BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

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What do archaeology specialists do?

Students

Students using a total station at Tell el-Badawiya. Courtesy Clemens Voigt, The Tell el-Badawiya Hannathon Archaeological Project.

Editor’s Note: This blog article contains an image of human skeletal remains.

Since the early years of archaeology, the discipline has gradually become more specialized, with archaeologists seeking to answer ever more minute and complex questions. But what are these specializations and how do they affect an excavation? To answer this question, BAR caught up with specialists to ask them what they do in the field.

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Ceramicists

One of the most important finds on nearly any archaeological dig, ceramics tell us a lot about the people who lived in or passed through a site. By providing information about a society’s culture, technology, and especially place in time, ceramics play a key role in understanding a site from the very start. With so many types of ancient pottery, however, archaeologists often turn to specialists to learn more about what ceramics can reveal about the past.

Nava Panitz-Cohen, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

“On a historical excavation, pottery is usually the most ubiquitous find. Since the sheer quantity can be daunting, the dig ceramic specialist has to classify and process the pottery in a way that will allow for ongoing research and analysis that will give the silent sherds a voice. Most of the work during the excavation itself is technical. First and foremost, an integral documentation and recording system in the field must be established that will allow for the secure reconstruction of the pottery’s context after it is excavated. After being washed, all the pottery that is collected in the field is sorted. The ceramic specialist then carefully examines all sherds, choosing which to keep. If the pottery is restorable, all sherds are kept. The results of sorting are recorded in an excavation database, so we know what was kept and what was discarded. In many instances, the pottery is the only indicator of the chronology and type of context. This stage of processing is critical for the ongoing research that will take place subsequently in the laboratory.”

 

Zooarchaeologists

Requiring extensive expertise in animal biology, zooarchaeologists are another key specialist in excavations. By analyzing faunal remains and their archaeological contexts, these specialists help to understand the relationship between ancient people and the environment, whether it is investigating ancient diets, animal domestication, or herding and hunting practices.

Abra Spiciarich, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

“Animal bones found in archaeological contexts are studied by zooarchaeologists to reconstruct past ways we interacted with animals. This varies from trying to uncover the beginning of domestication to using animals for rituals and feasts. To properly excavate bones, we use dental tools to carefully expose the entire skeleton, take lots of photos, make a top plan, and collect them with properly labeled bags or boxes, but never plastic bags because this creates moisture that will damage the remains. Once back in the lab, we create detailed spreadsheets recording what we can about the bones: element, side, species, completeness, age, and taphonomic evidence, like burn marks, cut marks, gnawing by scavengers, etc. We then take this dataset, apply statistical queries, and see what this tells us about how animals were used within specific contexts of a site.”

Lidar Sapir-Hen, Tel Aviv University

Lidar Sapir-Hen in her lab. Courtesy Lidar Saper-Hen.

“My lab members and I collaborate with the excavation staff, from the time of planning, through the excavation, and following it. In the first stage of the work, we collaborate to understand the excavation aims and to design a protocol for the comprehensive retrieval of finds. During the excavation itself, our presence in the field is necessary. We direct the workers and students through the stages of retrieving and handling animal bones. Sometimes, our on-site input may change the course of an excavation. In addition, it is important for us to see and understand the context the finds were retrieved from, for subsequent analysis and interpretation. This collaboration continues into the post-excavation stage in the lab and includes a dialogue with all experts to formulate a comprehensive understanding of past human societies.”

 

Spatial Archaeologists

Spatial archaeologists specialize in understanding the topography of archaeological sites using technological equipment such as handheld GPS devices, dumpy levels, total stations, RTK equipment, drones, and more. Expertise is also required to turn topographic and spatial data into meaningful and presentable results. The continued advancement of equipment and software necessitates dedicated specialists to achieve the most complete and precise results.

Ido Wachtel, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

“Spatial archaeologist allows researchers to explore how ancient societies interacted with and adapted to their environments, as well as to uncover patterns, relationships, and hidden insights within archaeological data. At the regional level, systematic field surveys and spatial analysis form the cornerstone of our research, shedding light on the locations, sizes, and densities of human occupations and other different ways of human-landscape interactions. For example, archaeological predictive modeling enables us to predict the location of unknown archaeological sites and offers a comprehensive framework for protecting cultural heritage. At the site level, precise GPS and drone technologies have revolutionized site documentation.”

 

Marine Geoarchaeologists

Similar to spatial archaeology, marine geoarchaeology focuses on the environmental context of archaeological sites, but, as the name implies, underwater. Given the incredibly challenging and specific conditions of maritime archaeology, geoarchaeologists utilize cutting-edge tools and techniques to properly document sites and finds.

 Isaac Ogloblin Ramirez, University of Haifa

“Documenting underwater archaeological contexts and collecting archaeological samples presents significant challenges due to diving limitations. Even under the best conditions, precisely documenting a stratigraphy sequence is nearly impossible due to the way colors change underwater. Given these conditions, the active involvement of geoarchaeologists during fieldwork is crucial for accurately documenting stratigraphic context and ensuring proper sample collection. This involvement helps prevent data misinterpretations resulting from improper sampling techniques. Following these intense underwater excursions, collected samples are transported to the laboratory for analysis, which aids in drawing conclusions about human behavior. The emerging field of underwater geoarchaeology is paving the way for innovative insights into humans and their aquatic environments.”

Underwater archaeology at Atlit-Yam. Courtesy Ehud Galili.

 

Conservators

Despite what movies like Indiana Jones may suggest, archaeology is about much more than treasure hunting, and an important specialist in this endeavor is the conservator. These highly trained individuals, who often have backgrounds in both museum studies and the hard sciences, preserve excavated objects for future study and display and also work to protect the site and its features after excavation is completed.

Orna Cohen

“As a conservator, I am involved in the process of digging and planning possible future development. While exposing structures, like walls and pillars, we must protect them until it is decided whether to dismantle or keep them. On the micro level, we glue cracked stones, restore stones to their original places, protect floors, and so on. When it comes to artifacts, it involves rescuing, strengthening, and packing them to be shipped to the laboratory where I will clean, consolidate, stabilize, restore, and treat them. During the excavation, we also plan the protection of the sites between the seasons with coverings, drainage, and fencing.”

 

Osteologists

Similar to zooarchaeologists, osteologists work with bones, but human bones rather than animal. In addition to making sure that human remains and graves are handled responsibly, these specialists answer questions about how people lived, died, and were buried based on their remains. From identifying ancient illnesses to analyzing burial practices, osteologists specialize in the minute details of everyday human existence and death.

Rachel Kalisher examining human remains at Ashkelon. Courtesy Rachel Kalisher.

Rachel Kalisher, Brown University

“As a bioarchaeologist, my primary responsibility is to handle human remains ethically and with the utmost respect. In that regard, I do my best to thoroughly document and report my findings. Prior to removing remains from the ground, I sketch each burial context, including accompanying artifacts and the location of the skeletal remains themselves. I note the body position and orientation and make any other notes that will be useful for interpretation. Bones are carefully removed and initially stored in paper bags, which ensures that the moisture from the adhering dirt dries out and does not produce mold. Once removed, the bones come straight to the laboratory where I remove dirt with wooden tools and brushes. I record the bones that are present, note any anomalies, and take photos and measurements when necessary.”


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

What is Radiocarbon Dating?

Archaeological Views: Pottery in the Computer Age

Archaeological Views: New Eyeballs on Ancient Texts

Archaeological Views: Missing from the Picture

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Living Plants as Archaeological Artifacts

Archaeological Views: Jewish Graffiti—Glimpsing the Forgotten Lives of Antiquity

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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