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Information About Archeology

FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions

[This section is still under construction; stay tuned for more Questions and Answers.]

Q. I have always been interested in arrowheads and have picked up some that I found when hiking around the lake near where I live.  Some people have told me I shouldn't do this; why not?

A. The archeologists at Texas Parks & Wildlife Department have faced this inquiry numerous times and have prepared a booklet that responds to the question. Please learn some Facts About Artifacts

Q. I have a rock, a fossil, I think, that I would like to know more about.  Who can tell me what it is and how old it is?

A. Confused about who can help when you discover an ancient fossil or an arrow point?  Who can identify the unusual rock you found in the riverbed?  Do you think an archeologist has the answer in each case?

Actually, archeologists study traces of the human past,  while paleontologists study fossil remains of plants and animals, and geologists examine rocks and landforms for clues to the history of the earth.  Still confused?  Let's review the definitions and skills.

Archeologist — a scientist who studies past peoples and cultures by excavating and examining material remains as simple as an arrowhead or as complex as the ruins of a prehistoric village.  Archeologists study ancient cultures as well as recent historic occupations.

Archeologists are interested in animal bones, plant remains and certain stone materials when these things occur at archeological sites and have a clear relationship to human activity.  Animal bones that show evidence of hunting or butchering can shed light on what past inhabitants ate and details about the environment they inhabited.  So can certain types of plant materials, such as seeds and nutshells.

Stones interest archeologists if they were used for making tools, lining a hearth or building a structure.  Natural features such as rock shelters, caverns and sinkholes may interest archeologists if they were used or lived in by humans.  Since dinosaurs lived long before the first humans, archeologists do not search for or study dinosaur bones.

Paleontologist — a scientist who reconstructs the geologic history of the earth through the study of plant and animal fossils.

Overall, the fossils that interest paleontologists predate human history. Petrified wood, dinosaur bones and tracks, fossil snails and shellfish, and other ancient life forms preserved in stone interest paleontologists.

Geologist — a scientist who studies the composition, structure and history of the earth.  Geologists derive important clues to the earth's history through the study of rocks, minerals and geologic features such as volcanoes, underground caverns, escarpments and other landforms.  Fascinating landforms occur in every region of the state and draw the attention of geologists eager to gather more information about Texas' geologic past.

[The above response is taken directly from a Texas Historical Commission brochure that is published on their website at http://www.thc.state.tx.us/archeology/aastnbn.html. Our thanks to the THC for letting us share this useful information.]

So, now you have a better idea about who could tell you more about your object.

Here are some options.

– You think you have something that an archeologist could help to identify.  In additional to arrow and dart points, other man-altered rocks that are chipped (scrapers, drills…) or ground (manos, metates, celts…), sherds (pieces of ceramics from jars, bowls,…), ornaments, etc., and if more recent, glass and metal objects, could be checked out by an archeologist.  If you live in a town with a museum, some of them have identification days when residents can bring in their objects to be identified.  If there is a college or university in your town, someone from the Anthropology Department may be able to help identify your specimen.  Likewise, if there is a regional archeological society in your area, you could ask about bringing your object to a meeting to have it identified.  Regional societies may be found at this link: http://www.txarch.org/Contacts/regions.html.  Sometimes if an item is particularly tricky to identify, digital pictures are placed on our website and certain trained individuals are asked to provide information.

Archeological staff at state agencies may be able to assist. Among these are archeologists and historians at the Texas Historical Commission, http://www.thc.state.tx.us and the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, http://www.utexas.edu/research/tarl/.  Other state agencies and universities also have archeologists on staff, such as the Texas Department of Transportation, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, the Texas General Land Office, The University of Texas at San Antonio, and Texas State University.  The archeologists with most of the above agencies are based in Austin.

– You think you have something that a paleontologist could help to identify.  Natural history museums are likely to have a paleontologist on staff, as are university geology departments.   If you think you have an invertebrate fossil (clams, oysters, coral…) , you might check with the Texas Memorial Museum/Texas Natural Science Center's Non-vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory at UT-Austin, http://www.utexas.edu/tmm/npl/.  If you have a vertebrate fossil (the animal had a backbone), you could check with one of the paleontologists at the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory, http://www.utexas.edu/tmm/vpl/, affiliated with the UT Department of Geological Sciences, and also affiliated with the Texas Memorial Museum/Texas Natural Science Center at UT-Austin.

– You think you have something that a geologist could help to identify.  Natural history museums might have a geologist on staff, or you might try the Bureau of Economic Geology, Jackson School of Geosciences, at UT-Austin, http://www.beg.utexas.edu/

For your information, individuals in each of these fields usually have some experience in other areas, as well as being knowledgeable about where your question could be answered.  The person you speak to will likely try to refer you to the most appropriate individual for a more complete reply.

Q. I think I want to be an archeologist.  What kind of training will I need?

A. Professional archeologists receive academic training in archeological theory and method. They know about laws that govern site investigations and procedures.  Professional archeologists do not sell, trade or collect artifacts for personal collections or monetary gain.  They are scientists who seek information about prehistoric and historic peoples through the study of material culture.

Academic Training

Archeologists need a broad educational background. Social science, mathematics, geology, physiology and other disciplines are important to study.  Sharing the results of archeological investigations is also important, so public speaking and writing skills are essential.  Contrary to a popular image of archeology, the work is not all action but it is an adventure.  Dedication to detail and patience are two helpful attributes for an archeologist.

Avocational archeologists gain expertise through hands-on learning and voluntary pursuits.  The Texas Historical Commission's Archeological Stewardship Network is one way professional and avocational archeologists work together.

Archeologists, Paleontologists and Geologists

Because archeologists, paleontologists and geologists are all interested in stones and bones, some confusion exists about which scientist is which.  See What Does an Archeologist Do? for a brief explanation.

For more information about careers in archeology, see the Society for American Archaeology's web site, or type ”archaeologist” into the Princeton Review's Career Guide site.

[The above response is taken directly from a Texas Historical Commission brochure that is published on their website at http://www.thc.state.tx.us/archeology/aacareer.shtml. Our thanks to the THC for letting us share this useful information.]

One of our TAS Past Presidents, David L. Carlson, an associate professor at Texas A & M University, has prepared an extended answer for this question.  Please check out this link: http://www.txarch.org/archeology/careers/index.html for more information.

The association of professional archeologists in Texas, the Council of Texas Archeologists (CTA) http://www.counciloftexasarcheologists.org/, provides information on job opportunities in archeology, in particular, Cultural Resource Management (CRM) archeology, as well as discussing how to prepare for a career in CRM archeology. That information may be found on the CTA website under Student Pages


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March 27, 2013