On October 15th, archaeologists around the world celebrated International Archaeology Day. This annual event includes a number of public events to get people interested and engaged in discovering the past. Many people may not realize it, but archaeology, as the scientific investigation of people who lived in the past, is deeply rooted in STEM fields. Archaeologists rely on a number of scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematic principles to investigate, experiment, and interpret past people, cultures, and societies.
For example, archaeologists might look at the ratio of stable isotopes (an atom that contains a different number of neutrons than protons in the nucleus) in ancient shells to estimate the temperature of the water the animal was living in, as well as the season when people harvested the creature. Archaeologists also use GIS (geographic information systems) to examine the spatial relationships between where people use to live with geological features in order to understand how these patterns have changed over time and how they might change in the future.
Above is an image of a fish otolith. Otoliths are boney-like structures that fish have in their craniums, allowing them to sense movement as they swim. Within the otolith, the ratio of standard oxygen atoms (those with the same number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus of the atom) to isotopes (those with a different number of neutrons to protons in the nucleus) depends on the temperature the fish lived in and can be examined by archaeologists. Using a tiny drill (this otolith is about 3 mm wide), archaeologists can sample the otolith and run that sample through a mass spectrometer to determine the ratio of standard atoms to isotopic one. This ratio is then used to calculate the temperature of the water this fished lived in 4,000 years ago.
The list of STEM applications in archaeology go on and on! So for this International Day of Archaeology, check out what archaeologists do on a daily basis at the Day of Archaeology and discover all the different ways archaeologists apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to understand our past!