What is Archaeology?

Have you ever wondered:

  • Who lived in Nova Scotia 5000 years ago? What did these people eat? Where did they built their settlements and what kinds of games did they play? What is their relationship to the Mi'kmaq people who live here today?
  • Have societies around the world always had rich people and poor people? Since when have some individuals or groups had control over the lives of others? Have people always lived in centralized states?
  • How does garbage disintegrate in a modern land-fill? What happens to all those diapers anyway?

Archaeologists answer all these questions and more by studying the material remains of people who lived in the past and sometimes of people who are still alive. Material remains--for instance, ceramic pots, house foundations, stone tools, hearths, animal bones, burials, seeds and pollen amongst many others--can tell us much about how people lived in the past. By excavating and analyzing ancient garbage dumps--middens in archaeological jargon--we can figure out which locally available plant and animal resources people used for food, how these were cooked, and whether they were collected from the wild or were domesticated. Detailed botanical, chemical and physical analysis of charred bones and wood from an ancient hearth can help us date the site, determine what species of trees were found around the site at the time when it was inhabited, and give us insights into how people prepared and cooked their food.

Archaeologists study cultural and societal change over long periods of time by examining material remains buried for centuries or even millennia. For instance, archaeologists trying to understand why people living in the Japanese archipelago several thousand years ago created a centralized state government would use many kinds of evidence. Close analyses of wall-paintings found on the walls of an ancient tomb, for instance, might tell them about the status of the person buried there and about the movement of artistic motifs from one cultural group to another over many thousands of kilometers. To understand the significance of this individual site, they would examine other sites inhabited at the same time or they would analyze sites built before or after this particular one. After many years of painstaking excavation and analysis, these archaeologists might be able to use this particular site to understand the development of complex political, economic, technological and ideational systems in the region and the world.

In recent years, archaeology has become increasingly political as indigenous people and archaeologists have presented new understandings of the past based on archaeological remains. Many indigenous peoples had no written history prior to the advent of colonization and the transformation, and in some cases the destruction, of their traditional cultures. Early historical accounts of indigenous cultures are often flawed since they were usually written by colonial administrators or members of European religious orders who saw indigenous cultures as inferior to those of Europe. Ethno historians--scholars who work at the boundary between history and archaeology--combine knowledge garnered from traditional legends and myths told by native people for centuries, accounts written by Europeans documenting their observations of native people at contact and modern archaeological research to create multi-vocal understandings of the history of indigenous peoples around the world. Archaeologists working in museums have been particularly energetic in creating past and present representations of indigenous people. Archaeologists play another important political role when they are called on to testify in court as expert witnesses in aboriginal land claim cases.

Over the past 20 years, archaeological work has continued at Tracadie Harbour, Antigonish County, Nova Scotia. This work is designed to determine the antiquity of the Mi'kmaq, their use of plant and animal resources, adaptations to a changing coastal environment and understandings of the landscape. The analysis of material excavated from Tracadie Harbour so far suggests that this area has been occupied for the past 5000 years.

Historical archaeology is a growing field in North America and other parts of the world. Many stories remain untold, even in societies with written histories. Archaeologists work with written documents and material remains to create a well-rounded understanding of the past. We know that historical records were often created by the powerful members of a society, those who had received an education and had the time and the means to write. We also know that what was recorded was selective at the best of times and, in many cases, demonstrates clear bias. Archaeologists use the analysis of material remains to "fill in the gaps". Through excavation and careful analysis they can tell us what people ate and whether the people who lived in the parts of a town with smaller houses and fewer luxury goods actually ate poorer quality food than the people who lived in the larger, well-furnished buildings. Feminist archaeologists have juxtaposed written records and artifactual remains to understand how women and men used space in the past. They might ask whether women were confined or cloistered and why?

And by the way, those diapers take years to disintegrate. Archaeologists have excavated and analyzed modern middens--land-fills in city-planning jargon--to help us understand why we should reduce, reuse and recycle.

Archaeologists at StFX: Clare Fawcett, Mikael Haller