Alabama Archaeology: What is Archaeology?

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About Archaeology...

Archaeology is the scientific study of past cultures and the way people lived based on the things they left behind.  Culture is the shared ways of life learned by a group of people, including their language, religion, technology, and values.

Archaeologists study past cultures by examining artifacts, objects made, used, or changed by humans.  Have you ever found a penny on the ground?  That is an artifact that was lost by someone.  Years from now, that penny could be found by an archaeologist, and it would be studied as part of American culture in the early twenty-first century. 

Excavation at Site 1Au397
Excavations at Site 1Au397 near Prattville in Autauga County, Alabama.
True or False Game

True or False

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Many people have wrong ideas of what archaeologists study. Play this True or False game to find out how familiar you are with what an archaeologist does.

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

About Artifacts...

Artifacts are usually found buried in the ground.  Over time, soil builds up and covers things left on the ground.  That is why archaeologists dig in the dirt, or excavate, to find the artifacts.  Any place where human activity occurred and where artifacts are found is called an archaeological site. There are two types of archaeological sites, prehistoric and historic. 

Prehistoric Alabama Prehistoric sites are those which occurred before the culture began writing records of daily life.  Prehistory is more of a puzzle because most of what we know about prehistoric people is from the artifacts they left behind. That means archaeologists must try to understand how the artifacts were used without being able to "look up" the answers in a book. Due to this, archaeologists sometimes make incorrect inferences or guesses.  In Alabama, and most of the United States, prehistoric sites were created by the ancestors of Native American Indians.
Artist's reconstruction by Martin Pate, courtesy of the Southeast Archaeological Center, National Park Service.
Prehistoric Artifact Game

Prehistoric Artifact Game

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Have you ever thought about what the Native Americans might have used for tools? Play this game to find out if you can identify what these artifacts are and how they might have been used.

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

Historic sites are those created by societies with written records. Some examples of historic documents include ships' log books, inventories, diaries, maps, and even photographs.  In Alabama and the United States, this time period follows the arrival of European colonists, and has continued for about the last five hundred years. Historic sites are sometimes easier for archaeologists to interpret because documents and drawings are

available, aiding an archaeologist's understanding of the site. Historic sites in Alabama are located in a variety of places, and range from pioneer homesteads to old factories. Historic shipwrecks are also archaeological sites and may be located underwater in our rivers, lakes, bays, and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.  Alabama has many prehistoric and historic archaeological sites.
Historic Artifact Game

Historic Artifact Game

Play the Historic Artifact Game 

You've seen the kinds of tools that Native Americans used, now see the kind of tools archaeologists find on historic sites. Think you might recognize some of these? Play this game and find out!

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


Have you ever had show-and-tell at school? This is a day when the teacher asks everyone to bring an object from home and to tell the class a story about the object. You probably chose to bring something that means a lot to you—maybe a favorite toy or a souvenir from your family's last vacation. These objects are important to you because they help remind you of your past. Sharing your past with others can be fun, too. It feels good when our friends understand who we are. At show-and-tell you may also learn things about your classmates and their life stories that you did not know.

Why is it important to understand the life stories of people who lived long ago? What do prehistoric Indians, European settlers, and modern day Alabamians have in common? By answering these questions we can learn about how all humans have certain things in common and share a sense of unity. The life stories of people who lived long ago help us learn about our common heritage as human beings. Studying past cultures helps us understand how our own culture has developed, making us who we are today.

Archaeology is like having a show-and-tell. Sometimes it is hard to remember that past people had the same feelings of happiness, sadness, worry, and excitement that people have today. Often the only way to learn about their lives is by the artifacts they left behind. When archaeological sites are destroyed and artifacts are taken away, we lose the details of their life stories.

Every archaeological site is a non-renewable resource. This means that every site tells a different story and, if it is destroyed, it cannot be recreated and that story cannot be told. Archaeological sites should be preserved so they can be properly studied by today's archaeologists or saved for future archaeologists. Since archaeology is, after all, a destructive process, some sites should be preserved simply because they are unique.


Many people are interested in the past. They collect artifacts like pottery, arrowheads, or old bottles. Some people dig up archaeological sites to get artifacts. They may not know about scientific archaeology and why excavation units and stratigraphy are so important for understanding the past. Remember, an archaeological site is like a book. The layers of dirt and artifacts that are left in the ground can be read like the pages of a book. When someone digs holes in an archaeological site, it is like ripping pages out of the life stories of past peoples.

Some people dig up graves to get artifacts. Many descendents of prehistoric Indians still live in Alabama today. When people dig up Indian graves to get artifacts they are digging up the ancestors of modern Indians. Alabama has laws against digging up any kind of grave, even if it does not have a headstone.

There are also laws that protect archaeological sites on public property. Public property is land that everyone has a right to visit and enjoy. This includes national forests like the DeSoto National Forest and Tennessee Valley Authority (T.V.A.) land. The T.V.A. is run by the United States government and oversees a lot of land in north Alabama that may have archaeological sites. State-run natural parks like Gulf State Park or Joe Wheeler State Park in north Alabama and state-owned historic parks like Fort Toulouse and Old Cahawba are also protected. In fact, all archaeological sites located on land owned by the state of Alabama are protected by law from illegal digging. 

Would you like to help protect Alabama's past? There are several things you can do to make sure that our archaeological sites and the stories they hold are preserved for future Alabamians.

First, you can be a site steward. This means that you can be a caretaker of archaeological resources. If you know the location of an archaeological site, tell an archaeologist. Telling an archaeologist about a site does not mean that the site will necessarily be excavated. Remember, archaeologists know better than anyone how archaeology is destructive to sites—they often prefer to preserve a unique site rather than excavate it.  Keeping a record of where sites are located is helpful to archaeologists, because they can begin to look for patterns of where past peoples liked to live and work.  

If you ever see anyone looting (taking artifacts from public land) or illegally digging on a site, do not approach the person! If you are in a national or state park, the safest thing to do is to tell a park ranger, T.V.A. police, or an archaeologist. 

Another way to be a steward is to ask your teacher to contact a local archaeologist about speaking at your school. Most archaeologists are very happy to share their experiences and knowledge with others. He or she can tell you about the archaeological projects that are taking place in and around your hometown. Archaeologists may be reached at the Anthropology Department of a university, at a museum, or at a local government office. The Alabama Historical Commission in Montgomery can provide you with the names of archaeologists in your area. 

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






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Historic Alabama | Glossary