If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:6:45

Video transcript

[Music] every day we discard things if we think about this in terms of centuries these objects get buried over time older things get buried deeper and that's essentially what we're talking about when we think about an archaeological site just like if you look around the place where you live today the objects tell a story about things you like things that you don't like ways that you live your life and the story of the past lies in the objects since the people themselves can't be interrogated and so the whole range of human experience archaeology can tell that story so thinking in terms of layers is crucial everything relies on layers and archaeological dig Rafi relies on what we call the law of superposition which simply means that the oldest thing tends to be at a lower level and the more recent material tends to be closer to the modern surface so an archaeologist will be recording what level of the soil the object is found at what objects are nearby and they're also learning things from the soil in a sense the archaeologist is reading the site as if you were reading your favorite book backwards in starting at the end of the story and then trying to work in a way towards the beginnings of the story by disassembling and documenting the layers of human activity and lack of activity that I've occurred at that place over time so an archaeological site is rich and dense with information if we go in and we only pull out the most beautiful the most precious objects and cast aside what seems like the detritus of everyday life we're going to lose so much they could tell us about a culture as a discipline twenty-first century archaeologists have come to the point where not only are they interested in the discovery and the conservation of the object but they're also committed to the preservation of its contextual information often archaeological sites are looted and when that happens we lose so much context objects are looted so that people can live and eat in parts of the world they're deeply impoverished so there's often a sense that it's the collector fault it's the demand for these objects that are the problem looting of archaeological sites that's happening in the world today tends to be motivated by concerns that are different from those of archaeology in that the archaeological exploration of a site tends to be slow and methodical and looting tends to happen along a different and much quicker time line in order to acquire extract objects that the black market has a taste for the often means a serious disruption of whatever the archaeological context is in the pursuit of whatever objects are desired and often the things that are not objects per se like the soil matrix this helps tell the contextual story of that place and once those are destroyed or seriously disrupted there's no recovering them so what can we learn from the soil matrix we can increasingly learn more from dirt than ever before we can even understand things about elements in human diet by looking at mineral traces in human remains we can do garden archaeology and learn what people were growing not just to eat but to decorate the outside of their homes and this is an example of why contextual information is so vital so if we privilege the object we're losing so much especially if we're privileged in the objects that collectors are most interested in we focus only on the object we are going to miss most of the story and these days there's so many tools for archaeologists to accurately record an archaeological site computer-aided technology has really revolutionized archaeological fieldwork it has not only made things more accurate but it has also enabled us to collect more data than ever before such that we may even be collecting data now that scholars in the future may still be able to analyze further than we can and I can even use photogrammetry to recreate that object digitally in three dimensions those photo models can then allow someone who was not present at the excavation to virtually experience that object or a grouping of objects in their original context and we can also get into the air airborne imaging whether lidar or from drone or from fixed-wing aircraft is further enhancing our ability to read human landscapes and to see the human activity that happens over time in any given place as well as to establish patterns of human activity in the landscape so not just focusing on a site but seeing groupings of sites or patterns of human occupation in the landscape archaeology is always destructive in some way one is undoing those layers of the past we often say the archaeology is the unrepeatable experiment and that once the site is disassembled there is no real way of assembling it again the properly conducted archaeological fieldwork is usually slow and maybe a bit boring especially when compared to Hollywood versions of archaeology but this slow methodical recording of the site is perhaps the most important part of the archaeological method but every site can only tell us a piece of a story any archaeological site incredibly ancient or even quite recent will always be incomplete the archaeological record will always have gaps one could even imagine that an archaeological site is like 5,000 piece picture puzzle that one might have in the closet at home only you've lost about 2800 of the pieces and that helpful picture on the box lid that shows you what it's supposed to look like has also perished and so contextual interpretation means can you use extant knowledge to fill in the missing pieces and the sound answer is that you will never have a total picture of that place but you can get pretty close and that's why we want to do everything we can to preserve those contexts and discourage the destruction of archaeological sites through looting yes we want to encourage people to think about the fact that archaeology is telling the human story and we need as many pieces of information as we can get our hands on and so if we're only focused on an object that is pleasing to us for one reason or another our ability to tell a complete and holistic story of the human past is greatly diminished and so looting that fuels a demand for black-market items for instance essentially means that we are literally destroying irretrievable elements of the story of our collective past you