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12 July 2014
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Notepads to Laptops: Archaeology Grows Up

By Julian Richards
New techniques

Image of pottery
Traces of food and wine can be found in pottery fragments ©
Although the basic techniques of excavation have not changed radically over the past 100 years, what has developed enormously is the range of scientific investigations that can be applied to the site itself, the soils of which it is composed and the objects that it contains.

Sites can now be located by aerial survey or by the use of geophysics - both are ways of detecting subtle changes in the soils that represent pits, ditches, walls, floors, burning for hearths or other types of human activity.

The archaeologists of the early 19th century did not think it worthwhile to collect human skeletons, as they thought there was nothing that could be learnt from them. As a result, although burial mounds that they excavated have been stripped of their pots or bronze daggers, most still contain their original burials. By examining the bones in these burials 200 years later, it is possible not only to tell sex, age and stature of the people buried in them, but, by using DNA and isotopes, to find out about such aspects of their societies as kinship, migration, diet and health.

'Metal and stone may now be traced back to their place of origin ...'

Animal bones found at archaeological sites can also provide evidence of food and patterns of animal husbandry, while snail shells and grains of pollen contained within the soil offer clues to the local and more widespread environment and vegetation.

Metal and stone may now be traced back to their place of origin, as may the clay from which pots are made - giving indications of long-vanished trade routes. Pots, due to their considerable variation in shape, decoration and clay, have long been valuable for dating and demonstrating cultural links. However, recent advances in the study of lipids (types of fats) can also now show what different foods have been cooked in a particular pot.

Published: 2005-01-24



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