Archaeology is the science of uncovering human remains, both physical and material, in order to determine how people lived in the past. Physical remains include bones and teeth; material remains include clay pots, stone tools, buildings, jewelry, and just about anything that a human made or modified. By examining a person’s physical remains, we can determine if the person was healthy or sick, what they ate, how old they were, and hopefully how they died. By examining material remains, we can sometimes tell what someone did for a living, whether they were rich or poor, or whether they lived where we found them or were just passing through.
The pieces of material remains of a culture are known as artifacts. So, how do archaeologists uncover these artifacts?
It is a slow and painstaking process. Why is it so slow? It is slow because we don’t want to miss anything or break any of the delicate artifacts. It is also slow because we need to know exactly where something comes from. During an excavation the matrix (another word for ‘dirt’ or the material that surrounds an artifact in the ground) is removed in very thin layers, sometimes to great depths. Everything that is unearthed is assigned a number which tells us (the archaeologists) exactly where and how a given artifact was located in the ground. This information is called “context” and it helps the archaeologist relate different artifacts to each other.
After the artifacts have been removed from an excavation, the next step is to take them to the lab. At the lab, the artifacts are first cleaned and, then, physically numbered (so they can’t get mixed up). They are then drawn, catalogued, and photographed. Following this, the archaeologists can begin the real work of studying and classifying the artifacts. Only then can we begin to build a clear picture of what everyday life was like for the ancient Maya.