Archaeological Methods

Hiram Bingham and Johan Reinhard

Archaeology as we know it today is very different from the ways and methods that were used when people were first discovering artefacts and important ancient sites. Over 200 years of treasure hunters and archaeologists have helped develop the technology we use today to be more reliable, in some ways easier, and to be able to learn more about the past.

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One of the greatest ever discoveries were made in 1911 by Hiram Bingham III, who rediscovered and excavated the famous Incan settlement Machu Picchu. Bingham had showed a keen interest in the area since he had read upon the written records of a previous explorer, who had noted the possible existence of an important Incan settlement but had failed to find it. After venturing to the valley to find out more he spoke with local farmers, who had reported sights of stone terraces amongst the hillside crops thanks to a new road the government had built. Bingham led his team of experts including a topographer, naturalist, a professor of geography and a mountaineer who proved handy as he navigated the path through sheer terraces and steep cliffs. Finding the remnants of stonewalls eventually led to the discovery of what we today call Machu Picchu. With the limited tools and technology of the time it was a feat for Bingham, who returned over a several year period to clear, excavate and interpret the site.

Comparatively, in June 1996 a man named Johan Reinhard set off with his team to investigate the mountaintop of Cerro Llullaillaco, as he had previously climbed the mountain twice before and had found evidence that lead to the possibility of an important Incan discovery. His assistant was a local to the area, and he also brought with him mountaineering experts to assist him with the ascent. They spent five days acclimatising to the altitude and at one of their campsites Reinhard found Incan artefacts that led to the understanding that they were looking in the right place. Once at the summit he discovered even more artefacts but this time they were the remains of Incan huts. The weather prevented the team from excavating for four days but once they began with picks and trowels, they found three child sacrifices that were mummified and near perfectly preserved. Through the use of his compass, GPS and military scale map Reinhard concluded that they were in Argentina who claimed ownership of the discoveries. The findings were photographed and recorded carefully before being put in a portable freezer and taken for examination.

When we compare the methods of these two archaeologists, in many ways they used similar practices. Both were investigating high altitude areas and consequently brought experts with them, notably mountaineers who assisted in navigation and accessibility to the sites. As well as wanting to promote discovery and learning through their finds (neither were treasure hunters), Bingham and Reinhard both had local knowledge about the area (farmers and assistant). The obvious differences in their methods were the advancement of technology to assist them. These include the availability of GPS, military maps, modern cameras and a portable freezer, all in Reinhard??™s favour.

The changes in these archaeological methods over time are due to three main factors- reliability, ease and discovery. By creating technology that allows for more precise information to be gained, we can prove the reliability of more sources. Science has defined the archaeological techniques that we use to discover artefacts and sites today. Previous to the 20th century, many excavations were due to the collection of antiquities by treasure hunters. Since this time however, the discovery of sites has been devoted to learning about past cultures and piecing together the past. With new methods and techniques, we can discover and preserve more information than was possible in the past.

To properly preserve the original positions of items found, the techniques of excavation have developed. Methods such as the grid system have been devised, as an aerial ground plan to note remains, artefacts and land features. This would have been useful in the Machu Picchu excavation to see the building plans, but the technology was not yet available. Another example is the development of stratigraphy, which enables us to observe how deeply in the ground the artefacts were found, and the layers of different materials surrounding them. This method would have been used by Reinhard to note bedrock and layering of ice. The development of computers has brought with it revolutionary ways of recording information. Using GIS (Geographic Information System) it is possible to computer generate a 3D image of the site. When using 3D laser recording the results are not only extremely accurate but are easily transferred and collaborated easily using a computer.

Archaeological methods have changed over time to learn and preserve the past more sustainably than we have previously. As is seen through the methods of Bingham and Reinhard, with the proper recording of artefacts and sites this is possible and will help society to piece together our ancient history.