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Bringing the past and the present together - 10 things you might not know about Archaeology

Janet Miller

To celebrate Day of Archaeology 2017, which asks: what do archaeologists really do? Our Chief Executive Officer, Janet Miller, shares 10 things you might not know...

For Day of Archaeology 2017, let's bust some myths about archaeology:

1. It's not all about the past

While archaeologists look at material from the earliest phases of human evolution and through all the later eras, archaeologists also like to examine what makes the modern world tick. Many of us want to contribute our 'long view' and particular thinking to key contemporary debates, such as migration, globalisation, national identity, the future of cities, health and well-being and homelessness. In fact some archaeologists would say that archaeology isn't even about the past - it's practiced in the present and so inevitably it embodies all the ideas, biases, assumptions and the worldview of today.

2. Not all archaeologists dig

It's often thought that we are always on our knees, toothbrush in hand, painstakingly teasing an artefact from the soil. In fact many archaeologists are based in the office - analysing artefacts, conserving fragile material, or synthesising digital data; or they’re out and about in schools and communities ensuring that archaeology benefits people and society. And of course, sometimes we think it's best not to dig at all – some remains are so important that we think they should be preserved in situ, to be passed on to future generations.

3. It's not all underground

OK – most towns and cities have the archaeological remains of their earliest origins beneath them. But there is also useful evidence of our past in the streets, the buildings and the monuments around us. And of course archaeologists see the world being created today as one big archaeological site in the making.

4. Dinosaurs are not involved

Dinosaurs were long extinct before humans emerged and spread across the globe. In fact archaeology deals with a much later time period and is specifically about human beings and their material culture. We do look at the skeletons of animals from archaeological contexts. But we tend to do this to help to reconstruct the past environments in which people lived or to understand aspects of life, such as what people ate, made or traded.

5. It's not rare

It used to be thought that there were precious few surviving archaeological remains. But it has become clear that the more we look, the more we find and that archaeological material tends can be more robust than we thought. Over recent decades, innovations in  satellite imagery, drone survey and GIS mean that we now know that many places in the UK are densely packed with buried archaeological features of many periods. This abundance also means that we’ve had to rethink our assumptions about aspects of life in past communities - population size and density, the types of the economy, as well as the interchanges between early settlements, are all bigger and more complex than we thought.

6. You don't have to have a degree to do it

Archaeology is a well-respected profession, with a wide range of expertise and good career prospects. But you don’t have to have a degree in archaeology to get hands-on. More and more excavations, surveys and projects – large and small - are being delivered by teams that mix up qualified archaeologists, apprentices and traineescommunity enthusiasts and citizen scientists. There are opportunities for everyone to participate in creating real knowledge about our past.

7. It's a science and it's an art

There are as many definitions of archaeology as there are archaeologists. It focusses on the material remains of other times. It employs many serious scientific techniques and the analysis of evidence is very important to us. But archaeology’s true calling is to bring together and interpret many sorts of information in order to create rich pictures and tell stories about human behaviour in the past – this surely is an art. And for some, archaeology also takes its place alongside the other humanities in promoting critical thinking skills, extending our imagination and helping society to make better and more informed choices - all by holding up a mirror to our society today.

8. Most discoveries are not surprises

While there has always been and probably always will be the occasional unexpected spectacular finds, most work today is preceded by careful predictions of where archaeological remains are likely to be found and what sort of sites and features they might be, using maps, geophysical, documentary and other data. Almost of all of this work is arranged and commissioned by those organisations who create the UK’s critical transport and utilities infrastructure, as well as the homes, offices and other social amenities needed for our economic prosperity and well-being. Archaeology is an integral part of development programmes and is given the time and funds to plan and complete thorough excavations. All this results in the most remarkable legacy and resource of rich knowledge about past communities across the UK.

9. It's not all about treasure

Yes, all archaeologists like to unearth and study precious or unusual objects – they are so evocative of episodes of our prehistory and history. But in fact what archaeologists really really want is data and evidence. We are just as interested in – possibly more so – in the soils and layers, the features and foundations, the ditches and holes, the seeds and pollen, as well as the debris and the rubbish. Archaeologists don’t only look at treasure and monuments – we look at the everyday stuff that human life is all about.

10. Archaeology isn't always nice

Archaeology is popular – children and adults like to join in and learn. But we mustn’t forget that archaeology can have a darker side. It often sheds light on uncomfortable truths, such as war crimes or slavery or the experience of refugees. And sometimes ancient sites and monuments are used as weapons or hostages during civil war or social unrest. This dark side reminds us that archaeology isn’t passive or docile. It is very powerful, but sometimes it is not kind.

So - if you are simply fascinated by what can be unearthed, if for you it's about engaging communities with their heritage, or about understanding the origins of  urban life,  or a way of introducing history to children, or about illuminating the present by looking at the past, or even if its about helping to fix the injustices of today – what we do know is that archaeology is, indisputably, relevant.

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