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Archaeology Myths




 

 

Archaeology Myth #1: Fossils?

Archaeologists dig up dinosaurs.

Carnivorous dinosaur

Carnivorous dinosaur on exhibit at the Burke Museum

Reality

Paleontologists study the fossils of extinct animals, including dinosaurs. Geologists study rocks. Archaeologists study people of the past through the things they left behind.

Archaeologists Dig for Clues
Taken from: Archaeologists Dig for Clues,
by Kate Duke 1996. HarperCollins Children's Books.


Archaeology Myth #2: Ownership

It's okay to pick up artifacts whenever you see them.

Officer Rich Davis Indicates a Looting Site

Law enforcement official, Rich Davis, standing by a hole made by looters who stole artifacts from this site.

Reality

Taking artifacts without using proper scientific methods destroys irreplacable evidence from the past. Federal and state laws do not allow the removal of artifacts from public lands without a permit.

Warning Sign
Posting on U.S. park lands


Archaeology Myth #3: Gold!?

Archaeologists get to keep any gold or other artifacts that they find.

sophie

Sophie Schliemann wearing the "treasure of Priam", which her husband excavated and was accused of smuggling out of Turkey for his private collection. Photo from manuscript by C. Irwin-Williams.

Reality

Professional archaeologists do not keep, buy, sell, or trade any artifacts. They believe that the objects they dig up should be kept together as a collection to be available for study or display. By law, artifacts recovered from federal or state lands belong to the public, and must be taken care of on behalf of the public.

Visitor to Burke
A young visitor at the Burke Museum,
viewing an exhibit in the lobby.


Archaeology Myth #4: Treasure

Archaeologists dig to find ancient treasure.

Ancient treasure

Reality

Archaeologists dig in order to find out how ancient peoples lived. In order to do this, they look for clues such as stone tools, pottery, plants, and animal bones, like these bird bones.

Bird bones
Bird bones from Whatmough Bight


Archaeology Myth #5: Digging

Archaeologists spend all of their time digging.

Excavation at the Conway Wet Site
Excavation at the Conway Wet Site (45-SK-59).

Reality

Archaeology is more than a dig. Archaeologists do not spend a lot of time digging. Instead, they spend a lot of time in the laboratory, analyzing and interpreting their finds.

Excavation at the Conway Wet Site
Archaeologists doing lab work at the Burke Museum


Archaeology Myth #6: Dino Dinner?

People used to hunt dinosaurs.

Image: Dinosaur Reconstruction

Reality

Dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago. Fully modern humans (Homo sapiens) have existed for about 100,000 years and they have occupied the Americas for about 12,000 years. Humans missed the dinosaurs by 64.9 million years! The first people in the Americas hunted big animals such as mammoths and mastodons, and they also gathered plants.

Image: Mastodon
Painting of a mastodon
(a now-extinct North American elephant).


Archaeology Myth #7: Burials

Archaeologists prefer to excavate graves.

Photo: Historic Gravestone
Gravestone in the Granary Burying Ground, Boston, MA.

Reality

While studying human remains can provide a lot of important details about past peoples, these studies are delicate and time-consuming. For these reasons, as well as respect for cultural sensitivities about deceased ancestors, archaeologists think carefully before unearthing a burial.

Photo: Ohio Burial Mound
Burial mound in Ohio.