The Study of Food in Archaeology

A view of the mound at Town Creek from the south. The perspective is from the grass which is thick, green, and full of springtime flowers. The townhouse is on top of the mound, pine trees in the background, and a clear blue sky above.
A view of the Town Creek Mound in Spring.

What is on the Prehistoric Menu?

For every human society, as for every living organism, food is an essential part of life. With humans spread around the world and capable of infinite possibilities, we have a diverse capacity for consuming food. The ability to cook our food allows us to extract nutrients from resources that would otherwise be inedible or toxic for us to eat. We can also season our food to appeal to a wide array of tastes. And yet, beyond the mere act of eating to acquire energy, food practices have many social meanings from afternoon snacks to grand feasts. …


Remote Sensing in Archaeology

Dr. Chet Walker is operating magnetic survey equipment across the prairie with the mound at Town Creek Indian Mound visable.
A magnetic survey at Town Creek Indian Mound

Distance Archaeology

The field of archaeology has moved beyond its origins of digging large pits in search of fancy objects to fill museums and private collections. Archaeologists have long realized that careful, scientific research can yield an infinite amount of information that is limited only by our ability to understand and our technology. Excavations are unavoidably destructive and archaeologists are increasingly turning to other technologies and leaving the trowels at home. Collectively known as remote sensing, various tools are used to gather information about a site or artifact from a distance without disturbing or destroying the soil. Old and new technologies can…


Preservation and Archaeology

This ear disk is made from wood and copper. The copper aided in the wood’s preservation while the blue-green color shows the copper’s oxidation.

When Conditions Need to be Just Right

If everything on an excavation project goes according to plan and all the necessary information is recorded and filed with the best possible procedures, then the next biggest barrier to a solid site interpretation is preservation. Preservation is what allows some artifacts and features to survive from the time when people used the site in the past to when archaeologists started digging. Between the environment and other events that have happened on the site, there are many reasons that artifacts do not survive. This chance of survival is often called the bias in the archaeological record where natural processes favor…


Radiocarbon Dating in Archaeology

A Very Small Silver Lining to a Very Dark Cloud

There are two types of dating in archaeology: relative and absolute. Relative dating involves creating a sequence of events from stratigraphy and artifact typologies. Absolute dates come from calendar dates in written documents or from chemically testing samples taken from archaeological sites. The most popular and impactful form of absolute dating is radiocarbon dating which can provide dates at least 50,000 years old. (Radiocarbon dating is also called carbon-14, C-14 or ¹⁴C.) Archaeologists send a sample of organic material such as wood, bone, or seeds, from a context that has been relatively dated and a lab sends back a date…


Gridding an Archaeological Site

Setting Up is the Hardest Part

Setting up a site is one of the most important things an archaeologist can do before an excavation. If a site is not properly set up then there will be issues throughout the project and the conclusions drawn from the excavation could be wrong. Once a site has been identified and permission has been granted, archaeologists will divide the site into a grid system for mapping and communicating about exact locations. The grid acts as the X and Y plans of the map. …


The Importance of Garbage in Archaeology

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Archaeologists usually get excited about trash. Trash heaps and latrines are always good finds for a wide range of artifacts. Mounds of trash are so important that they even have their own name: middens. After people settle in a location, they usually throw all their trash into concentrated areas, and the collection overtime provides insights into the entire lifespan of the community. At the time, people are just throwing away broken pots, animal bones or shells and not giving any thought to how this could be useful in the future. After all, how often do you think about your trash?


Archaeological Chronologies

Where Time, Somewhat, Stands Still

There are several ways that archaeologists date events that happened on a site. Relative dating involves organizing the general order of events on an archaeological site. Stratigraphy is one tool of relative dating where archaeologists can create a timeline of the site by how the soil layers relate to each other. Relative dating tools do not provide exact dates, but they can provide a sequence of events. …


Evidence Beyond the Artifacts

Have I Got a Story For You

It is a truth that all archaeologists must learn: not everything from the past survives and what does survive may not provide clear answers. In addition to the scientific method and findings from biology, geology, chemistry and many other fields, archaeologists can turn to written sources or oral histories for gathering information. For societies with written languages, documents can provide people’s names, religious practices, or day to day activities. For societies without written languages, archaeologists can look at a trading partner or neighbor that does have a written language for references. …


Symbols in Archaeology

Judaculla Rock in Jackson County, North Carolina

Say it with a Picture

We live in a very literate society. Almost everything we do involves reading something from food labels and building names to social media posts and news stories. We read so many words a day that we often do not even realize when we have absorbed information from a symbol, including the letters we see here. Symbols are a representation of something else that can be understood within a culture. Symbols do not have the formal rules that letters or characters have that make up a written language. Two people can have different meanings for the same symbol. While people in…


Observation and Inference in Archaeology

The Value of a Closer Look

Archaeologists spend many years training to see patterns in the artifacts and features they uncover on a site. They work on teams where each person has a special interest or specialty so that different ideas can be shared. As a science, archaeologists use the scientific method to reach their interpretations about a site. There are many steps between an observation of a dark patch of soil to an inference that a round building was in a location supported by wooden posts. Observations are things that can be seen and measured. Inferences are conclusions that are…

Groundbreaking Activities

Little Bits of Archaeology for Your Home or Classroom from Town Creek Indian Mound

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