Archaeologists and Artefacts: How We Determine What’s Worth Digging Up

Artefacts are the things archaeologists dig up when they’re trying to figure out what life was like in an ancient culture, and how it changed over time. Once unearthed, artefacts are studied in order to learn about the people who used them and sometimes even the materials they were made from. But how exactly do archaeologists figure out what artefacts to look for? And how do they use them to piece together the past? We answer these questions and more in this guide on archaeology and artefacts!

When and why do archaeologists dig?

Archaeologists are constantly on the lookout for new sites to explore. Sometimes they receive tips from members of the public about where to find something interesting. Other times, they use aerial photography or ground-penetrating radar to locate potential sites. Once a site is found, archaeologists must determine if it’s worth excavating. This decision is based on a number of factors, including the age of the site, its historical significance, and the likelihood of finding artefacts.

In-situ  Pot (Artefact) during excavation
In-situ Pot (Artefact) during excavation

What are Artefacts?

Pot (Artefact) from India
Pot (Artefact) from India

Artefacts can be anything from tools and weapons to pottery and jewelry. Archaeologists use artefacts to help them understand how people lived in the past.
Artifacts can be made of different materials, including stone, metal, wood, bone, shell, or glass. They can also be of different sizes, from very small objects like beads to large objects like statues.
To identify an artifact, archaeologists first look at its form and function. They try to determine what the object was used for and how it was made.

Artefact Priest-King from Indus Valley Civilization
Artefact Priest-King from Indus Valley Civilization

The 3 C’s

Artefacts are any object made, modified, or used by humans. Archaeologists find and study artefacts to learn about the people who made and used them. The study of artefacts is called archaeology.
There are three main ways that archaeologists identify artefacts: context, content, and form. Context refers to where an artefact is found. Content refers to what an artefact is made of. Form refers to the shape of an artefact.

The 4th C – Context

In archaeology, context is everything. It’s the situation in which an artefact is found that helps to determine its meaning and, often, its value. When an artefact is removed from its context, it can lose a great deal of its meaning.
That’s why archaeologists are so careful when they excavate sites. They want to make sure that they understand the relationships between the different artefacts and features in order to interpret what they mean.
One of the ways we determine the context of an artefact is by looking at its provenance – where it came from. If we know where an artefact was found, we can often make some assumptions about how it was used and what it meant to the people who used it.

Dating techniques

Archaeologists have to be very careful when excavating sites. They have to consider the surrounding area and the types of objects that might be found there. For example, if they’re looking for a lost city, they might want to look for pottery shards or other objects that would indicate human habitation. But if they’re looking for an ancient burial ground, they’ll be looking for different kinds of artefacts.

PRL-Radiocarbon Laboratory, showing the glass lines for producing CH 4 gas and C2 H6 liquid for Carbon-14 activity measurement.
PRL-Radiocarbon Laboratory, showing the glass lines for producing CH 4 gas and C2 H6 liquid for Carbon-14 activity measurement.

Recording your data

Once you’ve decided on your research question, it’s time to start digging! But before you start swinging that pickaxe, you need to know how to record your data. This is where archaeology gets technical. Archaeologists use a system of units called the metric system. This system uses meters to measure length, grams to measure weight, and so on. By using this system, we can make sure that our measurements are consistent with other archaeologists’ measurements.

Documentation of an Archaeological site
Documentation of an Archaeological site
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