No, We Don’t Dig Up Dinosaurs: The Science of Archaeology

Hey Xplorers!

Okay, we’ve all seen Jurassic Park, right? Maybe you saw it as a little kid, or maybe you experienced it for the first time as an adult, but either way, we think we can all agree on one thing — Laura Dern is basically the coolest.

Oh, and also dinosaurs are super cool.

Just the facts, y’all. We love dinos as much as the next nerds! You may remember from last week’s update that our lab director, Raychel Durdin, loved dinosaurs so much when she was little that one of her favorite toys was a dinosaur skeleton puzzle. Dinosaurs are fun to learn about, and they make great movie monsters. They are not, however, part of what we do as archaeologists.

What?? You may be thinking — Don’t archaeologists dig up stuff? Isn’t that their whole thing?

While you’re right that archaeology often deals with objects we dig up out of the ground, there are some very key differences between our field and the adjacent field of paleontology. There are also plenty of similarities, and the truth is, you get to do some pretty cool science no matter which field you’re in.

Think of it this way — archaeology and paleontology are kind of like you and your favorite cousin. (You know the one!) They’re definitely within the same family, and it’s easy to see they have plenty in common. Both of these outstanding ologies use research, technology, field work, and scientific testing to grow and expand our knowledge about life on earth before we were all born. However, they’re not quite the same, and while it’s important to love both, it’s also important to know the differences between them.

Are you ready to dig deeper and find out more about both?

Archaeology and Paleontology: What Do They Have in Common?

While archaeology and paleontology do have some key differences (which we’ll get into in just a minute), the techniques used in the field are very similar. Archaeologists and paleontologists both spend a lot of time planning and plotting out exactly which sites are most likely to contain important data. They both create GIS maps and use them to dig accurately and efficiently. They both have to be well-acquainted with getting outside and using a shovel!

And not just shovels — plenty of other field equipment too. Archaeologists and paleontologists alike are capable of both small- and large-scale excavation projects, and both know how to use the right equipment — from giant backhoes to tiny dental picks — to get the job done.

Not only do archaeology and paleontology share similar techniques, but, to a certain extent, they share some of the same philosophies. Both disciplines are keenly interested in what went on in the past. Both look at objects we find out in the field and use them to reconstruct what life used to look like, albeit on very different time scales: Paleontology deals in extremely long increments of time, often spanning back for millions of years. Meanwhile, archaeology deals in more recent history — only going back to about 300,000 years at most, and really only about 20,000 years in the Americas.

That said, there are still more similarities between the two fields. Both have strong environmental components, as both seek to understand how the earth and living things have influenced and shaped each other through time. And of course, both require quite a lot of research!

So what’s the difference? It comes down to this: Paleontologists may study living things, but it’s archaeologists who focus exclusively on humans.

Archaeology and Paleontology: Artifacts vs. Fossils

The defining difference between archaeology and paleontology is the focus on humans. Paleontology is focused entirely on living organisms that existed before humans arrived on the scene — that’s why they study dinosaurs. Paleontologists look at the preserved remains of animals and plants from long before humans took over the top spot on the food chain. In that way, they reconstruct the natural history of the earth. They develop our understanding of how animals evolved over thousands and millions of years, and that helps us to understand more about how life in general forms, changes, and influences/is influenced by the environment.

Archaeology, on the other hand, is focused entirely on humans. Rather than stretching back millions of years, our species, Homo sapiens, have only existed for about 300,000 years. So, that’s about where archaeology starts! And at TerraX, we take things one step further. We focus specifically on archaeology in the southeastern United States, and the very first Homo sapiens appeared in North America in about 20,000 B.C. That’s when our timeline starts!

As archaeologists, we don’t look for fossils — preserved remains of ancient creatures, while super cool, don’t tell us too much about humans. Instead, we go after artifacts — AKA the material culture of human life.

Paleontologists look for fossils like these coral, but archaeologists look for artifacts like these ceramic shards.

Artifacts are any and all objects that tell us something about the humans who lived on the sites where they were found. Sometimes we find stone tools or beads that are indicative of a Native American presence at a location long ago. Other times we find household objects like cups or toys, old building materials like bricks or nails, or tiny amounts of charcoal from cooking in long-destroyed kitchens — animal remains included!

If we do find animal remains on archaeological sites, it’s usually because they’re from animals who interacted with humans. When we find mollusks, shells, or animal bones, we can learn what people ate in the past, how they prepared their food, which parts were used and which weren’t, and how they discarded their waste materials (or didn’t discard them — remember our discussion of middens?). We don’t go looking for animal — or, to use the fancy word, faunal — materials at archaeological digs to learn about the animals themselves. As with other types of artifacts, we’re looking for information about how humans interacted with, lived alongside, and used animals in their day-to-day lives or, in some cases, during feasting events.

See the difference? While paleontologists are looking at broad evolutionary patterns excluding humans, we’re digging deeper into human history. The advantage we have as archaeologists is that we get to couple our findings in the field with information we learn through research. After all, since we study humans, and humans keep records, we have an abundance of written, oral, and visual (artistic) history that we can study to inform our interpretations of the artifacts we find! (Last we checked, dinosaurs didn’t write a whole lot of stuff down — sorry, paleontologists.)

Now, that’s not to say we don’t get to do some super cool science, too! Remember last week when we introduced you to our lab? Well, get ready, because we’re about to dig even deeper into the cool work they get to do.

The Science of Archaeology

Last week, we talked a lot about how the lab spends time cleaning and organizing artifacts, and it’s true that keeping everything labeled and stored correctly is one of the biggest and important parts of what our lab team does! However, that’s not all they do.

Let’s start with cleaning and stabilizing. When artifacts are removed from the ground, they’re usually covered in… you guessed it — dirt. Before we can develop a thorough understanding of what we have, we have to remove all that dirtiness, but sometimes, that can be a tricky process. We need to make sure we clean items in such a way that we don’t damage them. We wouldn’t want to scratch or break an artifact and risk losing the data it contains!

While this process is nitty-gritty enough to begin with, things get even trickier when we find materials that are breaking down. When we find metal or cloth objects, we have to take special care. For example, one artifact type we find a lot is architectural materials — items like nails that indicate when and how a structure was built. Often when we find metal materials like that, they’re extremely rusted, and we always seek to clean and preserve them so as not to contribute to that process! Other times, we come across clothing items, but we know that these too are likely to degrade and ultimately lose their data potential. When we find such artifacts, we take great care to clean, pack, wrap, and store them so they don’t degrade even further.

And then there are the tests we have performed. Take radiocarbon dating, for example. Often we recover burned organic materials such as wood or animal bones that came from once-living things, otherwise known as charcoal. In such cases, we may send those artifacts to The Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia where they can measure the amount of C-14 — a particular carbon isotope (a special variation of a carbon atom) — in those items. By measuring the amount of C-14 against the rate at which experts know C-14 decays, we can get some pretty accurate estimates of when those living things were burned, and that can provide us with a date range associated with the site inquisition, which helps to confirm the material cultural affiliation of the site.

But wait — how did we recover said charcoal, you ask? Whenever we go out on a dig and find cultural materials, we also take a sampling of the soil from that area. With those soil samples, we can do flotation tests — you can learn more about those in the video just below!

Essentially, flotation is a method of filtering out tiny bits of materials from the soil that otherwise would not have been recovered. Those materials tend to be charcoal, tiny faunal materials like fish teeth, and tiny seeds, which can then be radiocarbon-dated, and from that we can learn so much about events that happened on the sites from where the soil samples were taken!

Our lab team loves both science and history, and the cool thing is, as archaeologists, they get to work right at the intersection of those two fields!

So Which Is Your Favorite?

Now that you understand a little bit more about the differences between archaeology and paleontology, we have to ask — which is your favorite? Do you get hyped up about fossils, or are you more into human history? The truth is, both fields get to do some pretty cool science, and both inform our knowledge about the past. So, even if paleontology is more your jam, we won’t hold it against you!

Thank you so much for joining us today, Xplorers! We hope you learned something new. If you have any comments or questions, please make sure to reach out to us! We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and we love hearing from y’all.

Until next time, keep learning!

— The TerraX Team