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Frequently Asked Questions

What is archaeology?  Archaeology is the study of the past using the objects people have left behind that tell us something about how they lived and who they were. The goal of archaeology is to share this knowledge, which plays an important role in preserving our heritage.  Archaeologists use many techniques and tools to uncover clues from their studies.  In New York City, archaeologists use historical research, including old maps, diaries, tax and census records, wills, newspaper articles, and books to locate sites and to understand them after excavation. They also use modern tools such as ground penetrating radar, Geographic Information System analysis, and modern maps in their work. 

How does archaeology work?  Archaeology is a multi-step process.  It begins with a question of what happened in the past, which comes from experience and reading.  The initial step is posing a more detailed question and gathering the information that is known about it.  To get this information, the archaeologist may have to consider many different kinds of sources such as maps, historic records, and other archaeological reports.  Once this is done, the archaeologist may need to study the site itself which can be done in several ways, including excavating small areas, collecting artifacts from the surface, or more technical approaches.  Then, assuming the site is suitable, more extensive excavation may be needed.  After this work, the archaeologist must examine each object that has been found, where it was found in the earth, and consider the connections among the finds.  At each step, the archaeologist must carefully note what has done, why, and what they have learned.   The final step is the publication of the report that details all that has been done and what has been learned.    

What do archaeologists do? Archaeologists make their living in many ways.  In the United States, most are employed by businesses that do archaeology in response to Federal, State, and local laws.  Their job is to ensure that archaeological heritage is not destroyed by development that is subject to these laws.  Some archaeologists work for the government in a similar way.  Some work in museums as curators, who look after archaeological collections and prepare exhibits. Finally, some work for universities to teach and expand our knowledge of the past.   The four archaeologists in the NYC LPC's Archaeology Department review development proposals subject to relevant laws to determine if they may impact archaeological resources and, if so, then review the subsequent archaeology.  They also manage the NYC Archaeological Repository: The Nan A. Rothschild Research Center and provide access to its collections to scholars by appointment and to the public through this website.

How do you become an archaeologist?  Becoming an archaeologist requires years of schooling and experience.  At the most basic level, archaeologists must have a college degree (B.A. or B.S.) in Anthropology, Art History, Classics, or Archaeology and some field experience.  At this level, one can work for an archaeological firm as an excavator or in an archaeological laboratory.  Advanced degrees are needed to manage archaeological sites and collections.  Generally, a doctorate is needed to be an academic archaeologist. For all levels, it is a lengthy process taking some years. Additionally, archaeology usually focuses on a time period and/or region which are often chosen while one is a student.  New York City is home to multiple universities that offer relevant degrees including: The City University of New York, Brooklyn College, Hunter CollegeColumbia University, Barnard College, New York University, and Fordham University.

Differences between archaeologists, paleontologists, and pot hunters?  Archaeologists study the human past especially the remains of human activity.  Paleontologists, on the other hand, study the biological past and the evolution of modern animals.  Archaeologists do not dig up dinosaurs.  Paleontologists do not dig up ancient villages.  Pot hunters, also known as looters, excavate sites with the purpose of collecting the artifacts that are found and they often sell them.  They do not necessarily document what they find or where it comes from.  In doing so, they lose much of the information that the careful work of an archaeologist depends on.  Archaeologists do not sell artifacts.

Volunteering In general there are few, if any, opportunities for volunteering on an excavation or in an archaeological laboratory in New York City until one has some qualifications. 

What do you find? Most archaeological objects have been thrown away or lost or purposefully buried in the past.  The value of the artifacts lies in what they reveal about the past and not any financial worth.  In New York City, the most common archaeological artifacts are from the 19th century and include broken dishes, glasses, bricks, food waste such as animal bones, and iron nails.  These can all tell us about what people did, how they lived, and other parts of their lives, which were often not written down.

What do you do with it? The objects are cleaned and identified.  Then they are numbered and careful records are kept of where they were found.  Often they are photographed.  They should be stored under temperature and humidity controlled conditions so that they may be studied or exhibited in the future.  The New York City Archaeological Repository curates the city’s archaeological collections so that they are available for exhibition and study.

What do I do if I find something?  It depends on what you find.  If you find human remains, or think they may be human, please call the police.  If you find artifacts, leave them in place and take a photo and send it to us through Contact Us.