Methods and techniques

Because of wide range of procedures and methods, archaeology can be considered both science and a humanity. It depends a lot on individual theoretical approach. This approach determines the course of archaeological research, but the main methods used are often universal.

Archaeology uses several important methods to collect, analyze and explain data. The investigation involves several distinct phases, each of which employs its own variety of methods:

1) Defining a problem
2) Survey
3) Excavation
4) Data analysis
5) Interpretation

1) To define a problem means to have a basic understanding and consensus about what's going to be investigated and with what goal. There always need to be a problem to be solved, and questions answered. For example, a goal is understanding a types of settlement that existed in a specific area, or types of funerary practices in a culture. You can't just go out on a filed and start digging! There needs to be a clear objective an a plan before any practical work can begin.

2) Next step is site survey. It's a process in which archaeologists search and find sites to be excavated (it's not always obvious that there are material remains underground!). Also, survey collects additional information on larger area around the site.

There are several methods used for finding exact position of underground remains, such as surface survey, aerial photography or geophysical survey. Geophysical survey is often used for subsurface mapping of archaeological sites: instruments can detect buried archaeological features, and in some cases individual artifacts may be detected as well.

3) After the site survey, archaeologist have enough information to know where to dig. It is important to note that you can never dig up and find everything; in fact: it's not even a goal. Excavation is an invasive technique and once it's done, you can never get back to original state and collect new data. When excavating, it is important to record exact horizontal and vertical location of objects found, as well as their association with nearby objects and features. It is needed for determining which artifacts and objects were used together and in the same time, and which are from different phases and times.

That's why it's important to be very careful with excavations and to record everything. However, excavation is not the main purpose of archaeology; it's main goal is getting enough data that can be used for interpretation of the past and answering the questions asked in step 1.

4) Next step is data analysis. All data collected from excavation and surveying is studied and analyzed (often using physical, chemical, paleontology, etc. analysis). These data will be used for interpretation. In this sense, it is always best to publish data so other archaeologists, even those who didn't perform said excavation, can use them for their interpretation. However, some archaeologists refuse to do this.

5) Finally, it's time for interpretation. This is the most important step and the purpose of archaeology. Sometimes it's not possible to give accurate explanation, but seeking answers and learning new things about the past is more important than acquiring unique ancient objects, no matter how valuable and beautiful they are.

Interpretation is about answering questions and giving explanation. Why was this artifact made, when and for what purpose? What does it tell you about the people who made it and used it? Interpretation requires logic and deductive reasoning, as well as ability to think outside the box. Most obvious explanations might not be real ones. For example, poor graves with not many rich findings do not necessarily mean a person buried was poor. An individual buried with a helmet is not always a warrior - or male for that matter. Telling if an object was used as a house or storage pit is not always clear. It doesn't mean that an artifact that looks like a plate, a cup, or a pin was used in a way we find the most common and natural.

There are many challenges, and different archaeologists often offer different interpretations of the same material culture. That is not a bad thing: explaining and interpreting the past based on material remains is never an easy thing to do. However, it is what's archaeology is about and what makes it challenging and exciting.