Spot the archaeologist? Some answers


1. How many of these people are archaeologists?

The short answer is all of them.

Fig. 1.1 Model helicopters can carry cameras to get aerial views for accurate site mapping.

Fig. 1.2 Chemical analysis can reveal the secrets of ancient molecules and telltale isotopes of elements such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and strontium.

Fig. 1.3 This looks like traditional archaeology - the only way to collect samples in a scientific way. This researcher could be in the lab after the dig, analysing isotopes in her samples. Results can sometimes take just a few days to confirm.

Fig. 1.4 This is a mass spectrometer that can analyse isotopes with an accuracy of 0.5 parts per million!

Fig. 1.5 This is a research doing "shallow geophysics" on an archaeological site. This can indicate the best places to start an excavation.

2. What problems can you foresee in trying to analyse organic materials from 5000 year old sites?

The quantities available may be small. Unprotected soft tissue and organic compounds will have decomposed and been washed away or degraded by microbes. Bones and teeth will be all that is left from humans and animals.

3  What types of organic remains survive thousands of years buried underground?

Bones and teeth are the only biological materials that will survive unless bodies have been mummified or in rare instances been preserved in ice or wet anaerobic conditions.
However, hard mineralised bones protect the collagen that makes them. Proteins in bone collagen can last up to a million years.
Non-biological remains such as bronze artifacts and ceramic pots will survive for much longer.

4. What What types of materials do not survive for thousands of years?

Basically anything organic and soft that is not protected in some hard enclosure. Muscle, wood, plants, soft tissue and so on. There are some very rare and important cases where soft tissue has survived in wet acidic condition such as peat bog.

5. Why are the researchers in Fig. 1.2 wearing gloves?

There may be solvents and other chemicals that are harmful, but clean conditions avoid contamination. One flake of skin could give false results. For analysis of DNA even cleaner conditions are needed. Archaeologists work with similar cleanliness standards to police laboratories. It would be annoying to spend weeks analysing Neanderthal DNA only to find that it is your own because you dropped skin into the tube!

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Fig.1.1 Model helicopters with digital cameras and GPS can map sites.

Fig. 1.2 Preparing samples for gas chromatography
Picture: Colleen Morgan

Fig. 1.3 Before laboratory analysis you have to find what you are looking for.

Fig. 1.4 Mass spectrometry is now an essential tool for archeologists.

Fig. 1.5 Shallow geophysics research detects potential dig sites.