Sifting materials during a dig
Digging Back in Time
From homestead structures of the early 1900s to stone tools from
the Paleoindian Period (thousands of years ago), Great Sand Dunes
National Park and Preserve has a rich and deep history of
Visit Great Sand Dunes’ History and Culture web page for more information on peoples of the past.
How do archaeologists learn about these people? There are many
ways, including listening
to the stories of present people, or surveying and digging at
Try this: Put a shovel in the dirt and start digging. Although
there are exceptions, usually with each shovel of dirt an older
layer will be revealed; the deeper you dig, the further you delve
back in time.
Archaeologists at Great Sand Dunes use a similar technique
although a bit more systematic than ordinary diggingto seek
understanding of the ancient peoples of south-central Colorado.
The first step to an archaeological survey is to decide where to
search. Locations are sometimes chosen randomly and other times
chosen for legal reasons (such as if a building were to be constructed
at a site). Researchers may engage in a survey because evidence
was discovered by a hiker along a trail or because a geographic
feature, such as a body of water, is presumed to hold archaeological
Once a site is selected, scientists take a systematic approach
to the survey. Layers of earth are removed carefully, sifted thoroughly,
and described in writing and on maps. Once the site has been fully
mapped, the area has been completely excavated, and the artifacts
have been recorded and documented (sometimes illustrated), archaeologists
return from the field and write reports on their findings. This
information then becomes public for other researchers to study.
In some cases, archaeologists choose not to survey an archaeological
site. If a site contains ecologically sensitive plants, animals,
or habitat, they may survey the area through means that do not impact
the habitat, such as through making surface observations. In some
cases, a site might be so spiritually significant to a culture or
family, such as a burial ground, that archaeologists may also choose
not to disturb the area. What other reasons do you think would keep
archaeologists from surveying a site?
The hearth site Action Photos at right are from an archaeological
survey that occurred in the summer of 2004. Two students from Longmont,
Colorado, Harriet and Eleanor, assisted with the survey.
An archaeological dig has been prepared for you. In the activity
Back in Time, search for artifacts in a hearth site of your
own. By completing this activity, you will gain a clue for access
to the Fulgurscope.