A is for Artefact


A is for Artefact: Why archaeologists dig rubbish

With the aid of blogger and archaeologist HollyMae Steane Price, we are working our way through the alphabet, looking at the A-Z of archaeology, one letter at a time. Today’s article is brought to you by the letter A…

Artefacts are a very important part of an archaeologist’s life. Even though what we call artefacts are usually objects that have been lost or broken and thrown away in antiquity, pieces of pottery, gobs of glass and morsels of metal can tell us a great deal about the lives of the people who came before us. This is why you’ll always see us at the bottom of trenches getting excited about a small piece of pottery which just happens to be diagnostic, or a sliver of flint which shows the tell-tale signs of human working – we’re not mad, honestly! We do love the gold and the grand lifestyles of the rich and famous, we’re just interested in the little things too.


Minute pieces of flint on a site can tell us that people were making stone tools in that location in the past. As you pick up a flint tool from the bottom of a trench you can almost imagine the work that went into its making; the little flakes of stone scattering around the floor around your feet, the shape of the flint core as you chip away the excess stone and the pain in your thumb as you inevitably miss-aim a shot!

 leafA scrap of preserved wood can tell us a lot about the environment of the past. What trees were growing in that location at the time? What does this say about the climate of that region? What wood was used for specific jobs? Dendrochronology (the study of dating tree growth rings) can help date some pieces of wood to the exact year when they were felled. And in some very good anaerobic situations (where organic material can be preserved in waterlogged ground) even leaves survive, which can lead to an even better understanding of the past environment.


Artefacts aren’t merely those items which were made in the ancient past. Evidence from DigVentures’ excavation at Flag Fen proves that modern finds can tell us a great deal about what has happened in the recent history of a site. A watering can, found in test pit 2 during the 2012 excavation, is direct evidence of Francis Pryor’s exploration of the site in the 90s!

So, it’s not all about bodies and gold, in fact it’s hardly about those at all. Archaeology is all about finding out about past behaviour, wondering how people lived and examining the rubbish – the artefacts – they left behind to help give us the answers!





HollyMae Steane Price graduated with a BSc in Archaeology from Cardiff University and now holds an IfA workplace learning post as a Trainee Heritage Officer at the Brecon Beacons National Park

Twitter: @sapphonica

Personal Blog: http://hspheritage.com/


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