Archaeology FAQs

How do you know where to dig?

Where we dig depends on what we’re trying to learn. Often we begin with documentary sources. Because our focus is on Williamsburg’s Revolutionary War period, the Frenchman’s Map, showing the locations of buildings in Williamsburg at the end of the war, is particularly valuable. That map doesn’t include everything of archaeological interest (trash pits, walkways, wells, privies, and outbuildings are just a few of the omissions), and it doesn’t show what was on these properties before or after 1781. It does, however orient us within lots inhabited by Williamsburg’s 18th century residents.

How do you know when to stop digging?

We dig until we reach “subsoil”– soil that contains no artifacts or other traces of human disturbance. In Williamsburg, subsoil is a sandy yellow clay, though it has different appearances in different regions. Subsoil is not found at a specific depth. In some places it is just a few inches below the surface. In other places, like filled ravines, it may appear 6 feet below modern grade. In general, in Williamsburg, we anticipate finding subsoil between 18” and 2’ below the surface.

How far do you have to dig to get to the 18th century?

Just like the depth of subsoil, 18th century layers can be found just below the current ground surface, or at a significant depth. How far one has to dig to get to the 18th -century layers often depends on how much human activity there has been on the property. Typically the greater the activity, the deeper the soil layers.

What are the nails (along the edges of the excavation) for?

Archaeologists begin each excavation by placing a grid over the entire site, and by numbering each unit. The grid allows us to record what we find more consistently, and to draw accurate maps. The nails that can be seen along the edges of an excavation (often surrounded by a “shiner”) mark our grid points, or the corners of each unit. Sometimes you will see a triangular “baulk” of soil that is left in place to help support the grid point.

Do you use ground penetrating radar or metal detectors?

Not often. Ground penetrating radar is not very useful in Williamsburg where 300+ years of continuous occupation have resulted in a lot of ground disturbance. Centuries of construction and utilities installation result in a very “busy” composite reading of what lies below. As the techniques and technology improve, geophysical testing may become a more useful tool. For now, as we must dig anyway to identify and verify the results, we generally skip the expense of geophysical testing. Historic maps and other documents can be equally effective in helping us to locate areas of interest.

As for metal detectors, they do locate metals efficiently. If we were looking for a particular artifact (or even a particular type of artifact) this might be a good quality. But archaeologists are interested in the association between artifacts…what the combination of animal bones, ceramic sherds, bottle glass fragments, tobacco pipes, and nails, say about the people who discarded them long ago. If you retrieve only the metals, most of the interesting stories are lost.

One place where metal detectors have proven useful is in the survey of large tracts of land. In this situation, positive “hits” can help identify areas of human activity, to which archaeologists may later return for more thorough exploration.

What’s your educational background?

In North America, archaeology is considered a sub-discipline of anthropology. While most professional archaeologists have an anthropological background (either an undergraduate or graduate school degree) others come to the discipline through the study of history. In Europe, there are university degrees offered in archaeology.

Isn’t everything dug up here already?

It’s true that Williamsburg appears to be a “finished” product, and that there has been some form of excavation on nearly every property in the Historic Area. Most of the early excavation, however, was narrowly focused on recovering building foundations. Given the number and size of Williamsburg’s “backyards”, and the potential for re-exploration as techniques evolve, archaeologists estimate that 80% of the Historic Area remains to be explored.

Do you screen everything?

Almost everything. Screens, outfitted with ¼” mesh, are used to insure that every artifact above a pre-determined size (¼”) is systematically collected. Although we do not typically screen topsoil, we begin screening once the topsoil has been removed. This means that we collect information about people who have lived on a site after, during, and before the eighteenth-century.

What is an artifact?

An artifact is anything that is made, used, or modified by people. A piece of a ceramic teacup is an artifact. So is the pig bone from which ham was sliced at an 18th- century dinner table. Even oyster shells are artifacts if they are found beyond the areas where they would naturally live, as they would be the remains of someone’s dinner. Contrary to popular belief, artifacts do not have to be old. Some, recovered from upper soil layers, or from modern utility trenches, may only be a few years old.

What do you do with the artifacts?

Once they are found, artifacts are taken to our Archaeological Lab just a few blocks away. There they are washed, cataloged, and some are numbered. Artifacts that are in poor condition may be taken to the Archaeological Conservation Lab to stabilize them. Some artifact fragments are glued back together, each mend providing linkages between different parts of the site. In the Zooarchaeological Lab, analysis of animal bones provides a sense of the meals eaten by the site’s 18th century residents. For each hour spent digging, there are at least 4, and as many as 7 hours of work in the lab.

What do you do when the dig ends?

Lab work (described in the question above) is just the beginning! Archaeologists spend a surprising amount of their time “indoors”, making sense of the evidence they have recovered over the course of an excavation. There are field notes and records to review, overall site maps to construct from field drawings, soil samples to send off for specialized analysis, and artifact inventories to compile and analyze. The goal is to produce reports, articles, and presentations that present the results of an excavation to a variety of audiences.

Do you find gold (or coins)?

This is such a common question that people must believe it to be true! Archaeologists, however, rarely find gold. Similar to us, people in the past were careful with their valuables. When gold… either as coins, or jewelry…was lost, they stopped to look for it. And if they didn’t find it, someone else likely did.

What is that thing (the Total Station) for?

Since excavation destroys a site, archaeologists carefully map each soil layer and feature that they expose. The total station (which you have likely seen surveyors using) records this information in 3 dimensions to create accurate site maps.

Do you ever find bodies?

During the 18th century the majority of Williamsburg’s dead were buried in church cemeteries or family plots. Most of the time, these burial places are well marked and maintained, but occasionally they are forgotten. As a result, we do sometimes find unmarked graves in unexpected locations. When possible, we leave the burials in place, but when construction or other disturbance is unavoidable, human remains are moved to a protected location, often in a marked cemetery. Colonial Williamsburg has a policy that discourages photographing burials out of respect for the unknown values and beliefs of the individual in question.

What is the best thing you’ve ever found?

This question trumps “do you find gold?” as the most commonly asked question on an archaeological site…and the answers might surprise you! Although no two archaeologists will answer the same way, many will describe an artifact (or maybe a feature) doesn’t sound remarkable on its own, but one that helped to answer a particularly puzzling question. Sounds as if a blog post asking staff about their “best find” might be in order here!

What are you expecting to find?

Archaeologists approach a site having done background research, and with a prepared list of research questions …but often what we find is not what we were expecting. That is the nature of archaeology! Perhaps a better question to ask might be “What are you hoping to learn?”

How far back in time are you now?

Although we are often able to judge roughly where we are in time, that information comes from the artifacts we have retrieved, rather than our depth below modern grade. Unfortunately, the ground does not build up at a uniform or predictable rate, so depth alone does not answer the question.

Do you sometimes get to dig in more exciting countries… like Greece and Egypt?

This question implies that “real archaeologists” work elsewhere! In fact, archaeologists working at Colonial Williamsburg have chosen a specialty in Historical Archaeology. This means (at least in this country) that we focus on sites that date to a time for which there is documentary evidence (letters, wills, maps, etc.) to complement what we find in the ground. In other words, we excavate sites dating from the late 16th century to the present. Most of us specialize in the “material culture” (artifacts) of the colonial period. As it is an archaeologist’s knowledge and understanding of the artifacts that defines a specialty, we would be as useless on a site in Egypt as an Egyptologist would be in Williamsburg!

Are you with a university?

Colonial Williamsburg has its own full-time archaeology department.

Are you students? Volunteers?

Visitors often assume that the archaeologists they see digging in the Historic Area are students or volunteers. Colonial Williamsburg employs a professional staff. Each of us has chosen archaeology as a career.

There is one exception: During the summer months (generally between late May and early August) Colonial Williamsburg coordinates with the College of William and Mary in conducting an archaeological field school – an undergraduate class on archaeological field methods. You may see a larger number of younger folk and stronger backs if you visit during these months!

What’s the most valuable artifact you have?

Archaeologists don’t measure “value” in quite the same way that most people do. Since we don’t ever sell artifacts, the price that each one would fetch on the open market is irrelevant. Instead, we measure value in terms of an artifact’s potential to answer research questions.

How do you know you have it “right”?

We never really know that we have it right. Generally the work we do as archaeologists involves building a case … much as a lawyer does. We collect evidence from the field, and then must work out the best explanation for what we see in the ground. Often this involves professionals from other disciplines who contribute their knowledge to our interpretation.

Aren’t there computer programs which can do most of the lab analysis including crossmending, etc.?

One might imagine that, in this day of computer technology, some of the laboratory’s tasks would be made simpler. In fact, this is still very much human-based analysis. There are databases within which we can record information about each artifact: color, size and decorations. Other technology allows us to scan an artifact or fragment and create a three-dimensional replica. But nothing so far replaces the human eye and experience in assessing all of the information artifacts may impart, or mending ceramic and glass vessels. Ceramics in particular have so many variations and subtleties. We look at color, paste, inclusions, crazing, staining, decoration, glaze spall, thickness of the body, curvature, all of which are subtle clues as to which vessel is which and what the object looked like originally. To scan each piece three-dimensionally and then have a database with the capability to sort through all of the variables would be nearly impossible. It is careful and deliberate work which, when completed, has the potential to reveal new and previously unknown site feature associations.

Why don’t you interpret the town in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries?

There was plenty of activity in Williamsburg during all of these periods, and as archaeologists dig through the soil layers they recover evidence of it all. This evidence is recorded and described in the resulting archaeological report–which helps to explain why production of reports takes such a long time. However, we mainly focus on evidence about the period we interpret: 18th- century Williamsburg and more specifically, the Revolutionary War period.

Do you find lots of Civil War artifacts?

We do find some Civil War artifacts, but the relatively short duration of this conflict (in the overall history of the town), and the fact that the main battles were not fought within the bounds of the Historic Area means that archaeological evidence is fairly sparse.

Do you find lots of Indian artifacts?

Not as many as you might think. One reason is that Duke of Gloucester Street marks a high ridge that separates the James and York River drainages. Although Indians traveled frequently across this ridge, they left little evidence of their presence. The camp sites and villages, where archaeologists often find an accumulation of stone, pottery, and bone artifacts, are more commonly located at lower elevations, near a convenient water source.

How did the houses get buried?

The houses were not buried. Instead, the portion of the structure that archaeologists uncover—the foundation— is the part that was underground. When the building fell down or was razed, the foundation was not removed, and so has survived to be explored by archaeologists.