Why Archaeology?
Archaeologists study people by looking at what they have left behind, including objects, landscapes, buildings, pits, wells, and posts. While these on their own provide some information, it is the physical relationships between and among them -- both horizontally across a landscape and vertically in the ground -- that reveals the most information about the people that created and used them.

Historical archaeologists spend a lot of time in libraries and museums learning about sites, often well before digging. In addition to giving a sense of what archaeologists might find at a site (number and location of buildings, for example), a site's history can provide information that suggests certain research questions. For example, archaeologists may be interested in differences between what is left behind by owner-operators of a family farm versus a tenant farmer who leased a portion of it. Historical research can also give a sense of where to place excavations to best answer these questions by indicating where previous buildings or structures were located, or identifying areas that should be avoided because recent disturbance by digging or grading would have destroyed any evidence that may have been present.

While historical research is both necessary and helpful, it doesn't often provide a complete picture of what happened in the past. Using archaeological evidence, historical archaeologists can often clarify the historical record -- for example, by pinpointing the construction or demolition date of a building, or by identifying changes that were not otherwise documented. The real strength of historical archaeology, however, is what we can learn about people and events excluded from the written records. The everyday experiences of women, ethnic minorities, immigrants, laborers, and the lower classes -- all of whom played important roles in our history -- are largely missing from the written documents. Historical archaeology provides a window to examine their lives and tell their stories using the clues they left behind.

What happens to the artifacts after you dig them up?
After excavation, artifacts are washed, labelled, catalogued, and sorted; field notes and drawings are transcribed and the site is reconstructed on paper (or more frequently, digitally). The artifacts themselves belong to the site. They may be offered to a museum for storage and display.

Recommended Reading

Little, Barbara J. (2007) Historical Archaeology: Why The Past Matters. Left Coast Press, Walnut, California.

National Park Service Archaeology Program

Exploring Historical Archaeology at the Society for Historical Archaeology Website