What is Archaeology?

Archaeology is the study of the human past by studying the remains and artifacts (historical objects) left by the people who lived long ago. These remains can include old coins, tools, buildings, and garbage. Through studying remains and artifacts we learn about past people, how they lived, what they looked like and what tools they used.

Message to an Archaeologist

Say you’re given a postcard: one with an image that invites you to daydream about the past and the archaeological world. What questions come to mind? Who would answer?Message to An Archaeologist connects students and archaeologists to engage in conversations about the past and how archaeologists study past civilizations and people.

  • Where do you find artifacts?
    – Nahomas – 1st Grade

    Dear Nahomas,
    I’m Sarah Corkett and I work at Montpelier in Orange Virginia. At my site we have lots of land and it can be hard to find artifacts sometimes. But we use documents, like maps, to finds sites and artifacts and STPs. STPs are Shovel Test Pits which is when we go dig a hole about a foot deep. These help archaeologists find areas with lots of objects so we can go back and do a full dig! So while it might be hard to find some artifacts we can actually find artifacts anywhere! But remember, if you find something be sure to leave it in place because you want to record all information before removing it! Happy Digging!
    Love,
    Sarah

  • Why do archaeologists need to study about the past?
    – Angela – 1st Grade

    Dear Angela,
    Archaeologists dig in the ground and study artifacts to find out more about people who have not had their stories told. I work at Montpelier, the home of the 4th president of the United States, James Madison. WE are studying the lives of the enslaved community who lived on the plantation so we can tell their stories. Thank you for your card, hope to see you at Montpelier!
    Elizabeth Mccague

  • How do you Travel and how do you find things?
    – Rachel – 1st Grade

    Dear Rachel,
    Thank you for your postcard! You ask great questions. Archaeologists travel lots of places to do archaeology. I have taken an airplane to Tahiti to do excavations there; yet I’ve also driven around Virginia doing archaeology in people’s backyards. There are so many artifacts to find all across the United States and around the World! Also, we find artifacts by digging 5 foot by 5foot squares slowly. WE record everything we find as we go, then spend time in an archaeology lab washing the things we find. It’s such a fun and rewarding job!
    Happy Digging!
    Ally (Montpelier archaeologist)

  • Do archaeologists study the Maya?
    – Bethele – 1st Grade

    Bethele,
    My name is Mary. I am an archaeologists in Virginia. When I was in school I learned about the Maya. My professor taught me how to read Mayan glyphs. Numbers in Mayan are written in dots and lines. For example the number seven is a horizontal line with two dots over it. I have visited several Mayan sites in Mexico and Belize. I also excavated archaeological sites in Mexico. It was amazing! My favorite place to work in Mexica was Veracruz. I hope you can visit one day.
    Mary

  • Did you learn about the planet?
    – Lisa – 1st Grade

    We do learn about the planet!! More specifically, we learn about how people from the past lived on the planet. Unfortunately, we haven’t done any archaeology on planets other than earth. Maybe when you are older, you can be the first person to do archaeology on another planet!!
    Thanks for your question!
    Terry Brock – The Montpelier Foundation

  • What do archaeologists do with the artwork they find?
    – Melvin – 1st Grade

    Melvin,
    Usually we take photographs and do drawings of the art, to preserve the information and to put the findings in a book or a report.
    Steve – St. Mary’s College of Maryland

  • Why can’t you build a home or bring something where you work?
    – Michele – 1st Grade

    Dear Michele
    Sometimes we do build homes! In the case of the historic reconstructions at Montpelier we use the archaeology uncovered at the site to help us design the buildings we are building. So, the artifacts associated with the duplexes in the South Yard helped us what those buildings looked like!
    Good Luck!
    Betsy

  • Do you go every day to see things from long ago?
    – Seidy – 1st Grade

    Dear Seidy,
    My name is Stephanie and I am an archaeologist at James Madison’s Montpelier. When we excavate at Montpelier we find a lot of cool things from hundreds of years. Some of these things are broken dishes, buttons, animal bones, nails, and brick. These things can tell us a lot about people that lived a long time ago!
    Stephanie

  • What does an archaeologist do?
    – Ashly – 1st Grade

    Dear Ashly,
    Archaeologists do SO many things! First we research a site and decide if we want to dig it or not. If we do, and we think we can learn from it, we will make a plan to excavate it. So, if we excavate, we go in and dig in a certain way to see all the layers. This is called strati graphical excavation. We can find a lot of artifacts this way. Then we will analyze them in the lab! We can learn so much from what we dig up!
    Daniel

  • What do you do? I always wanted to know what you did to be an archaeologist!
    – Daniel – 1st Grade

    Dear Daniel,
    Archaeologist study people who were alive a long time ago! We dig up their houses, their garbage, their buildings, and sometimes their graves to learn about what they ate, what they wore, and what they did every day.
    I went to school to be an archaeologist, actually I went twice! I went to the University of Virginia and now I go to the University of Massachusetts. It takes lots of years of school but being an archaeologists is fun!
    Sincerely,
    Jessica

  • What do you discover?
    – Rita – 1st Grade

    Hi Rita!
    Archaeologists are able to study all kinds of things about the human past. I love to learn about the American Indians and people who used to live in Washington, D.C.
    From
    Kate

  • I want to know how to make a mummy
    – Dagm – 1st Grade

    Mummies are made in very hot places, like Egypt. They were first washed, then had their brains scrambled with a poker and had all their organs removed. Some were placed in special jars. The holes were sewed shut and they were wrapped in layers of fabric. Sometimes they put jewelry and little objects in the wrapping. They were left out to dry before being put in coffins.
    Emily Stantec

  • What is your name? Why are you an archaeologist? Do you study ancient people?
    – Orlando – 1st Grade

    Hi Orlando,
    My name is Kristin. I am an archaeologist because I love to learn about people and the thigs they used to do in the past. I do not study ancient people who lived in Egypt or South America. I study people who used to live in North America.
    Kristin

  • Why do you excavate?
    – Noah – 1st Grade

    Hi Noah!
    Archaeologists excavate sites to study the human past. Digging at sites and looking at artifacts helps us learn about people that may not have books written about them.
    From,
    Kate

  • How long does it take to dig one site?
    – Zachary H. – 1st Grade

    Dear Zachary,
    It depends. If the site is small, archaeologists can did the site in a few days. If a site is big, archaeologists can dig the site for weeks or even months.
    Sincerely,
    Sevrie Corson – U.S. Forestry Service

  • Have you ever found gold?
    – Cassie H. – 1st Grade

    Cassie,
    I have never found gold, but I have found old gold mines. Many people don’t know that Maryland and Virginia were important gold mining regions between 1820 and 1850. Thank you for your interest in archaeology.
    Mike

  • Do people dig on mountains?
    – Danielle N. – 1st Grade

    Dear Danielle N.,
    Yes, archaeologists work on and look for sites on mountains all the time! Many different people lived in the mountains and left remains of their homes and way of life behind for us to find…
    Sincerely,
    MJM – US Forest Service Archaeologist.

  • How big can a site be?
    – Ashton – 1st Grade

    Dear Ashton,
    A site can be very big, like a whole town, or it can be as small as a few artifacts. Go figure?
    Mike
    P.S. Your writing is better than mine.

  • How long does it take you to find an artifact?
    – Drew K. – 1st Grade

    Drew K. – 1st Grade
    Well Drew, Sometimes artifacts such as old bottles, building remains, and related materials are found quite easily and quickly on or near the surface of the ground. Sometimes we have to dig test holes or units across a ground surface to see where people lived or may have worked at various activities. That Drew can take a long time…
    Sincerely,
    MJM – USFS archaeologist

  • Where do you mostly get all of the materials?
    – Mackenzie H. – 1st Grade

    Makenzie,
    That is a great question! Most materials or artifacts come from below the ground we walk on. For myself, I work as an archaeologists in the Philadelphia and NYC areas. Yu can find artifacts in cornfields, beeches, gardens, and even in backyards. So these artifacts are found everywhere!
    Jennifer – Temple University

  • How do you study the past and how did you find things from the past?
    – No Name

    There are so many ways to study the past! Archaeologists are just part of how we can learn about people in the past. Archaeologists look at what people leave behind from their everyday lives – in their houses, where they work, and where they play. You can learn a lot by looking at artifacts left behind in the dirt. I hope you want to learn more about archaeology!
    Casey

  • I want to be an archaeologist so I can learn about old stuff
    – Ephraim – 1st Grade

    Makenzie,
    That is a great question! Most materials or artifacts come from below the ground we walk on. For myself, I work as an archaeologists in the Philadelphia and NYC areas. Yu can find artifacts in cornfields, beeches, gardens, and even in backyards. So these artifacts are found everywhere!
    Jennifer – Temple University

  • What school did you go to for archaeology?
    – Jimmy – 1st Gradee

    Dear Jimmy,
    I am currently getting my degree at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey! It’s a beautiful school by the beach with great professors who love teaching archaeology and anthropology!
    From,
    Casey at Monmouth U.

  • Where is your lab?
    – Nahomb – 1st Grad

    Nahomb,
    My lab is currently at my university. But you can find an archaeological lab anywhere. They can be found in museums, colleges/universities, and public archaeological offices/teams. My university is in Monmouth County, New Jersey.
    -Stephanie

  • Do you use tools?
    – Ariel – 1st Grade

    Hi Ariel!
    My name is Allie and I am an archaeologist from the University of Massachusetts in Boston. You asked a very good question because archaeologists love their tools and they are very important to us! When I am outside digging, I sue a shovel and I use a trowel. I also use rulers, pens and paper to take notes. When I am in the lab. I might use a microscope and pencil and paper to write down what I fine!
    -Allie

  • I want to know about you!
    – Alison – 1st Grade

    Alison,
    I am an archaeologist who works in the Middle Atlantic regions, but mainly New Jersey. (That’s where I live) Also, I teach at Monmouth University. I love what I do! I get to write history, which I love! Also I enjoy being outside. I have two daughters, who join me on some of my field trips. This makes me very happy. Learning about our past is very important and I am proud to be able to do it.
    Sean McHogh – Monmouth University

  • How can you know about all of this smart stuff?
    – Sikate – 1st Grade

    Dear Sikate,
    I learned all about archaeology in school and by going to community events and talking to archaeologists! I read a lot of books and I am never afraid to ask a lot of questions about the things I am learning! 
    Ashley

  • Why do you find stuff?
    – Ryan – 1st Gradee

    Dear Ryan,
    Archaeologists find stuff so that they can connect and learn about the people of the past. Sometimes this helps us understand ourselves better but most of the time it’s just a lot of fun!
    Emily Masters – Indiana University of Pennsylvania

  • Why can’t you build a time machine so that you can know everything about the past and you can have a ride to the past?
    – Yohana – 1st Grade

    Dear Yohana,
    Unfortunately, I’m not a scientist so I can’t build a time machine. But digging things is the next best alternative! That way you can make up your own story! Get creative with it!
    -Marissa, UMW

  • We are going to visit an archaeologist. Can you send a picture of a dig?
    – Yodahae – 1st Grade

    Hello Yodahae!
    I’m an archaeologist working at the University of Massachusetts Boston! I’ll send you a picture of the coolest thing I’ve found. It is an excavated plaster wall that is 400 years old! We were digging through a really really old house and had not found much. Then, we cleared up our area and out popped a wall that was older than George Washington or your grandparents!
    Adam Brinkman

Archaeological World Map

To learn about different archaeology sites through out the world click on the yellow circle and read about the site.