Archaeologists constantly field three questions from well-meaning folks with misconceptions about the job.
1. So you’re like Indiana Jones?
No. Dr. Jones looted artifacts without regard for cultural heritage laws or scientific methodology. Real archaeologists methodically excavate sites, documenting the location of every bit of pottery, bone and other remnants from past peoples.
2. So you dig dinosaurs?
No. Dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago. Archaeologists study artifacts made by humans and human ancestors starting roughly 3 million years ago.
3. What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever found?
Now this question is fair. But the short answer may sound inscrutable — a Levallois refit or manioc phytolith — or dull — a bowl, comb or donkey bone. These finds won’t enter high-security museum displays or draw crowds. What makes them meaningful is context: where and when they are from, and what that reveals about ancient people. For many archaeologists, their prize discovery helped solve a long-standing research question, overturned what scholars thought they knew, or surfaced at a memorable moment — perhaps their first day ever digging or the final hour of a grueling excavation.
Here, Discover asks four archaeologists to explain their favorite finds.
Lost Site of Early Homo sapiens
Nails mark the location of lost site GaJj17 in Kenya. (Credit: Kathryn Ranhorn)
Four rusty nails marked a lost site and a major discovery for Kathryn Ranhorn, a professor at Arizona State University. Several years ago, while a graduate student, Ranhorn was based near Lake Turkana in Kenya, a region that has yielded more than 300 fossils from pre-human ancestors between 1 million and 7 million years old. These include the first members of our genus Homo and earlier Lucy-like creatures.
But archaeologists, working around Turkana, have struggled to locate sites from the Middle Stone Age (MSA) — about 50,000 to 300,000 years ago — when our own species, Homo sapiens, rose. Our ancestors surely lived there, though, because scattered stone tools, typical of MSA modern humans, dot the dusty landscape. And a PhD dissertation, from the early 1990s, detailed excavations of a Turkana MSA site, simply called GaJj17. Its author, Allison Kelly, had since died and the site became lost.
That is, until 2015, when Ranhorn set out to find GaJj17, on her last day of research around Lake Turkana before wrapping up the excavation season.
Kathryn Ranhorn’s team hikes to GaJj17 near Lake Turkana in Kenya. (Credit: Kathryn Ranhorn)
Ranhorn recalls, “I had seen [Kelly’s] report of the site. It was really cool, but we didn’t really know where it was. At base camp, I had her hand-drawn maps and Google Earth, and I was looking at the gully shapes. I found one that kind of lined up and extracted the coordinates.
Some Kenyan collaborators and I drove out, and we kept going, kept going, 45 minutes from camp. I was like, ‘I don’t know, guys.’ Then, we parked and just following the point walked for five minutes through this little gully.
It was sticking out like a sore thumb. The site was covered with stone tools, and I found these four rusted nails, all on top of a rock, from Kelly’s excavation. It was the end of a long day, the end of a long season. I felt like when I found it, it was like reconnecting with Allison Kelly, and carrying on the research that she did. We went back and excavated in 2016, 2017 and 2018.”
Melina Seabrook digs at the famous site of Ur. (Credit: Melina Seabrook)
Before starting her current PhD program at Harvard University, Melina Seabrook already uncovered an important find at Ur — one of the world’s oldest cities, in present-day Iraq. The Mesopotamian center flourished during the Bronze Age, some 5,000 years ago. Well-positioned on the banks of the Euphrates River, Ur merchants traded goods with people across the ancient world. Seabrook found proof of these ties while digging in a residential area of Ur in 2017. She unearthed a standardized weight, used to apportion goods, from the Indus Valley Civilization, which once stood in what is now Pakistan and northwest India.
As she tells it: “When we first found it we were like, ‘What is this cool, kind of square rock? Is it an inlay? Is it part of something bigger?’ One of the people who works with us is an expert in weights, and he [knew] it was from the Indus Valley.
Melina Seabrook pauses during excavations. (Credit: Melina Seabook)
This Indus weight at our site — which is, again, in Mesopotamia, not the Indus — it’s this very cool [indicator that] ‘oh my gosh, there are these connections between the two!’ Not very frequently, mind you, but clearly this is one very solid example that the connections are there.
At a large site like Ur, [we were digging in] a very small residential portion. It’s not a market or place we would expect to find merchants or traders working specifically with weights. [Which means] in this household context, they might have also had these connections.”
Polynesian Pearl Combs
Combs from the Hane site in French Polynesia that were discovered by Guillaume Molle. (Credit: Guillaume Molle)
Some 3,000 years ago, Polynesians started exploring the Pacific by canoe, settling island after island across a 4,000-mile ocean expanse. That far back, they also likely inked their bodies with tattoos — a practice continued in Polynesian culture to this day.