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An artifact is anything made or used by humans. Every day we touch, walk on, or use thousands of artifacts. How do archaeologists identify the artifacts they find in archaeological sites?

No matter how well prepared we are when we set to work, archaeologists are bound to find objects we cannot identify. This is because we are working with cultures which, in many cases, do not exist anymore, or have changed a great deal over time. Objects which were common to see in the Beringian region 3,000 years ago may not be so common today. How do we identify what we find?

We start by looking at what has been found in the area by others. Before we leave the lab, we study the reports of researchers who have worked in the area, and, if possible, look at the items they found. This way, we can be prepared for what we'll see when we begin our survey or excavation.

In the field, we keep careful notes of exactly where each item is found. We make maps and take photos that can help us later when we try to identify the items.

Back in the lab, we begin with the "easy part." We sort the items we can identify by function (what they were used for), or by style, or by material type. There are always a few pieces that don't fit!

We carefully examine them, asking ourselves questions:

  • What is the item made of?
    Often this will help us rule out possible uses. Some materials are good for making woodworking tools, some are better for making cutting tools or hunting tools.
  • Does the item look like anything found in the area before?
    We go back to the research materials and check the library and the archives for anything that might look like the item we are trying to identify.
  • Does the item look like a whole object, or is it a fragment of something bigger?
    We look for jagged edges, or design elements that run off the edge or are incomplete, and scan all surfaces for signs of damage.
  • Is there only one of them, or are there many?
    Finding a number of identical unidentifiable items sometimes deepens the mystery, but it also lets us know that the item was not one-of-a-kind.
  • Where was the item found?
    We go back to the field notes and look at where the item was found. Was it inside a house? Along a trail? In a kitchen? In a hunting blind? Sometimes knowing where an artifact was found can help narrow down the possibilities.
  • Can we tell if the item was used?
    We look for use-wear patterns on edges and surfaces. These are areas where small - sometimes microscopic - bits of the tool are worn away through use, much the way a pencil lead wears down as you write with it, only on a smaller scale.
If we still can't tell what the item is, we can sometimes go to the descendants of the people who made the artifact, and ask if they know what it might be. Many times an elder can remember or can lend his or her perspective. We try to include as many perspectives as possible in cases like this, for each individual will see the object slightly differently, and someone may see something that the others missed.

Some artifacts may stay unidentified for many years. As archaeologists learn more and more about a culture that lived in that area, the use of the artifact may become clear.

Are you ready?

next Begin the Artifact Challenge


Name that Artifact
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