Region III Quarterly

Volume 1 - No. 1

July, 1939


By Erik K. Reed,
Regional Archaeologist.

Some people like to collect arrowheads; others, ancient pottery. More than a few are fascinated by old skeletons, and vast numbers enjoy seeing the ruins of ancient cities. Archaeologists are interested in all these things, because of the collective story.

Archaeology is not merely the collecting of relics, nor the excavation of ancient ruins. It is the study of human history. Its aims are to discover the mode of life and the cultural equipment of every ancient people or tribe, at each period of its existence. This is done by establishing cultural continuities and time-relationships between groups and types of relics and remains. Eventually we shall piece together a complete picture--a full story of the development of human civilization. The ultimate objective, like that of history, is to interpret this classification and narrative in terms of human, cultural, and ecological problems; to knew or surmise, eventually, not only what happened but why it happened; and to determine what psychological and environmental factors cause the rise and decline of civilizations.

Ethnography attempts much the same thing as archaeology, with present-day or with recently primitive peoples. It deals not only with the bare facts of the economic, social, and religious life of primitive peoples, but also with the ecological and psychological reasons for these facts, and with the degree of success or utility of these facts. From this and from the results of archaeology, generalizations will some day be established covering all human behavior and human culture. These generalizations will--or should--profoundly affect our handling of the future. Problems of individual adjustment to society and to culture, of societal control of diversity of interests and desires, and of adaptation of society to environment, can best be solved when we know how other peoples in other times attempted to solve them, and to what extent their solutions succeeded or failed. Archaeology and ethnography have not reached the point where we can safely make generalizations. The tremendous mass of facts accumulated has not been thoroughly digested and synthesized; and there are more facts to be gathered. A concrete example of the usefulness of these two sciences is their importance in colonial administration, as in African and Asiatic possessions of England and France, and in the comparable case of Indian reservations in this country. It is impossible to handle a subject people successfully without fairly extensive knowledge of their social organization, religious beliefs, economic life, and past history.

In addition to broadening our own horizons, by gaining added knowledge of our past and the pasts of other peoples, archaeology affects specific major problems of today. As the bread facts of human history become more generally known, there will be less of this nonsense about racial superiority and the alleged importance of racial purity. Interest in, and tolerance or friendship for various people alien to us, will increase with our added knowledge of their history and of the cultural achievements of their ancestors. Lin Yu-tang, the contemporary Chinese writer, has said that, as psychiatrists cure people by making them review their past, so mankind can profit by reviewing its own past.

There is justification for archaeology simply in the fact that people are interested in the subject and want to know about it. Spectacular finds of objects of high intrinsic or aesthetic value arouse public interest. Consider such cases as the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, in Egypt's Valley of the Kings; Monte Alban, in southwestern Mexico; and Chiriqui province, Panama. We are, after all, interested in ourselves, and that includes our past. "The proper study of mankind is mankind."

The methods by which evidence is gathered are, in the case of ethnography, going out and living among a primitive people, observing things and asking questions; in archaeology, by collection of relics on the surface or by digging. It is not a matter of simply scooping up things, or haphazardly shoveling into a site. Meticulous care must be exercised in digging, to avoid breaking objects or destroying evidence. What is most important, detailed notes must be made of just how and where everything is found; the relation of each object found to other artifacts, and to walls and floors; the depth to which things are buried by accumulation of silt or refuse. Only by such detailed records can associations between trails be established, and historical developments discovered. The oldest material will normally be found at the bottom of an accumulation of silt or refuse, or in the deepest portion of a site; and the latest, on the surface. Consequently, the depths of all objects must be recorded, and material from different layers and from different rooms must be kept separate. Even in collection of objects from the surface, accurate record must be made of the location and circumstances in which each object is found.

The material found and features observed must then be exhaustively studied in the laboratory. Each class of artifact must be sorted into types, and any possible temporal relations between those types must be established. Comparisons then are made between these types of artifacts and types found elsewhere. Only after extensive research in the laboratory and in the library, and by preparation of a full report for publication, is an archaeological job completed. The actual excavation is less than half of it. Further, there is laboratory work of the nature of museum preparation--preservation and restoration of specimens for purposes of more thorough study and of exhibition.

Pottery is relatively easy, requiring merely washing, sorting, and-- as far as possible-- putting together broken vessels. Thousands of potsherds are found in every southwestern excavation; only a small proportion can be put together to restore vessels, but the fragments themselves are extremely important in study, perhaps the most useful single thing. Stone objects seldom require any treatment other than gluing together broken fragments. Artifacts of bone or wood, textiles and basketry, etc., often require very careful cleaning and treatment with a solution in acetone or a paraffin or celluloid preparation. Skeletons usually require similar treatment. Charcoal and fragments of wood are, always saved, in the hope that they may yield tree-ring dates.

Buildings themselves can receive preservation measures. Ruins of masonry can be stabilized by re-laying the upper courses of walls in bitudobe mortar and other measures, as the National Park Service has done and is doing at Bandelier and Chaco Canyon National Monuments, in New Mexico. Preservative treatments for plaster and for adobe buildings are being tested by the Service.

A great deal can be learned from each class of find. For instance, the extent and arrangement of buildings give some indications of the population and, in a most general way, the social organizations. Various otherwise incomprehensible objects can, when correlated with ethnological knowledge, give clues to religious life. Skeletal material can be utilized to indicate not only the racial affinities of a group, but their approximate average life expectancy, and the approximate incidence of infant mortality. Stone and bone artifacts indicate various aspects of economic life.

Pottery is the most useful single class of find to the archaeologist in establishing chronological sequences and other relationships, becaus of its great variation between periods and between areas. Types of buildings, of arrowpoints and stone axes, of bone awls and shell ornaments, change relatively little spatially or temporally compared to pottery, and overlap greatly. But the pottery of any area in any period is quite distinct. An example of the importance of the study of pottery is easily given: If we excavate a ruin in southern Arizona, tree-ring material is not usable in establishing dates; but if we find in that ruin, sherds of a type of pottery made in northern Arizona and traded to the people in the south, we can approximate the date of our site, since pottery-types are fairly well correlated with tree-ring chronology in Northern Arizona. At least we know that our site was roughly contemporary with a certain period and a certain type of life in the north. Further, one does not ordinarily find tree-ring material associated with burials; but one does find very frequently, offerings of pottery with each skeleton. Only by knowing the development and succession of pottery types at a site can we ascertain the period to which each burial belongs.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005