Archaeology: What Survives?

Archaeologists study what humans leave behind. But not everything can survive in the archaeological record. How well things survive is strongly impacted by the materials that they are made of and the environment in which they lie. Given the right combination of material and environment, archaeological remains could survive for millions of years. Other objects may disappear within decades.

Organic materials are more likely to decay and are greatly affected by moisture and air. This includes anything that was once living like human, animal, and plant remains and anything made of them like food, wood, or leather. Unless they are preserved in special conditions, organic remains decay fairly quickly. Most archaeological sites have little to no organic remains.

Inorganic remains survive better, even though some things can rust or break down. Inorganic materials include things like stone, metal, clay, plastic, and glass. These things were never living.

Common finds at archaeological excavations in Manassas National Battlefield Park include bullets, made of lead, buttons from uniforms made of metal, and shards of pottery.
 

Think of a room at home. Draw that room and the objects within it. 

1,000 years have passed, and the room you drew has not been specifically preserved. Circle the objects that will be left after the organic materials decay.

List those objects below:

Once they examine the archaeological record, archaeologists use what they have found to try to reconstruct the lives of the people who left the objects behind. Who were they? What did they do here? What happened to them? Think about the list of objects you created.

If in 1,000 years, an archaeologist examines what is left of the room you chose, what would they think? What conclusions would the archaeologist draw about the room, about your family, about you?

Is there anything in the room that might be particularly confusing to a future archaeologist?

Is there anything in the room that you wish would survive to provide information for the future archaeologists?

Last updated: June 28, 2021

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