What Do Archaeologists Study?

Archaeologists study the human past. In the United States, archaeology is usually divided into precontact archaeology and historical archaeology. Archaeologists who study the precontact period (before the arrival of Europeans in North America) learn about people who lived before written records. Most precontact sites are associated with the ancestors of American Indians. Understanding precontact sites can be difficult. Archaeologists use objects, soil features, plant and animal remains, even remnants of buildings to reconstruct how they think people lived here in North American and at Fort Bragg for thousands of years. Archaeologists talk with native people who share stories, myths, and memories handed down from their ancestors to help them interpret the information they recover.

Archaeologists divide the time before the arrival of Europeans in North America into four periods: Paleoindian, Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian. Each period is characterized by broad environmental conditions, animal and plant resources, tools, and patterns of settlement. Radiocarbon dates and research allow archaeologists to assign dates to each period. Only the first three periods of cultural expression are present in the North Carolina Sandhills. The elaborate social, political, and religious structure of the Mississippian period was never adopted in this region.

Archaeologists who study the historic past learn about people who came to or lived in North America after Europeans arrived. Historical archaeologists use information they recover through excavation but they also use wills, tax records, diaries, journals, maps, and a host of other archival records. Historical documents can give archaeologists a head start on where to look for sites, the names of the people who lived there, and information about the activities of the former residents. Archaeology can help fill gaps in historical information or reveal errors in the documents. In the historic past, there were many people who could not read or write, never made a will, and never owned property. Archaeology can give voice to people who are not heard in historical records and inform us about the lives of individuals, families, and communities that might otherwise remain silent.

At Fort Bragg, there are five principal types of historical archaeological sites. These are agricultural sites such as homesteads and farm buildings; industrial sites such as tar kilns and turpentine distilleries; transportation sites such as ferries, bridges, roads, and railroads; community service site such as churches, cemeteries, mills, stores, and schools; and military sites including battlefields and camps.