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WHAT IS ARCHAEOLOGY?

“This place we call ‘Colorado’ has been inhabited for 10,000 years by people stretching to all four corners of our state. 
Their stories remind us that we are just caretakers of this place for a short time.  We need to do everything in our power to preserve and pass this heritage on to the next generation”


Steve Turner, Colorado State Historic Preservation Officer

Archaeology is the study of human history and prehistory through the exploration of historically significant sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. This section gives an introduction to the field by exploring the following topics:

  • What is Archaeology?   While the field of archaeology has many specialties,  a fundamental concern they all share is to discover and preserve past cultures.

  • Who is an Archaeologist?   There are many types of archaeologists beyond those who excavate artifacts. Archaeologists work in a wide variety of environments, from classrooms to offices to museums.

  • What are the Benefits of Archaeology?   Archaeology benefits Coloradans in many ways. This report highlights economic impacts, but there are substantial cultural, social, and environmental benefits, as well.

  • How Does Archaeology Help us Connect to the Past?   Archaeology can serve the important purpose of connecting people to their historic roots. Archaeology can help answer questions even about the near past that was left out of the documentary record, or history.  

 
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WHAT IS ARCHAEOLOGY?

Archaeology is the study of the human past through material culture. Through the analysis of artifacts and physical remains, archaeology reveals important insights about the past. In short, archaeology is the study of yesterday to better understand today.

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Specialties Within the Field

As illustrated in the diagram at the top of this page, the field of archaeology (itself a sub-discipline of anthropology) includes many specialties, such as Cultural Resource Management, Prehistoric Archaeology, Historical Archaeology, and Classical Archaeology. While there is great breadth and diversity among these specialties, a fundamental concern they all share is to discover and preserve past cultures. For this report, three of the specialties with the greatest direct economic impacts on Colorado are Historical Archaeology, Prehistoric Archaeology, and Cultural Resource Management.

Historical Archaeology

Historical archaeology focuses on past societies of the last 500 years or so, or since European contact with societies in the western hemisphere. By examining a broad range of sites, historical archaeologists seek to discover the fabric of everyday life to understand how past societies interacted and to understand the development of modern society.

Prehistoric Archaeology

Traditionally, “prehistoric” archaeology has been the term given to the study of societies prior to European contact, and was dominated by a white, western perspective of the indigenous past.  Today, these studies are more inclusive with multiple data sets including oral histories, linguistics, ethnobotany, and other information, often led by Indigenous and Native American experts.

Scientific Specialties

To understand all aspects of the past, some archaeologists specialize in particular types of remains. Zooarchaeologists identify and interpret animal remains that were used by humans, for instance, butchered bison or cow bones; while industrial archaeologists seek to understand the remains left from the industrial activities, such as lime kilns or early power plants.

 
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WHO IS AN ARCHAEOLOGIST?

An archaeologist is a person who studies human history and prehistory through the identification of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. In practice, this means archaeologists study past human activity by excavating, analyzing, and interpreting objects and sites of historical interest. Perhaps the most prominent image of an archaeologist in popular culture is someone like Indiana Jones, who excavates artifacts from the earth on “digs.”

 
But, in the real world, there are many types of archaeologists beyond those who work at excavations, and they are employed in a wide variety of environments, from classrooms to offices to museums. Some examples illustrating the range of archaeology-related jobs are featured below.

How do you Become an Archaeologist?

Due to the interrelated nature of archaeology and anthropology, and the prevalence of anthropology programs in many universities, many archaeologists are initially educated in the field of anthropology. While professional employment with a bachelor’s degree is possible, many jobs require additional education and training in archaeology or anthropology through a master’s or doctorate degree program. To qualify for the Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA), a post-graduate degree is also required.


Many amateur, or avocational, archaeologists without formal degrees are involved in archaeological work as field or lab volunteers. To provide avocationalists with relevant technical and ethical training, History Colorado (through the State Historic Preservation Office or SHPO) and the Colorado Archaeological Society (CAS) offer a certification program for avocational archaeologists

What do Archaeologists Do?

The day-to-day responsibilities of archaeologists vary widely depending on the sector in which they are employed. The work can include everything from surveying landscapes to discovering archaeological sites to interpreting how artifacts explain the relationships between people and landscapes. The four areas below generally describe key responsibilities of many archaeologists.

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RESEARCH

Prior to going into the field, archaeologists conduct research in libraries, archives, and museums to understand the types of sites they may be encountering and the work that has already been done. This can include researching aerial photographs, historic maps, and site files.

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FIELDWORK

Fieldwork is the identification of sites, and can include pedestrian survey, excavation, or even remote sensing techniques such as ground penetrating radar.

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ANALYSIS

Archaeologists analyze the artifacts to determine what they are, how they were manufactured and used, where they came from, and whether they changed over time (and if so, what prompted the change). They analyze samples to reconstruct diet, trade patterns, and climate and the environment.

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INTERPRETATION

Interpretation is typically the last step in the archaeological process. Archaeologists paint a historical picture of people and their adaptation to their landscape and try to explain how and why these adaptations changed over time.

Professional Archaeologist

Archaeologists work in the private sector, in academia, and in local, state, and federal government (see A Day in the Life of…, below). The state’s diverse geography makes it a particularly interesting place to be an archaeologist. Holly Norton notes that “Colorado has a very dynamic history, partly due to its geography, that allows for many amazing questions to be asked and sites to be investigated.” 

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Government

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Forest Service (USFS), and the National Park Service (NPS) are a few of the many federal agencies that employ archaeologists in Colorado. 


The State of Colorado also employs archaeologists to ensure that state-run projects like roadway construction, overseen by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), comply with state and federal law. 
Although it is less common, some local governments, like the cities of Boulder and Colorado Springs, also have archaeologists on staff. Archaeologists who work in government ensure compliance with relevant local, state, and federal law, while seeking to preserve and educate the public about archaeologically significant sites. 

Nonprofit Organizations

There are many nonprofit organizations that focus on archaeology. These organizations further the public’s understanding of the human past by analyzing archaeological discoveries. Often, they openly share their discoveries through publications. 

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Private Firms and CRM

Many private firms have archaeologists on staff to serve as consultants on private and government-run projects. Many of these private firms work on Cultural Resource Management (CRM). CRM refers to efforts to minimize the impacts of development on cultural resources like archaeological sites. Often, CRM is required by law. Private CRM consulting firms are commonly used to support federal agencies in meeting the legal requirements. 

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Historic Site Curators and Managers

Many archaeologists work at sites like museums, parks, monuments, or not-for-profit organizations that are responsible for directly managing the operations of the site. This may include developing and conducting educational programs, providing information to the public, conducting research on the site, serving as a liaison in the community, supervising support staff and volunteers, recommending preservation treatment for historic objects and structures, and maintaining site property and grounds. 

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Academia

Educating and training the next generation of archaeologists requires qualified archaeologists in academia. Archaeology professors are employed within anthropology and archaeology departments – depending on the university – and provide archaeology instruction to those seeking degrees in either field. Archaeologists in academia also conduct critical research that contributes to our understanding of the past. 

A Day in the Life of...

 
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WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF ARCHAEOLOGY?

The values that archaeology brings to Colorado are widespread and encompass a wide range of economic, social, environmental, and educational benefits. Archaeology helps conserve landscapes and teaches the importance of those landscapes and the people that inhabited them. Likewise, the archaeology field helps preserve and solidify national, cultural, and ethnic identity. The field has also contributed to significant technological innovations like LiDAR, a remote sensing method used to examine the surface of the Earth. The field is also necessary for legal compliance with statutes like the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. 


While this report is focused primarily on the economic benefits of archaeology, the examples below illustrate the wide range of other benefits.  

Economy

The archaeology and anthropology occupations employ hundreds of highly educated professionals on field work and research that stimulates local economies. Archaeological work also attracts state, federal, and nonprofit funding that employs archaeologists and finances work throughout Colorado. The artifacts and sites identified and studied by archaeologists fill Colorado’s museums or become tourist destinations of their own, which attract visitors and benefit local economies – creating additional business opportunities and jobs. Each of these economic activities, and others, result in direct and indirect economic benefits to the state and local economies.

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Employment

Employment in archaeology and anthropology (professional and in academia) is estimated to employ almost 450 people in Colorado. This is relatively higher than other states and results in many well-paying jobs for highly educated residents. The income earned by archaeologists and anthropologists results in spending within the local economy, business investment, and additional jobs.  

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Heritage Tourism

Visitors to Colorado and those who explore within the state frequently include museums, cultural sites, and public lands on their itineraries. Some of Colorado’s most popular attractions are archaeological sites, including Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. These heritage tourists spend money on transportation, meals, lodging, souvenirs, and more, which sustains local businesses and creates jobs throughout the state.  See Heritage Tourism for more information.

Education

A career in archaeology requires a significant investment in education and training, which leads to direct and indirect impacts on college campuses and surrounding communities.

Field and Laboratory Expenses

Archaeology is a field with many passionate and highly involved volunteers. These avocational archaeologists travel to sites throughout Colorado to help with field and laboratory work, which stimulates local economies. Avocational archaeologists also provide valuable site stewardship activities to help protect and interpret sites for the public.  Professional and avocational archaeologists also attend many local, national, and international conferences, meetings, and events held in Colorado each year. These events result in space rental, overnight lodging, and spending on meals, transportation, and other travel-related costs. 

Other Benefits

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Legal and Regulatory Compliance

Several federal laws, like the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) require the consideration of archaeological resources that might otherwise be lost as a result of a federally managed or funded project. 

The NHPA led to the creation of the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), and tasked the office with coordination, encouraging, and preserving Colorado’s archaeological and paleontological resources for the benefit of Colorado’s citizens. Later, Colorado’s Historical, Prehistorical, and Archaeological Resources Act (State Antiquities Act) established the Office of the State Archaeologist.

These state and federal regulations ensure that archaeological sites and artifacts are identified, documented, and protected, which requires the employment of professional archaeologists to manage potential cultural resources and document compliance with the law.

Society

Archaeology shapes society in many impactful ways: cultural traditions are preserved and enhanced through historical knowledge, policymakers are made aware of important cultural considerations, and nations and ethnic groups are united through stories of their common heritage. Archaeology can also bring people together by drawing connections to their past and weaving a common fabric throughout society. This common fabric is inextricably linked to the land and environment. Archaeology encourages the preservation of land because, for the most part, archaeology requires undeveloped land to allow inferences to be drawn from the land and the artifacts on it.
Modern society is a direct descendent of historic peoples and cultures. With a stronger knowledge and comprehension of the past, people are better able to preserve their historic identity and understand who they are today. 

Environment

At the heart of archaeology is the preservation of land. Preserving landscapes for archaeological reasons allows the environments to remain intact for wildlife, scenery, recreation, and other beneficial purposes.

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Education

The amount of knowledge gained through archaeology is immense. Historians and educators are provided with important lessons from the past that can be disseminated to all. These lessons help inform people about past cultures and how lessons from the past apply today. Additionally, archaeology pushes technological advancements, like LiDAR, that provide widespread benefits 

Technology

Technological innovations like 3-D modeling, Light Detection and Radar (LiDAR), drones, electrical resistivity, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have revolutionized the field of archaeology. 
For instance, electrical resistivity survey is a geophysical remote sensing technique that measures the ease or resistance of an electrical current passing through different materials. Intrusive stones and soils (like buried buildings) have high resistivity, which blocks the electrical current. Archaeologists use an electrical resistance meter to measure variation in resistance patterns that might signal buried architecture or other human-built features – causing no damage to the site. The information is recorded, plotted, and interpreted, and it can be used to help determine what lies below a site’s surface to evaluate a site’s significance or guide excavation and minimize the impact to the site.

Because of technologies like electrical resistivity, archaeologists are now able to expeditiously examine landscapes for sites without disturbing the environment – allowing archaeologists to unlock the past without causing harm to the natural environment or sacred sites. This has allowed archaeologists to become more purposeful in how they think about archaeological impacts and how they prioritize local and native interpretations of the past.

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HOW DOES ARCHAEOLOGY HELP CONNECT US TO THE PAST?

Archaeology is iterative.  While it is important for archaeologists to learn from local communities about their past lifeways, archaeology can also serve to connect people with their history.  While archaeologists, local historians, and cultural experts, or traditional practitioners can all agree that understanding the past is important, the data and methods for reconstructing history can differ. 

Euro-Americans often focus on written records and on archaeological remains that are interpreted by specialists in the fields of history and archaeology. These specialists traditionally have disregarded other data sources and methods as unscientific. Native Americans, Indigenous groups, and other descent communities often focus on oral histories that are “recorded” in the landscape and sacred places and preserved and transmitted in ritualized contexts. Thus, many Native people view archaeological data collection, especially excavation, as destroying the landscapes and sacred places that are the record of their past.

 

A variety of federal laws passed over the last half-century recognize the importance of multiple points of view in interpreting the importance of historic sites. The NHPA requires local stakeholder and tribal involvement in federal projects that may impact archaeological sites. The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, recognized that Native American human remains should not be treated as artifacts, but returned to tribal descendants. NAGPRA is seen by many as a turning point in American archaeology, and since 1990 consultation and collaboration with Native peoples has become increasingly common in archaeology. Frequently these Native voices are based on cultural norms that value community above individualism and that build world views based on the inter-connectedness of all animate and inanimate beings. The consultations offered archaeologists new theories for testing, and they have challenged and expanded purely archaeological interpretations of the past. The collaborative efforts have rewritten history and produced a more inclusive and representative past where many more people and communities see their roles and contributions.

“Focused collaboration with descendant communities prior to, during, and after archaeological investigations is critical to providing a foundation of trust and confidence that has often been missing from cultural resource compliance, perhaps especially at public infrastructure agencies. It is imperative to establish a sincere, viable, and long-lasting rapport with populations directly affected by the disturbance or destruction of heritage resources as a significant and necessary part of federal, state, and local undertakings.”
 
Dan Jepson, Senior Archaeologist Cultural Resources Section Manager, CDOT

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