[NPS Arrowhead]
U.S. Dept. of Interior National Park Service Archeology Program Quick Menu Features * Sitemap * Home

Archeology for Interpreters > 4. What Do Archeologists Do?

How do archeologists know where to look for sites?

The discovery and examination of archeological resources are two basic activities undertaken by archeologists. Archeological surveys seek to identify all or a sample of the archeological resources in a given study area. Site testing or evaluation focuses on extracting information about the size, contents, and structure of an archeological site, a portion of a site, a number of related sites, or, perhaps, the spatial distribution of archeological remains within an area, such as a portion of a river valley or a battlefield.

Choosing appropriate techniques for an archeological investigation depends on many factors. First, one must consider the purpose of the investigation. Is the target one kind of site—for example, a prehistoric mound or a site of a particular time period? Or is the goal to find the full range of site types within a given area, as is the typical case for historic preservation and environmental impact-related studies? If a particular type of site is the target, one can focus on a technique that detects the specific characteristics of that particular site type. If a wide range of sites is the target, one will want to choose a technique or techniques that will detect the characteristic(s) most commonly shared by all the expected site types. The choice of techniques is a vital part of any archeologist's research design.

Based on knowledge gained from previous research about a culture being studied, an archeologist can narrow down the location of potential sites that might add new information about that culture. This information as well as an outline of proposed methods forms the basis of a research design. This is a document in which the objectives of the investigation are described and briefly justified. It states questions that the research will address. It describes the rationale for the selection of particular archeological method(s) and technique(s) and the level of effort necessary to accomplish these objectives. The research design fully considers natural environmental conditions and expected archeological site characteristics. It also addresses the expected types of material remains that will be collected and identifies the analytical methods that will be used to study them. Strategies for curating and storing the collections are also addressed.

Forming a Research Design

Research designs should consider the historic contexts available in State preservation plans or other relevant documents. Contexts provide the basis to design expectations about site type, distribution, condition and characteristics such as size, depth and nature of resources. Contexts also provide the basis to evaluate resources through comparison with other properties. Terms should be clearly defined so that it is clear, for example, what constitutes a site.

Within the research design, expectations should be fully described and justified. The intensity of a survey depends upon the amount and nature of the information discovered through archival research and informant interviews, past and present land use, past ecological settings, geomorphology, the kinds and density of ground cover, the expected presence and distribution of sites, existing museum collections and the expected number of site types as well as the specific needs of the project. All of the following sections may be components of a project that should be justified in the research design.

Before archeologists put trowel or shovel to ground, they conduct background research using archival and oral sources. The information helps them to know where to excavate and what they might find.

Archival Research

(image) Drawing showing the burning of Samuel mumma's farm during the battle of Antietam.

Archeologists used this 1862 drawing of Confederates burning the Mumma Farm to locate building sites. ( NPS)

Archival research often is very productive for investigations aimed at discovering and evaluating prehistoric and historic archeological sites. In areas where the archeological record is well recorded, the kinds and locations of known sites often help archeologists predict the likely locations of unreported sites. Archeologists conducting archival research will use documentary sources to build an historical framework based on previous research and archeological investigations as well as new research questions and strategies.

Historical archeologists use a variety of documentary sources found in historical societies, libraries, government agencies, private collections and other repositories. Maps, official records, photographs, journals, tax records, diaries, private and official correspondence, and newspapers are among the many archival resources available to historical archeologists. Prehistoric archeologists and historical archeologists alike consult site reports, existing artifacts, and topographic maps to identify sites.

Archeologists must use archival data carefully, however. Archival resources may be biased, incomplete, or nonexistent. To confirm whether an archeological site exists in a location, fieldwork should be organized to test the predicted pattern and to improve the efficiency of the investigation.

Oral Histories

Oral history is historical tradition, such as genealogical information, which is passed by word of mouth. Oral histories may consist of a person's memories about his or her past experiences or knowledge or traditions passed from one generation to the next. Oral histories are the basis of cultural identity and knowledge for many groups and are a key element in understanding that group's experiences, perspectives, and culture.

Oral histories can be an important resource for archeologists. People who have personal or traditional experience with a site may offer unique information about the site's use and meaning. However, because memories may be biased and fallible, oral histories should be used cautiously and in conjunction with other documentary or ethnographic research.

The importance of a site may change over time. Thus, oral histories must be compared closely with ethnographies. Ethnographies tend to concentrate more on the knowledge people have of a site or object in the present, or how they look back on a historical or archeological site from the present. Many sites, objects, or natural resources that had a subsistence use in the past, for example, may be important to certain groups or peoples today because of their educational value about the past.

Case studies

Samuel de Champlain's Expeditions
See how archeologists used maps and diaries to pinpoint the locations where Champlain and an expedition of French explorers sailed along North America.

Stories: Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site
Descendants of the Native Americans killed at Sand Creek worked with NPS archeologists to identify the site of the massacre.

Try it yourself

"Comfortable Camps?" Archeology of the Confederate Guard Camp at the Florence Stockade
See what an education program might look like that ties historical and archeological information together. This Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan focuses on the conditions at Florence Stockade, an archeological site on the National Register of Historic Places.