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Archaeological Myths and Perceptions

Because of former archaeological practices, misrepresentation in the media, and long-time stereotypes about people of the past, people often have inaccurate ideas about what archaeologists do and the societies that they study.

MYTH: People Used To Hunt Dinosaurs

REALITY: Dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago. Fully modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) have existed for about 100,000 years, and they have occupied the Americas for at least 15,000 years. These first inhabitants hunted "megafauna" (big animals) such as mammoths and mastodons, and they also gathered plants. But no people ever hunted dinosaurs.

MYTH: Archaeologists Dig Up Dinosaurs

REALITY: Although both "paleontology" and "archaeology" mean knowledge of "old things," paleontology is the study of the life of past geologic ages through examination of fossil remains of ancient plants and animals. Archaeologists study people of the past through their material remains. Archaeology is a branch of anthropology, which is the study of humans. Archaeology is a method for the recovery, study, and reconstruction of the past of humans through analysis of their material remains. Archaeologists in their study of artifacts have called upon paleontologists, as well as botanists, soil specialists, and geologists, to aid in their analysis.

MYTH: Archaeologists And "Pot Hunters" Share The Same Goals.

REALITY: Pot hunters are collectors of prehistoric Indian artifacts for personal gain or private pleasure; they generally have little or no interest in the scientific interpretation of what is recovered. Archaeologists, both amateur and professional, keep careful, complete records and share their conclusions with others; their goal is to contribute as much as possible to our knowledge about the culture and lifestyle of a prehistoric people.

MYTH: All A Person Needs To Practice Archaeology Is A Shovel And A Place To Dig.

REALITY: Professional archaeologists undergo many years of academic training, as well as experience in the field and laboratory. Moreover, today's archaeology involves more time spent in the laboratory classifying and analyzing the material recovered than time spent in the field at an excavation site.

MYTH: Archaeologists Spend All Of Their Time Digging.

REALITY: Archaeology is more than a dig. Archaeologists actually spend a relatively small amount of their time excavating, compared to the time spent in the laboratory, analyzing and interpreting their finds, and preparing written reports about the project. Moreover, some professional archaeologists are involved in the management and protection of cultural resources and so therefore may spend little time doing excavation.

MYTH: Archaeologists Prefer To Excavate Graves.

REALITY: The study of human remains from an archaeological site can provide important details about the diet and health of a population. However, such excavations are delicate and time consuming, as is the conservation and disposition of the remains after their recovery. For these reasons, as well as respect for cultural sensitivities regarding deceased ancestors, archaeologists think carefully before unearthing a burial. In addition, federal laws protect the graves of Native Americans.

MYTH: Archaeologists Get To Keep Any Valuable Artifacts That They Find.

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

MYTH: The Typical Archaeologist Is Trying To Find Beautiful, Valuable Objects For Display Or Sale.

REALITY: The caricature of the archaeologist as the bearded fellow in the pith helmet rifling ancient tombs dies hard - witness "Raiders of the Lost Ark." However, most archaeologists are more concerned with using the physical remains of past peoples as tools in reconstructing the lifeways of those people than in the artifacts themselves. A charred grain of corn from an ancient hearth fire may be the most valuable item recovered from a site.

MYTH: It's Okay To Pick Up Artifacts Because If You Don't, Someone Else Will. Besides, The Site Won't Last Long Anyway.

REALITY: Removing artifacts without using proper scientific methods destroys evidence. This is what pot hunters and surface collectors do. Archaeological sites do not have to be excavated and actually survive best if left untouched. In addition, federal and state laws prohibit the removal of artifacts from public lands without a permit.

MYTH: Archaeologists Investigate Mainly Prehistoric Sites.

REALITY: Archaeology is the scientific study of non-renewable and often fragile material remains of past human activity. Archaeologists excavate on land and under the water to recover evidence with which to reconstruct and describe past culture, technology, and behavior. This past can be as long ago as 14,000 years ago or as recent as 20 years ago. Archaeologists investigate the villages of native peoples and the house sites of early pioneers. They investigate the stone outcrops where prehistoric peoples quarried raw materials for their tools, and iron furnaces where historic peoples smelted iron for theirs'. They investigate where native peoples threw their trash as well as rural and urban dumps where historic peoples threw out their trash. The age of artifacts does not matter; it is the way in which they are interpreted to inform us about the past that makes the archaeology.