Chapter2 ANTH 110.pdf - 2 What is Left The Variety of the...

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The relics of past human activity are all around us. Some of them were deliberate constructions, built to last, like the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, or the temples of Mesoamerica and India. Others, like the remains of the Maya irrigation systems of Mexico and Belize, are the visible relics of activities whose aim was not primarily to impress the observer, but which still command respect today for the scale of the enterprise they document. Most of the remains of archaeology are far more modest, however. They are the discarded refuse from the daily activities of human existence: the food remains, the bits of broken pottery, the fractured stone tools, the debris that everywhere is formed as people go about their daily lives. In this chapter we define the basic archaeological terms, briefly survey the scope of the surviving evidence and look at the great variety of ways in which it has been preserved for us. From the frozen soil of the Russian steppes, for instance, have come the wonderful finds of Pazyryk, those great chieftains’ burials where wood and textiles and skins are splendidly preserved. From the dry caves of Peru and other arid environments have come remarkable textiles, baskets, and other remains that often perish completely. And by contrast, from wetlands, whether the swamps of Florida or the lake villages of Switzerland, further organic remains are being recovered, this time preserved not by the absence of moisture, but by its abundant presence to the exclusion of air. Extremes of temperature and of humidity have preserved much. So too have natural disasters. The volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum (box, pp. 24–25) is the most famous of them, but there have been others, such as the eruption of the Ilopango volcano in El Salvador in the 2nd century AD , which buried land surfaces and settlement remains in a large part of the southern Maya area. Our knowledge of the early human past is dependent in this way on the human activities and natural processes that have formed the archaeological record, and on those further processes that determine, over long periods of time, what is left and what is gone for ever. Today we can hope to recover much of what is left, and to learn from it by asking the right questions in the right way. Undoubtedly one of the main concerns of the archaeologist is the study of artifacts – objects used, modified, or made by people. But, as the work of Grahame Clark and other pioneers of the ecological approach has demonstrated (Chapter 1), there is a whole category of non-artifactual organic and environmental remains – sometimes called “eco- facts” – that can be equally revealing about many aspects of past human activity. Much archaeological research has to do with the analysis of artifacts and these organic and environmental remains that are found together on sites , themselves most productively studied together with their surrounding landscapes and grouped together into regions .
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