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Archaeology Decade as seen on The Frontiers Decade

q What is the most stunning discovery you have made in your study of archaeology?

A I suppose most discoveries made by archaeologists are pieces of the jig-saw puzzle rather than earth shattering finds. Archaeology is about things people forgot or left behind. That's what we tend to find but it is those smaller things, pieces of the jig-saw, that build up and eventually tell a story, something new and interesting about people not recorded in history. So archaeology is less about the individual discoveries and more about how these add up to increasing our understanding. This may make archaeology sound a lot duller than treasure hunting but it really is not. There is a lot of routine but also excitement.

If I have to say what is the most stunning discovery I have made it would be finding the oldest known remains of modern people in the lowest layers at Klasies River. This has implications for origins of all living people and as such would rate as stunning. A discovery that has given me much personal satisfaction is research that led to showing how the Stone Age ancestors of the San (Bushmen) collected and used different species of plants and made it possible to get a good, even stunning, insight into their lifeways.
Hilary Deacon
Science Safari, November 1996

q Why are artifacts so important to our future? Why are we spending money on searching for information on our past, when we should be spending the money on bettering our future?

A This seems to me to be a philosophical question that has to do with humanity and how easy you feel in the space that you're in. For hundreds of years, the people of South Africa have not had a real history. Since 1652 their history has been the history of white people. Finding out about the past empowers people with a sense of pride in what they've been. I don't believe you can go forward unless you have an understanding of your past. This excavation has received quite a bit of attention in the press and, all of a sudden, more than a thousand years of history has opened up to people who didn't have a past until now. I think when you know where you come from, you gain a clearer view of yourself and where you're going.
Sidney Miller
Science Safari, November 1996

q How do scientists know the age of the mummies found in China's Xinjiang Province?

A The dates of the mummies, an extremely important part of their study, have been derived from both pottery and metal objects (relative dating techniques) as well as through radioisotopes (absolute dating techniques) The radioisotope used is Carbon 14 Radiocarbon dating is done on things which used to be alive (for example, wood from a tree or bone from an animal.) All living things take in carbon, both the stable and unstable forms. After things die, they no longer take it in. A sample of archaeological material is burned so that the carbon can be studied for its relative amount of the unstable radioisotope C14. Many of the dates for these mummies were gotten from radiocarbon testing of reed mats in the burials. Radiocarbon dating works on the principle that an unstable isotope, or atomic form, of the common element Carbon, is present in the atmosphere everywhere in the world at all times. Most carbon is stable and has 12 electrons (Carbon 12.), but some is in the form of an unstable isotope, which is due to some carbon atoms being bombarded by cosmic rays from the sun. The half-life of the unstable isotope C14. is 5568 years. By knowing the percentage of the outset, and knowing the amount of C14. in an artifact, along with the known rate of its decay, one can figure out the length of time in which this decay has been taking place, therefore the age of the object.
Irene Good
Dragon Science, November 1995

q What kind of wood were the Viking ships were made of? Were nails used? Did they use patterns or build from memory? And how did the Vikings become such expert ship builders?

A Viking shipbuilders preferred to build their ships from oakwood in southern Scandinavia and from pine in northern Scandinavia. Other species of wood were also used, however, for special purposes, such as ashwood for the upper planks in the longships (this is probably why the English written sources refer to the Vikings as 'ashmen'). In areas with a strong shipbuilding activity such as around the Viking town of Hedeby they ran out of stock of the high-quality oak needed for the ships in the 10th to 11th centuries and had to use a number of other species of wood as well.

The planking was assembled with iron rivets (the Slaws used small wooden dowels) in lapstrake/clinker fashion, creating the lines of the hull by varying the shape of the planks and the angle from one plank to the next. Adjustments could be made with studs from the ground to the outside of the planking and stones placed inside the ship. After the bottom part had been built up with the planking (without any drawings or molds, just with the aid of a well trained eyesight) the bottomframes were cut to shape and inserted, and the sequence could be repeated with the sides of the ship.

Every Viking male could use an ax, not only as a warrior but mainly for many jobs in everyday life, such as building houses or ships. The main responsibility in shipbuilding, however, rested with the 'stem-smith', the master shipbuilder who knew the secrets of the trade (probably some sophisticated 'rules-of-thumb' based on measurements in proportion to the length of the keel). His ships would be measured against the standard of other ships of the time, and there was a strong competition and a lot of pride put into the ships, rather than business-like considerations.
Ole Crumlin-Pedersen
Nordic Sagas, January 1998

q How long does it generally take an archaeologist to fully examine and analyze a skeleton? How can you tell the sex of a skeleton? And how can you tell how old and how tall people were by the skeletons?

A Although the time required to analyze a complete skeleton varies depending on the studies being done, usually it's about a week or a week-and-a-half. With the skeletons from the Little Bighorn, we were doing additional studies beyond the normal ones so it took longer, probably 3 or 4 weeks each.

Females generally have small, less developed muscle attachments, males more developed, more robust muscle markings. The best area for telling sex is the pelvis: a female's pelvis is wider and broader than a male's. We can tell how old the people were at the time of death from various parts of the skeleton. The best area is where the bones of the pelvis meet each other. There are lots of other techniques too. The person's height can be estimated by measuring a limb bone (such as measuring the thigh bone shown on TV) and plugging that length into a mathematical formula. The formula looks a lot like the ones in algebra. The calculated figure is usually pretty accurate, perhaps to an inch or so.
P. Willey
The Wild West, October 1995

q Why do you think it is important to study human evolution?

A There is a universal curiosity about where we as humans came from and how we got to be like we are. This curiosity is real because at an individual level we need to know and draw strength from knowing who are our parents, grandparents and other relatives. It is part of belonging to a group. The study of human evolution is an extension of this to more remote ancestors. So at a very general level it is important to study human evolution to understand ourselves.

I would like to emphasize the importance of curiosity as the basis of all human learning and progress. Curiosity about how all living things are related and why living things show such variety has led to the development of the theory of evolution. The essential concept is modification with descent through natural selection and is a powerful explanation for the unity and diversity of life forms. The study of human evolution is the special field that explores how natural selection has worked to make humans part of this diversity. Humans are unusual in their two legged striding movement, their large brains, their use of tools (anything from a knife to an aeroplane), their talking and many more traits. Humans have also become very successful in moving out of the tropics, expanding to all corners of the globe and beyond and becoming very numerous. The human story is a long one going back some six million years to the last common ancestor with our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom the African great apes and this story is a continuing one because we are part of that evolution. It is a very exciting story and one in which we can be justifiably curious.
Hilary Deacon
Science Safari, November 1996


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