Please note that the Cataraqui Archaeological Research Foundation and the Kingston Archaeology Centre have closed. This site is still available for historical and informational reasons, but none of the services or products described here are available anymore.

About Archaeology

About Archaeology

Archaeology is the scientific study of past cultures and the way people lived based on the things they left behind. Archaeologists study past cultures by examining artifacts, objects made, used, or changed by humans. Artifacts are usually found buried in the ground. Over time, soil builds up and covers things left on the ground. That is why archaeologists dig in the dirt, or excavate. Any place where human activity occurred and where artifacts are found is called an archaeological site.

Archaeology is a tool we can use to find out what past peoples used, what they ate and made, and how they lived. It provides us with more information than history alone. History is often expressed with a personal bias that can skew the facts.

Although excavations in Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy boost interest in archaeological work, they are often associated with the most magnificent finds, for example, King Tut’s Tomb, Troy, Athens, and Pompeii. It is these well-known early excavations that have created the “Treasure Hunting” image of archaeologists. This leads to the traditional and somewhat misleading view of archaeology as always being something far-off and exotic.

But what about the more recent past? Archaeological investigation can certainly involve the study of the world 5000 years ago, but it can also be the study of the world 500, or even 50, years ago.

Archaeology informs us not only of the so-called "antiquities," but also of human development, society, technology, art and ideas; it enhances our understanding of the past. Even the more recent past contains unknown aspects of human culture, and we should never lose sight of what our society today is leaving behind for archaeologists to interpret.

There are three main types of archaeology that are undertaken in Eastern Ontario:

Pre-Contact Archaeology is the type of archaeology that is most common in North America: it is the study of cultures which predate the advent of writing.

Marine Archaeology is a highly specialized field which crosses many boundaries, and involves the study of everything from shipwrecks to submerged villages.

Historical Archaeology is a relatively new area of study: it focusses on the cultural remains of literate societies that were capable of recording their own histories. A popular definition of historical archaeology is the archaeology of the spread of European cultures throughout the world since the fifteenth century, and their impact on and interaction with the cultures of indigenous peoples. Historical archaeological sites can be domestic, military, commercial, or industrial; some have extant architecture, others exist only below the ground.

The Process of Archaeology

Archaeology incorporates many procedures and activities. Archaeology usually begins with research on the area to be investigated, work most often done by historians, historical geographers, and historical archaeologists.

Excavation is, of course, the most visible aspect of archaeology; before any soil is removed, however, the site must be surveyed, and excavation units must be laid out. While this is how most archaeologists would prefer to go about their work, other techniques are sometimes forced upon them, such as monitoring mechanical excavations for the placement of utility services: institutions are beginning to realize that, particularly in a place with as long and rich a history as Kingston, activities as routine as the placement of a water pipe can disturb intact archaeological remains.

When the actual excavation begins, the stratigraphic layers are removed by hand, usually with a trowel, so that features within the soil layers can be identified and recorded.

Once the dirt has been removed from the unit, the artifacts are placed in a container or bag labelled with the provenience, that is, the exact location from which each one came; the provenience includes the site number, the excavation area and unit, and the layer of soil from which each artifact was removed. The dirt, collected in buckets, is then screened to recover additional small artifacts such as fish bones and scales, pins, beads, and seeds. Other methods, such as flotation, may also be used to recover small items.

To excavate an archaeological site is to destroy it, therefore the keeping of accurate records is a vital aspect of archaeology: artifacts alone reveal very little, they provide far more information when studied in situ, that is, in relation to a particular soil or building foundation. The soils and structural remains can also provide valuable information and are an equally important part of the archaeological record. The recording process may be the most important undertaken by the archaeologist, as any loss of information during recording can affect the analysis and interpretation of artifacts and sites. A variety of recording methods are used, including photographing layers, features, and artifacts in both colour slides and black and white prints, which produce an accurate record that can be extremely helpful during the winter months of report writing.

Measuring and drawing structural features in profile and planview, as well as soil profiles produce accurate records and help to complete the overall site plan. As well, daily field notes are kept which include the completion of a variety of standard forms.

The first step to processing recovered artifacts is cleaning, usually by washing (though dry-brushing may be used depending on the the material and its condition). The artifacts are then placed on drying screens where their provenience is maintained, and the screens are placed in a drying rack.

The next step is the more permanent stage of identification where each artifact is labelled with its provenience: this is done by spreading a thin layer of clear nail-polish on the artifact, then printing the provenience number onto the nail-polish, and finally covering the number with another layer of nail-polish.

In order to complete the inventory of a site, the artifacts must then be sorted by provenience, then usually by material type, and finally by function. At this point, some preliminary mending may take place for the purposes of providing a more complete inventory of individual vessels or objects, and for exhibition. Artifacts may also be photographed for a number of purposes, including reports required in Ontario by the Ministry of Citizenship, Culture, and Recreation. As well, specialist analysis may be conducted for better identification, generally in the case of floral or faunal remains.

Finally, the objects that are not exhibited are packed in well-labelled boxes, and placed where they can easily be accessed for future research: more sensitive materials such as delicate and small metal artifacts, as well as those which have been conserved, are wrapped in acid-free tissue and placed in acid-free boxes. Leather items are separated from the main collections, and are frozen. Artifacts then remain in this state of storage until time and funds permit further research.

A Word About Dates

There are several different ways of annotating dates. We have decided to use B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era) rather than B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini), or B.P. (Before Present). B.C.E. and C.E. are essentially equivalent to B.C. and A.D. (the dates are, in fact, identical), however, we feel that the former are preferable for two reasons: firstly, B.C. and A.D. suggest a Eurocentric world view that is not necessarily appropriate when discussing cultures that existed in North America almost 10 000 years prior to European contact; secondly, confusion has arisen regarding the actual date of the birth of Jesus Christ, with most experts generally placing the birth between 7 and 4 years prior to the year 1. The designations B.C.E. and C.E. are not contingent on any particular event in history, rather considering the year 1 to be no more than simply that year that has traditionally been designated 1.

In Ontario, the use of B.P. is fairly standard in the dating of prehistoric events. As an organization that deals with both prehistoric and historic archaeology, however, the dates that we deal with span a fairly significant length of time. In an attempt to avoid confusion, we decided to use only one system for all of the events discussed here rather than using B.P. to classify more ancient events and C.E. to classify more recent ones. As a discussion of the year 1830 as 170 B.P. would, we feel, confuse far more than clarify, we elected to forgo the use of B.P. altogether, and classify all events as B.C.E. or C.E.