What is Archaeology?

October is Ohio Archaeology Month, but many people don’t realize what archaeology is. It’s not digging up dinosaur bones, and it’s not studying rocks (necessarily). If that’s not archaeology, then what is?

According to the Society for American Archaeology, archaeology is the study of the ancient and recent human past through material remains. It is a subfield of anthropology, the study of all human culture. From million-year-old fossilized remains of our earliest human ancestors in Africa to 20th century houses and buildings, archaeology analyzes the physical remains of the past to understand human culture.

Many people think that archaeologists look for dinosaur bones, but that field of study is paleontology. Archeologists study human beings and there were no human beings when the dinosaurs were 65 million years ago.

In North America, archaeology began as the pastime of the curious and the wealthy, but they lacked formal training. This changed when people began to realize that going after only the “goodies” (whole pots, points, Civil War belt buckles, etc.) destroyed much evidence associated with these artifacts. Now archaeologists are professionally trained and take detailed notes and measurements of where they find artifacts.

Artifacts are any movable object that has been used, modified, or manufactured by humans. Artifacts include items made of stone, bone, shell, wood, or metal, and they include tools, beads and other ornaments, pottery, artwork, and religious and sacred items. Potsherds, broken points, broken ceramics or glass, and other fragmented items are also artifacts that are important to archaeologists. Artifacts are usually portable, which is different than architectural elements like walls, storage pits, house foundations, granaries, mounds and other features that may survive the ages.

Archaeology Month is a national program which promotes the preservation of the United States’ heritage. At least 37 states celebrate each year during Archeology Month, and the specific month is determined by the governor. October is Archaeology Month in Ohio. These celebrations are designed to generate understanding and interest in archaeology. The Athens County Historical Society and Museum (ACHS&M) will celebrate Ohio Archeology Month with two events. First will be a series of lectures about Ohio archaeology on Wednesday evenings from 5 to 6 p.m., which will be free and open to the public. Second, we will highlight a new exhibit, showing stone points, pipes, potsherds and unknown items from the Sprague Native American collection. The opening of this exhibit will be on Wed. October 23.

Archaeology as a formal discipline dates to the mid nineteenth century and was characterized by a scientific approach and rigorous methods of excavation and data collection. By using these methods it became clear that we learned more about the people of the past when we can look at the full record they left behind – not just the “goodies.” By the 1950s, archaeology began to move beyond description and chronology to focus on the reconstruction of past lifeways. This continued in the 1960s, with the addition of efforts to employ a scientific approach aimed at explanations of human history uncovered by archaeology.

Today, archaeology research covers both prehistoric and historic archaeology. For our lecture series, Dawn Walter Gagliano (Oct. 2) and Dr. Annette Ericksen (Oct. 23) will discuss the results of recent research conducted in eastern and southeastern Ohio. Ms. Walter Gagliano will show how historical and archaeological research can combine to give a complete picture of the past. Discussing a new term “Extractive Industries” she will show how coal, clay, iron ore, or salt industries have had a huge impact on the landscape and the people who inhabit the foothill regions of Appalachia. Many people are unaware that salt was mined in southeast Ohio before coal or oil. Dr. Erickson will focus on salt mining and the industry that arose because of its value and worth.

Prehistoric archaeology focuses on past cultures that did not have written language and therefore relies primarily on excavation or data recovery to reveal cultural evidence. Dr. Paul Patton (Oct. 9) and Dr. Jerrel Anderson (Oct. 30) will discuss the Middle Woodland (Hopewell) period. The Middle Woodland Period is best known by the huge earthworks and mounds designed and built by a group of prehistoric people. However, much more can be learned about how these people lived and why they built these earthworks. Dr. Patton will show how his research in the Hocking River Valley area defines how the Middle Woodland Period people managed and modified the landscape around them. Dr. Anderson will look at the Circleville Earthworks and the habitation sites near this ceremonial site. Dr. Patton and Dr. Anderson will show how archaeologists use a variety of sources to form their conclusions.

A third type of archaeology is called archaeoastronomy. Archaeoastronomy is the study of how people in the past interpreted what they saw in the sky and what role the sky played in their daily activities. Tom O’Grady (Oct. 16) will discuss how Ohio earthworks appear to have been built in alignment with significant rising and setting locations of the sun and the moon and other astronomical phenomena.

Our exhibit is based on the Sprague Native American Collection. In the early 1900s, Warren Sprague, M.D., born in Chauncey, started collecting Native American artifacts. Throughout the years, several family members added to the collection, acquiring artifacts from all over the Midwest. Warren bought or traded artifacts from other collectors, and occasionally he excavated mounds and kept what he found. He kept meticulous notes on what he collected, detailing measurements, location acquired and conditions of the artifacts. After Warren’s passing, his son Lindley Sprague continued to acquire artifacts in the same manner. The Sprague collection was donated to the ACHS&M in 1999 by Warren’s grandson William Sprague. The collection consists of about 4000 Native American artifacts and primarily consists of points, a small amount of pottery and some copper artifacts. Over the past two years many people (curator, interns, and collection manager) catalogued, photographed, and researched many of the Sprague artifacts. Now some of the items in this rare collection will be on display. A new exhibit will focus on the Early Woodland Period (Adena). Built around the points (arrowheads), potsherds, and some unknown items this exhibit will provide information about this important period in Ohio prehistory.

As you can see, archaeology is an important contribution to our understanding of the past. We hope you will take time to attend one or all of these exciting events to learn more!

Dr. Lynne Newell is from Athens County Historical Society & Museum, where she is in charge of Special Projects. She is recently retired as the San Diego County (California) Historian and Archaeologist.

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