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What Is an Urban Archaeologist?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2016
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An urban archaeologist studies the history of cities, through direct evidence found on sites as well as documentary materials like historic records. Members of this field usually have advanced degrees in archeology, anthropology, or related fields, and may work for government agencies, private companies, and educational institutions. Their work can include excavations, research in archives, and investigation of sites after objects are uncovered during maintenance and similar activities.

Some human cities are hundreds or even thousands of years old, with a rich archaeological record. As people settled and those cities grew, residents discarded waste materials, built on top of older layers of the city, and lived out their lives. An urban archaeologist investigates these layers of culture and civilization. This can provide more information about the history of a city, its residents, and specific events in the past. Significant events like fires, mass deaths, and floods will be written into the archaeological record.

Archival research can be an important part of urban archeology. This includes looking at historical property records such as lot maps, deeds, and titles. Newspapers, journals, and other documents can provide additional information about who lived where and how they lived. Sketches and other works of art may offer insight into what structures looked like, which can help an urban archaeologist make decisions about how to approach a site. These records together may add context to finds.

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People may be called to a site because artifacts are found while people are performing maintenance, preparing for construction, or disturbing ground for a garden. An urban archaeologist can also be asked to perform a site evaluation before new construction proceeds. When lots become empty after demolition and catastrophes, they can provide a treasure trove of information for an urban archeologist. In cities built on fill, a common tactic, the lot may contain layers of refuse from previous generations that provide important clues about their lives.

This work can include the exploration of ancient as well as modern modern cultures. An urban archaeologist may confer with historians and other interested parties during site excavation. Engineers, for example, might want to study how ancient retaining walls were built, while religious scholars might be interested in findings deep under religious sites. Ongoing excavations around the world provide many opportunities for fieldwork and ongoing support research to unearth context for findings. Some cities also retain one or more archaeologists on staff to participate in the collection and preservation of history as a public service.

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