Centuries in the future, when archaeologists excavate the buried ruins of a 20-story office building from our civilization, they will undoubtedly discover the remains of countless computer terminals. What might such an archaeological excavation reveal about us and the civilization in which we lived? What tools will the archaeologists use to study the artifacts of our time?
Today archaeologists and their assistants, using modest shovels, trowels, and brushes, dig carefully and work slowly to uncover a structure from the past and preserve its artifacts. In addition to their traditional implements, modern-day archaeologists’ toolboxes contain a few sophisticated pieces of technological equipment, such as a mass spectrometer, a sonar scanner, or a particle accelerator.
The powerful tools provided by technology help archaeologists gather information, evaluate and classify artifacts and fossils, and determine the age of their finds. The tools with which archaeologists search for clues to the past have evolved as technology has developed. The first task an archaeologist faces is to locate the site.
By means of aerial photographs, magnetometers, and sonar scanners, archaeologists search for sites underground, above ground, and under water. After a site has been excavated, an archaeologist needs to catalog, classify, and date the uncovered objects.
Computers accelerate the otherwise time-consuming process of cataloging and classifying finds. Since the development in 1947 of the carbon-14 dating technique, archaeologists and other scientists are able to date the remains of living beings-human, animal, or plant-up to about 50,000 years old. After a plant or animal dies, its radiocarbon atoms begin to decay.
A sophisticated tool called the mass spectrometer measures the amount of radiocarbon still present in the life form. From the measurement of an ancient animal’s or plant’s radiocarbon content, scientists determine its age. Another tool, the particle accelerator, accurately measures the smallest artifacts up to 60,000 years old. More recently, the potassium-argon been used to date rock formations up to millions of years old in which artifacts and fossils are found.