a obviously an important step in your education and you are undertaking a commitment to study them for several years. To that end, I would say make sure that you pick subjects that you enjoy!
What equipment do you need for a dig?
Isabel, Age 9
Hi Isabel, thank you for your question and a Happy New Year!
There are loads of different pieces of equipment that an archaeologist might need!
If we go to the very start of the dig, we are going to need a machine, something like a JCB, to dig our trench. We would then need some fencing to make sure no passers-by fall in to our trench!
Our archaeologist is going to need a mattock and shovel or spade to dig the bigger archaeological features. They will also need a trowel for cleaning up and for more detailed work. For even more fiddly work, such as digging up delicate remains like skeletons, our archaeologist might use small leaf-shaped trowels, brushes and perhaps small tools like those used by your dentist to clean between your teeth!
Once our archaeologist has finished digging, they are going to have to record what they have done. They will need a 6H pencil, a special type of waterproof tracing paper called permatrace, a drawing board, hand tapes, a string-line, a line level, and six-inch nails to make a drawn record. They will need pens and recording forms to make a written record, and then a camera to photograph the feature. Then, when all the written records are complete, our archaeologist may survey the trench and archaeological remains using a GPS or perhaps a Total Station.
So it all depends on where in the process our archaeologist starts, but I would say that every archaeologist should have a tool kit that includes a 4 inch trowel, a leaf trowel, a 5m hand tape, a 30m tape, string, nails, a line level, pens and pencils.
So now you know what to ask for next Christmas!
All the best,
How is Carbon Dating done? How can I do it? How can I become an archaeologist? What education and qualifications are required for it?
Hi Rijul, thank you for your questions!
Let's see, we're going to have to get a little scientific...
Carbon dating or radiocarbon dating is a scientific method for dating organic material. Organic material consists of plant or animal remains. It is done by looking at the make up and amount of the element Carbon within a sample of organic material.
Carbon has two stable isotopes, 12C and 11C, and one unstable isotope, 14C. Isotopes are atoms of an element with the normal number of proton and electron particles for that element, but with different numbers of neutrons; so Carbon 12 (12C) has 12 neutrons, Carbon 11 (11C) has 11, and Carbon 14 (14C) has 14 neutrons. With me so far?
During the lifetime of a plant or animal it exchanges carbon with its surroundings. For example, we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, whereas most plants 'breathe' in carbon dioxide and 'breathe' out oxygen when they respire. When a plant or animal dies it is assumed that level of 12C and 14C within the organism is in a specific ratio to the level of 12C and 14C in the atmosphere. However, at the point of death, the organism stops absorbing carbon and so this ratio will change.
Now, the good thing about the unstable isotope 14C is that it is unstable! That means it decays or breaks down, and, we know just how fast it breaks down. We know that 14C has a half-life of 5,730 years; so this means that after 5,730 years the remains of the organism will only contain half the 14C it did when it died. It then follows that a quarter of the original 14C will remain after 11,460, an eighth after 17,190 years and so on.
So, when we test a sample, we measure the number of 12C atoms present and this tells us how much 14C was there originally was. We then measure how much 14C the sample contains and this tells us how much of the unstable isotope 14C has decayed. And as we know the rate of decay we can date the sample! Ta-da! Ain't Science Brilliant?
As to how you can do it, I think you're going have to well in school, particularly in Chemistry, perhaps do a Science degree at university and then look for a job in a testing lab!
If you want to become an archaeologist, again I would suggest doing well in school up to A-Level standard, particularly in the Sciences, History and English. Now it's possible that at this point you could become a trainee/apprentice archaeologist. Some of the bigger archaeological employers offer these positions. Or perhaps you could go to university and take a degree course in Archaeology; it's up to you really!
All the best and work hard Rijul!
What are the most common artefacts you find ? And where do you find the most artefacts?
Savanah (Age 12)
Thank you for your question.
In terms of which types of artefacts are most common, it all depends what kind of site you're on! Let me explain:
If we're digging an early prehistoric site we may recover thousands of lithics. Lithics are flint and stone tools and waste pieces resulting from the production of the tools.
If, however, we are working on a Romano-British site we often find buckets and buckets of pottery.
Check out the picture, which shows the huge amount of pottery I found in just one very short section of enclosure ditch around an area of human activity close to Doncaster in South Yorkshire!
Then again, if we are investigating a site of the industrial age, so 19th century say, we can recover heaps of finds of all different kinds: pottery, animal bone, ceramic building material (bricks, tiles etc), window glass, bottle glass, metal finds of all kinds and fragments of clay pipe ... many, many fragments of clay pipe!
Of the types of finds, I would say that generally it is pottery which we find most often. And pottery is very important as pottery types and methods of manufacture change over time making it very useful in dating our sites. Actually, if you look at the photo of me taking a photograph on the Ask the Archaeologist page, you'll see me taking a photo of an early medieval pottery kiln in Pontefract. When it was abandoned, the kiln was backfilled with over 25,000 sherds of pottery!
As to where we find the most artefacts, I would have to say cities. If we are digging in a city such as London that has a very long history, we might dig down through metres of occupation layers from the last century right back to its Roman origins. On such excavations we could find hundreds of thousands of finds!
Hope this helps,
All the best,
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What is the most interesting thing you have found? What is the first step in excavating old bones and artefacts?
Shaiah (Age 13)
Two questions for the price of one!
I think the most interesting and challenging site I've found is an Iron Age village with huge enclosure ditches, roundhouses and a shrine with lots of lambs buried in it as well as a human baby! We had so many finds. We had boxes and boxes of pottery and animal bone and we even had a couple of gold brooches!
If I was to pick an artefact, I would have to pick a beautiful polished axe I found on a quarry down in Norfolk.
Check out the picture of it (left) What an amazing find! I felt so lucky to have rediscovered it.
Your second question is a proper archaeological question!
OK, so if we've removed all the topsoil and any other overburden from our site and we can see archaeological features perhaps with finds (pottery, bone etc) on top of the features, the first thing we would do is trowel and trowel to clean the feature so we can see exactly where it starts and finishes. We would then decide on the best way to excavate our feature. Once our plan is made, we give our feature some numbers. As I'm sure you know numbers are very important for archaeologists and we call them 'context numbers'. So the cut of the feature gets a number (for example, 100) and the fill also gets one (e.g. 101). That way, any finds we dig up will have a context number written on the bag we put them in. This is very important because the context number tells us exactly where the finds came from the this makes it possible to tell the story of the site and how and what people were doing there.
All the best!
Why are the things from the olden days under the ground?
Edward, Age 4
Thank you for your question!
Well, there are several ways in which old stuff gets buried. Archaeologists call the process of how an archaeological site is formed taphonomy. We can break this process in to two halves:
Firstly, through natural processes.
Old stuff might get buried by flooding which brings in silt and debris that is left behind when the water retreats. A volcano might bury a site, like at Pompeii in Italy where a whole Roman town was buried! Or perhaps a landslide caused by an earthquake or lots of rain. Even earthworms can bury stuff! If you drop a coin on the grass, over the years the action of the worms will cause the coin to be slowly buried.
Secondly through the action of people.
In old towns that grew into bigger towns and cities, whole streets were often buried under layers of demolition rubble or earth intentionally brought into the towns. Archaeologists call these layers 'made ground'. People would then build up from these layers creating new streets and buildings. We can see this especially well in London where Roman streets and buildings have been buried under meters of made ground, and in York where Viking buildings and streets have been found.
People in the past often dug ditches around their houses, their villages and their fields and then rubbish (broken pottery, stone tools, animal bone etc) was thrown in to the open ditches. When the people moved away, the ditches slowly silted up and the stuff was buried for us to find later. We also find rubbish pits that people dug in the past.
Finally, people sometimes buried things intentionally. People might bury valuable stuff like coins, precious metals or weapons to protect them and keep them safe. They may have intended to return to their stuff but then something happened and they didn't, or, maybe, they were buried with the intention that they were offerings to the gods or spirit world and they would never be recovered.
Hope this helps, Edward. Happy digging!
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What is the most gruesome thing that someone had died from, that you have found?
James Johnson, age 8
A very gruesome question, it's a shame it's not Halloween!
As an archaeologist I have come across a lot of dead people but it is often very difficult to tell how the person died. All we have left is the skeleton and there are very few diseases that leave tell-tail signs on the bone; tuberculosis being one I can think of.
Sometimes, but very rarely, archaeologists find war graves where we can see soldiers that have met a sticky end. Some have arms, legs and even heads missing, having had them cut or blown off. However, I haven't found anything like that...
I think I have to go back to early winter 2006 for my most gruesome find; I was digging on a quarry site in Norfolk when we came across a Bronze Age barrow. As we dug, we found Bronze Age cremations but we also found several inhumations (buried skeletons) within the barrow. Two of the skeletons were buried in one grave and another had its hands behind it's back as though they were tied. This led us to believe the bodies were those of execution victims and that they had been hanged! I think they dated to the Anglo-Saxon period as Bronze Age barrows were often the focus for execution and burial in later times because barrows were, as Beowulf tells us, thought of as the houses of dragons and demons and so buried offenders would endure eternal torment from supernatural forces!
Hope this is gruesome enough, James!
Hi Phil, I found strange tube-like bones in limestone along a river, which I can't identify. Can you help? They range about 10mm x 2mm to 100mm x 30mm. I also found a graveyard of small snails by the thousands, and small circular golden ball-like specimens
From Kaone lekoko
I think we are wandering out of the realm of archaeology and in to the kingdom of palaeontology or geology here! But I'll give it a go!
The biggest clue you have given me is the fact you found them in an area with limestone geology.
Limestone is a sedimentary rock made up of the skeletal remains of trillions and trillions and trillions of small marine animals such as corals, molluscs and forams. Now, I think what you have here are not actually bones but the remains of the hard exoskeletons of prehistoric tube worms.
As for the small golden balls, I'm afraid I don't know, but my guess would be that they are naturally polished and rolled grains of a different kind of stone that got incorporated in to the limestone as it formed.
Hope this helps Kaone... perhaps we need to ask Ask the Palaeontologist?
All the best,
Dear Phil, Please could you tell me what a henge is? Someone I know says he found one, but I'm not sure! Thank you very much
My first question and a very interesting one! Right up my street!
A henge is a circular bank and ditch monument usually with the bank on the outside. They usually have one entrance but some examples have two or three.
They were built in the later Neolithic period and on in to the Early Bronze Age, so perhaps around 3000 to 2000 BC.
Many of the henges we know today often have stone circles added to them at a later date like at Stonehenge or Avebury but that was not always the case; the three henges at Thornborough in North Yorkshire don't have stone circles.
We rarely find any pottery or animal bone in the ditch which tells us people did not live in them and throw rubbish away; so what were they for?
Archaeologists believe henges are ritual monuments where people would attend ceremonies on important days of the year. Many henges have entrances aligned on midwinter sunrise and others on midsummer, suggesting the winter and summer solstices (the shortest day and longest day) were important. And it is likely the equinoxes (when the day and night are of equal length) were also important. After all, it was important for the farmers, who built the henges, to track the passing of year and to understand when best to plant crops and raise livestock.
Hope this helps, Peter!
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