Archeology for the Non-Archeologist
Why Should We Care About
Identifying Archaeological Sites
Data Sets and Significant Questions In Archaeology
Using Criterion D
Suggested Readings and Websites
Why Should We Care About Archaeology
as Part of the Preservation Process and National Register nominations/documentation?
PLANNING: Many historic sites and standing structures worthy of preservation
have related (and sometimes unrelated) pre and/or post contact archaeological
remains that go unidentified, unrecognized, and thus unprotected and
not considered in the planning process. In order to make informed and
wise decisions about a property's long-term management, archaeological
potential should be identified and significance made clear.
RESEARCH: Identified sites can be considered in current historical
and archaeological research (particularly cross-cultural, geographical,
functional, or comparative studies--see Data Sets
and Significant Questions in Archaeology, below). Archaeological
information can be used in the interpretation of the site and the lives
of the inhabitants, ultimately making the available information, research
potential and interpretation more rich. Archaeology can supplement the
historical record. Many times, archaeology challenges the information
in written records, maps, and historical accounts and points out inherent
biases in written information. It is important to remember that written
records are sometimes a biased line of evidence for understanding the
past, so we should remember not to privilege written documentation above
other evidence such as oral history and material remains. Archaeology
documents the lives of everyday people and poorly documented people
(such as enslaved Africans), and people for which there exists no written
records or records that may be severely biased (like American Indians)
and provides clues to operating ideologies (worldview, perspectives).
Archaeological data can help us understand the development of modernization,
globalization, and industrialization (like the spread of ideas, technology,
material things, consumer behavior, communication, and the development
of a capitalist economy). (See selected bibliography
for examples of such research).
STEWARDSHIP: Identifying archaeological sites (and listing them on
the National Register) will articulate the significance of archeological
remains to landowners and the public. When archaeological and historical
significance is known, the public's support of these resources can help
provide funding for archeological and historical programs, help to protect
archeological and historical resources. In addition, the public lobbies
for legislation which addresses these concerns.
There are several ways to determine if archaeological sites exist (such
as reconnaissance and intensive surveys and predictive modeling) and
if they are relevant to the nomination and/or documentation. Please
refer to the National Register Bulletin: Guidelines
for Local Surveys: A Basis for Preservation Planning, for more
specific information on archaeological survey and identification. Here
is a checklist of some relevant questions that should be used as a starting
point for identifying sites and their significance:
*What contexts are being used to understand the significance
of the property?
*What type of property are you dealing with (landscape, structure only,
*What region is the property in?
*What is the time period the property was occupied or used?
*Does historical research indicate that there may have been additional
structures on the property?
*What type of structures existed here through time? How was this
land used through time?
*How many owners has the property had?
*What types of activities took place on the property and/or outside
the main structure?
*Is there any visual evidence of previous structures and/or activities
(ie, foundations, obvious swells, ditches, or depressions, roadbeds,
or other features)?
*Have historic or prehistoric artifacts been found on the surface
of your property?
*Is your property currently being plowed, or has it ever been
*What kinds of things have been done on the property that could
have disturbed any archaeological deposits?
*What is the American Indian use of the area?
*What is the likelihood - based on prior work and/or predictive
modeling - that a prehistoric site(s) exists in the area?
*What is the history (and prehistory) of the region where the
property is located?
*What is the role of the property in the historical development
of the jurisdiction, state and region in which it is located?
*What is the property's role in America's history?
*What information is available in the state historic preservation
plan based upon work and research already done?
*What sites have been identified, researched and/or excavated in the
locale--and are they related to your property or the reason the property
*What archaeological site reports are available at your SHPO's office,
your local or regional National Park Service Office, any local or regional
CRM firms, local or regional historical societies, local or regional
research libraries, and are they related to your property and/or the
reason your property is significant?
*Are there any local or regional archaeological groups (such
as the Archaeological Society of your state) that could be contacted
for information about the work they have done in your area?
*What types of research questions have been asked of properties
similar to yours where archaeological remains have been found?
*Can you adequately define the extent and integrity of any archaeological
*Note: Urban areas should not be automatically thought to have disturbed
deposits or inadequate integrity for answering important research questions.
Archaeologists have developed special methods for working in an urban
environment. Sampling strategies, fieldwork, expenses, and public outreach
are noticeably different for urban areas. The cities of Alexandria,
Virginia (see selected bibliography and websites)
and St. Augustine, Florida have active municipal urban archaeology programs
and their research provides good examples of what types of important
information can be learned about urban landscapes, people, and culture
through archaeology (for instance, urban archaeologists have contributed
to our understanding of the origins of urbanization, modern urban problems
in the areas of sanitation, transportation, housing, and social and
Data Sets and Significant Questions
It is important to remember that while most historic sites and structures
nominated to the National Register have archaeological potential, this
information may not be important to our understanding of the pre- and
post-contact periods of our history and/or this information may not
be directly related to the significance of the property (ie, may not
be related to the reason the property is being nominated)
So, what are the important questions in archaeology and how can that
information be related to data found at archaeological sites? If the
property has archaeological potential, but this information is not directly
related to the reasons the property is being nominated, or the resource
has not been adequately defined, how do we deal with that potential
(is it significant in it's own right; does it deserve an additional
nomination or an amendment to an existing nomination, additional research)?
DATA: As humans interact with their environment and with each
other, they leave behind evidence of their actions. Derived from the
common phrase "archeological site," the National Register defines an
archeological property as the place or places where the remnants of
a past culture survive in a physical context that allows for the interpretation
of these remains. It is this physical evidence of the past and its
patterning that is the archeologist's data base. The physical evidence,
or archeological remains, usually takes the form of artifacts (e.g.,
fragments of tools or ceramic vessels), features (e.g., remnants of
walls, cooking hearths, or trash middens), and ecological evidence (e.g.,
pollens remaining from plants that were in the area when the activities
occurred). Ecological remains of interest to archeologists are often
referred to as "ecofacts." Things that are of archeological importance
may be very subtle, hard to see and record. It is not only artifacts
themselves that are important but the locations of artifacts relative
to one another, which is referred to as archeological context (not to
be confused with historic contexts). Archeologists frequently rely upon
ethnographic information, either directly or through analogy, to analyze
the archeological record. Oral history and traditional knowledge is
often essential for interpretation.
Data sets, or data categories, are groups of information. Data
sets are defined by the archeologist, taking into consideration
the type of artifacts and features at the property, the research
questions posed, and the analytical approach that is used. Whatever
their theoretical orientation, all archeologists look at patterns
in the archeological record. It is the evaluation or analysis
of data sets and their patterning within the framework of research
questions that yields information. Data sets can be types
of artifacts (such as ceramics, glass, animal remains, human remains,
lithics, metals, plant remains, textiles, wood, shell, or tools),
archeological features (such as privies, trash middens, or tailings
piles), or patterned relationships between artifacts, features,
soil stratigraphy, or above-ground remains. A graveyard, for example,
might contain at least three data sets: the human remains, items
buried with the deceased, and the arrangement of the graves within
Methods of analysis can be broken down into three broad categories:
spatial analysis (methods of determining patterns of distribution),
chronological analyses (dating archaeological materials and sites)
and artifact or material analysis. Analysis of different types
of materials can be broken down roughly into three parts: morphological/typological
analysis, material analysis (studies of the composition of artifacts)
and technological analysis. Examples of different kinds of archaeological
analysis, methodologies, and techniques include (but are not limited
to): archeomagnetic dating, archaeometry, artifact distribution
analysis, settlement pattern analysis, luminescence dating, seriation,
typological analysis, chronological analysis, surface collecting,
statistical analysis, stratigraphic analysis, (paleo) environmental
reconstruction, ethnoarchaeology, experimental archaeology, fission-track
dating, dendrochronology, obsidian hydration dating, potassium-argon
dating, radiocarbon dating, minimum vessel analysis, geophysical
prospection, ground penetrating radar, magnetometry, soil resistivity,
ground surveys, excavation, subsurface testing, floatation, lithics
analysis, chemical analysis, mortuary analysis, sampling, ariel
photography, infrared photography, seasonality studies
So how do these analyses translate to important research questions...
Archeologists have at least three over-arching goals. The first
is to reconstruct sequences of societies and events in chronological
order in local and regional contexts. The second is to reconstruct
past lifeways, including the ways that people made a living (such
as how they obtained and raised food as well as how they produced,
distributed and consumed tools and other goods); the ways they
used the landscape (such as the size and distribution of camps,
villages, towns, and special places); and their interactions with
other societies and within their own (such as household structure,
social organization, political organizations and relationships).
The third is to achieve some understanding of how and why human
societies have changed through time.
There are a number of categories of questions that are used routinely
to frame research designs in terms of anthropological observations
of societies. Such general topics include but are not limited
to: economics of subsistence, technology and trade; land use and
settlement; social and political organization; ideology, religion,
and cosmology; paleoenvironmental reconstruction; and ecological
adaptation. In addition, a category of questions that relate to
improvement to archeological methodology should be considered.
What are important questions in archeology? Even if a current list
of important research questions existed (that archeologists could agree
upon), the questions would still change as the discipline evolves and
certain questions are answered and others are asked. Moreover, as research
questions of the future cannot be anticipated, the kinds of data necessary
to answer them cannot be determined with certainty. Thus, the research
potential of a historic property must be evaluated in light of current
issues in archeology, anthropology, history, and other disciplines of
study (Ferguson 1977 - see selected bibliography).
Theoretical positions on and pragmatic debates about important research
questions are expressed at professional archeological conferences and
in the professional literature and journals. For example, the Society
for Historical Archeology sponsored a plenary session titled "Questions
that Count in Archeology" at its annual meeting in 1987. This session
addressed the issue of which theoretical frameworks or general research
topics will generate the most important questions for post-contact archeology
(e.g. Deagan 1988 - see selected bibliography).
From a theoretical viewpoint, Kathleen Deagan, for example, makes the
case that the questions that count cannot be answered by either historical
or archeological data alone, or through simple comparisons of two data
categories. Rather than simply reinforcing other documentary sources,
the interpretation of archeological evidence provides a supplementary
and complementary record of the past. Other questions that count are
those that apply archeological techniques to answering history-based
questions about which there is inadequate documentation. In fact, to
date, this has been post-contact archeology's most successful scholarly
contribution. According to Deagan, other questions appropriate to the
unique capabilities of historical archeology focus on understanding
general cultural phenomena that transcend specific time and space.
Archaeologists use contextual information and data potential to construct
research designs. Important research questions may change as the level
of context changes. For example, a late Mississippian village site may
yield information in a research design concerning one settlement system
on a regional scale, while in another research design it may reveal
information of local importance concerning a single group's stone tool
manufacturing techniques or house forms. It is a question of how the
available information potential is likely to be used.
What if the information potential of an archaeological site on
the property does not directly relate to the reasons the property
is being nominated, or the archaeological resource has not been
Ask yourself these questions:
*Is the archaeological potential of the property significant
in its own right? (Is it important to local, state or national
*Should a separate nomination be done to address the significance
of the archaeological resources?
*Should an existing nomination be amended to address the archaeological
*Can or should more research be done?
*Can the archaeological resource, if not adequately defined,
at least be mentioned in the nomination/documentation?
Using Criterion D
Important things to remember about Criterion D: Application
of Criterion D requires that the important information which an archeological
property may yield must be anticipated at the time of evaluation. Archeological
techniques and methods have improved greatly even in the few decades
since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act. The questions
that archeologists ask have changed and become, in many cases, more
detailed and more sophisticated. The history of archeology is full of
examples of important information being gleaned from sites previously
thought unimportant. Because important information and methods for acquiring
it change through time, it may be necessary to reassess historic contexts
and site evaluations periodically.
Under Criterion D, a property conveys its significance by the quality
of information it contains. Context and research potential are of paramount
importance when evaluating the integrity of a property. While the evaluation
of integrity may sometimes be subjective, it must be grounded in an
understanding of a property's physical features and how they relate
to the property's significance. Determining which aspects of integrity
are relevant to a property requires knowing why, where, and when the
property is significant. Generally, archeologists use the word integrity
to describe the preservation quality of the deposits at a property.
Good integrity usually means that a site has deposits that are relatively
intact and complete and thus can provide important information. However,
few archeological properties have wholly undisturbed cultural deposits
and integrity should be evaluated in direct relation to the research
questions defined in a research design. It is important to consider
the significance of a property before considering integrity. This may
involve comparing the property to other similar properties in light
of the historic contexts in which the property's significance is defined.
For example, in a region that is very poorly known, even deflated sites
may produce important information regarding 1) basic archeological questions
about use of the region and 2) baseline data on site condition with
which to evaluate other similar sites in the region.
We must also keep in mind that archeological properties nominated under
Criteria other than D, as well as those nominated under Criterion D
only, constitute considering significance from other perspectives. Recent
scholarly literature has emphasized consultation with descendant and
other concerned communities (Dongoske et al. 2000; Stapp and Longenecker
2000; Epperson 1999; Blakey and LaRoche 1997; and Swidler et al. 1997
see selected bibliography), encouraging professionals
to promote communication concerning the significance concept and CRM
It is important to note that under Criteria A, B, and C the archeological
property must have demonstrated its ability to convey its significance,
as opposed to sites eligible under Criterion D, where only the potential
to yield information is required. Below is an example of how one nomination
addressed Criterion D: information potential and important research
questions in their documentation. The text is from the nomination for
Coso Rock Art District, in Inyo County, California, written by Amy Gilreath.
Collectively, contributing District resources have the potential
to yield information important to a number of archaeological research
issues of interest on national, inter-regional, and regional levels.
Thus, all contributing properties are significant under NRHP Criterion
D. The leading issues include the age and meaning of prehistoric
rock art, prehistoric religious practices and belief systems,
and western Great Basin hunter-gatherers and their subsistence
practices and settlement patterns.
Age and Meaning of Prehistoric Rock Art
Section 7 of this nomination listed the methods that have been used,
and those that are being developed, to date rock art, including stylistic
analysis, element superposition, cation-ratio dating, and radiocarbon
dating of organics incorporated in the varnish. Each of these methods
involves study of the rock art itself. Other more traditional kinds
of archaeological analyses, however, have the potential for being just
as productive in determining the age and meaning of the rock art. A
locational analysis of rock art sites within the District may, for instance,
provide some implications about the art works' function. Similarly,
study of the directly associated cultural deposits and features may
render additional inferences about the function and antiquity of the
Prehistoric Religious Practices and Belief Systems
This aspect of prehistoric, non-literate cultures remains the most
elusive to archaeologists. Physical evidence of prehistoric religious
practices, beliefs, and values is rare, and so descriptions of such
practices often are the result of an involved interpretation of indirect
evidence. The Coso Rock Art District provides ample and unique physical
remains of certain types of prehistoric religious practices. Furthermore,
these remains occur in a contextual setting replete with other culturally
affiliated, contemporaneous archaeological sites. The District's contributing
resources provide an opportunity for an extraordinarily comprehensive
reconstruction of past life ways in this area, by combining results
of petroglyph studies with results obtained from studying the associated
Western Great Basin Hunter-Gatherers
District sites represent over 10,000 years of hunter-gatherer
adaptations in this desert environment. Variability in the types
of District sites and their constituents suggests that prehistoric
subsistence practices shifted over time, perhaps a cultural response
to real changes in the biotic resources available, a reflection
of the displacement of hunters (Prenumic populations) with gatherers
(Numic populations), and/or an outcome influenced by other factors.
The variability in the types of District resources equally reflects
temporal changes in settlement patterns and land-use practices.
The suite of archaeological resources within the District is so
variable as to suggest that nearly the full spectrum of activities
practiced by the different cultures who used and occupied the
District is represented here. The District encompasses special-activity
sites such as hunting blinds, dummy hunters, and bedrock milling
slicks, not to mention the petroglyphs that result from ritualized
behavior. There is also high variability among residential sites
within the District, from open-air limited habitation sites and
multiple rock-ring villages, to occupied caves and rockshelters,
some of which were also used as burial grounds.
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Cressey, P.J., J.F. Stephens, S.J. Shephard, and B.H. Magid. "The
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Deagan, K. "Neither History Nor Prehistory: the Questions that
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in Archaeological Method and Theory (Vol 5), edited by M.B. Schiffer,
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Dongoske, K.E., M. Aldenderfer, and K. Doehner. Working Together:
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--------------"Response to Comments by Gray, Lees, and Schuyler."
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--------------"Research Questions and Important Information."
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Heath, B. Hidden Lives, The Archaeology of Slave Life at Thomas
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--------------"Historical and Historic Sites Archaeology as Anthropology:
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-------------"Consumerism and the Structuring of Social Relations:
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Links to the Past,
Archaeological Collections, NPS
Visitor Experience and Resource Protection Framework, NPS
Council on Historic Preservation
New South's Guide to Section 106: http://www.newsouthassoc.com/CRMBrochure.html#intro
WWW World of Archaeology
in the Past: Archaeology on the World Wide Web
for American Archaeology
for Historical Archaeology
Levi Jordan Plantation web site: http://www.webarchaeology.com/Html/index.html
of Professional Archaeologists
Sites Afar: Point of Reference (Journals and Bulletins) for Anthropology,
Archaeology, and History
Cultural Resources Association
Archaeological Institute of America
North American Archaeology: http://www.cyberpursuits.com/archeo/us-arch.asp
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and the World Wide Web
Association for State and Local History
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in the News
of American Historians
Place, The Interactive Journal of Early American Life
Archaeological Research Resources: http://www.har-indy.com/Links.html
for Industrial Archaeology
Alliance for Preservation
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Minicenter for Teaching Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture and Society
Parks in the U.S.
History Resource Center
Glossaries of Archaeological Terms:
Archaeological Objects Thesaurus
Glossary of Lithics Terminology: http://members.aol.com/artgumbus/glossary.html