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What is Archaeology?

​​​​​​​​​​What is Archaeology?

​Archaeology is the scientific study of past peoples through the objects they have left behind.   It is about exploring the patterns and processes of how people lived long ago. To do this, archaeologists use scientific methods and techniques, analyze objects, and look for patterns reflected in those objects. The artifacts left behind at the places where people once lived and the archaeological sites they created contain a record of the past.​

Some Kentucky archaeologists study the diverse Native American peoples who lived here in ancient times, before European Americans and African Americans arrived. Others study groups who have lived in Kentucky since the late eighteenth century.

Whether investigating a 10,000-year-old Native American camp, a 2,000-year-old Native American cave glyph, a 500-year-old Native American village, historic-era farmsteads, Civil War battlefields, or a 100-year-old mining town, archaeologists are contributing to our understanding of the Commonwealth’s rich heritage.

Today, Kentucky archaeologists are investigating the many fascinating questions that still have not been answered about Kentucky’s past cultures. These individuals are sharing what they have learned and working to preserve and protect the fragile places where past peoples once lived.

The Three Stages of Archaeological Fieldwork

​Survey and Site Discovery

Survey is completed by walking over areas with good visibility, such as plowed fields, or digging shovel probes (about 1 foot in diameter) at regular intervals in areas of poor visibility, such as overgrown fields. All dirt from the probes is pushed through a screen to recover any artifacts that may be present.  When artifacts are found on the surface or in the screen the location of the find is recorded and the spatial distribution of artifacts is noted.  A site form is then completed and submitted to the Office of State Archaeology at the University of Kentucky.  At that time, it is given a Kentucky state site number and is added to the statewide site database.  

Phase I: Survey and Site Discovery

​Limited Excavation

To learn more about a site and to determine if it is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, archaeologists often excavate several 3 x 3 feet or 3 x 6 feet units at the site. These units are excavated stratigraphically, with the 10 to 12 inch disturbed plowzone removed first.  This is followed by the excavation of the underlying deposits in 4 inch levels. In addition to studying the spatial distribution and concentrations of artifacts, archaeologists often use specialized scientific equipment, such as ground-penetrating radar and information collected from extensive research of archival documents, to make their decisions as to where to place the units. If this investigation results in the recovery of a large numbers of artifacts, or the identification of intact subplowzone deposits, such as piles of trash, storage pits, hearths, the remains of houses, foundations, or privies,  the site may be determined to be significant.  In order to be significant, the archaeologist must determine that additional work at the site has the potential to contribute to our understanding of the lives of the  people who once lived there.  It is this research potential that makes a site eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.   

Phase:II Site Evaluation Image

​Intensive Excavation

Sites that are found to be significant are often subjected to intensive investigation.  This work can be undertaken as a grant funded research project, a University field school, and or in advance of the site being impacted by a construction project, such as a new highway or bridge replacement project.  This work often involves the excavation of a large number of units (3 x 3 feet, 3 x 6 feet, or 6 x 6 feet) to form a block.  This is followed by the mechanical removal of the plowzone to expose underlying intact deposits.  Intensive excavations also include a detailed plan/research design that identifies the research questions to be asked and the methods that will be used to address them. 

Phase:III Mitigation of Adverse Affect