Alabama Archaeology: Archaeological Methods

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Historic Alabama | Glossary

Archaeology isnít j ust going out and digging in the ground wherever one chooses.† Anyone can go outside and put a shovel in the ground and dig.† An archaeologist is a scientist, and as a scientist he/she must obey some basic rules or procedures. A variety of tools and research methods aid archaeologists in their job.†


Archaeologists have to do research before they do any digging.† They need to know as much as they can about a culture before they excavate. If they can find the answer to a question, they may not need to excavate.† Excavating involves digging into the ground to recover as much of the information as possible. In this sense, archaeology is very destructive. If an archaeologist doesn't need to dig a site, then the site will remain preserved underground.

Play the Research Game

Research Game

Play the Research Game

Do you like to solve puzzles? Have you ever considered being an archaeologist?

Play this game to see if you can use different sources to figure out what the mystery artifact is!

Artist's reconstruction by Martin Pate, courtesy of the Southeast Archaeological Center, National Park Service.


After the first research is done, archaeologists go outdoors and look for archaeological sites.† Archaeologists know that sites are more likely to be located in certain areas. †Think for a second about where you might want to live if you were setting up camp.

  • Would you want to be close to water?
  • Would you prefer to sleep on a sloping hillside or in a flat meadow?
  • Would you rather be at the top of a mountain where the winds blow the hardest or at the base of a mountain where you are sheltered from wind?

Archaeologists ask themselves these same types of questions to try to find sites.† Sometimes the sites are plainly visible.† The foundation for a house could be a site.† A rock shelter in the woods with Indian rock art and projectile points on the ground could be a site. A grouping of artifacts concentrated in the same area could be a site.†

How do archaeologists excavate a site?

There are a number of steps or procedures that archaeologists follow in order to excavate a site. Check out these procedures.

Laboratory Analysis

Once the artifacts are excavated they are taken to an archaeological laboratory. At this time the work of an archaeologist has just begun. The first step is to clean the artifacts. Sometimes artifacts are very fragile and must be handled carefully. Every artifact must be labeled with information about the unit and level in which it was found.

Artifacts are usually grouped together in categories with like artifacts.  Examples of these artifact categories from a prehistoric site might include pottery sherds, projectile points, animal bone, and shell. What types of artifacts do you think are commonly found on a historic archaeological site? †††

Archaeologists can look at different styles of artifacts and tell when they were made. Just like styles of clothes and cars, the characteristics of artifacts, the way they are made and decorated, change through time. For example, if you saw a picture of a woman wearing a long skirt and bonnet you might say she was from the 1800s. We know that artifacts with a certain type of decoration were made only during a certain time. An artifact that gives clues to the function or date of a site is called a diagnostic artifact.


Most archaeologists go to college and get a degree.† In the United States, archaeology is usually a subfield of Anthropology, so people get a degree in Anthropology with an emphasis in archaeology. While not all archaeologists have college degrees, it is advisable for anyone considering archaeology to major in it in college.† Some archaeologists have a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and this allows them to teach at universities.† Universities and government agencies sometimes have excavations that are open to volunteers of all ages and backgrounds. The Alabama Museum of Natural History has such a program called "Expedition". These opportunities can provide valuable learning experiences. †

Home | What is Archaeology | Archaeological Methods | Prehistoric Alabama
Historic Alabama | Glossary