Category Archives: Archaeology

The Oldest Garment in the World

Archaeologists recently confirmed that the Tarkhan Dress (which has decayed to just being a shirt at this point) is between 5,100 and 5,500 years old. This dates it to near the beginning of Egyptian society. Of course, it was a shock to find a (mostly) intact garment of such an age, since normally linen is destroyed by the ravages of time fairly quickly. (Fun fact, one of the major forces contributing to clothing falling apart over long spans of time is the friction caused by particles of dust coming into contact with it.)

The Dress was originally found in an Egyptian cemetery in the early 1900’s. Its significance was largely overlooked by the academic community, until 1977, when it was sent to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The long sleeved garment was found inside-out, and had significant creasing, suggesting that it had been actually worn, likely by one of the tomb’s occupants. At the moment, the dress stops at the midriff, but evidence such as similar, slightly younger garments, and images on nearby tombstones indicate that it would originally have been floor-length.

Alice Stevenson, the author of a recent study about the dress’ age.

The Dress has long been suspected to date back to the time of Egypt’s First Dynasty, but this was recently confirmed by radiocarbon dating. Radiocarbon dating is a process that we’ve only known about for around a century. It uses the decay of a certain Carbon isotope (isotopes are a type of particle that share chemical properties with each other, but slightly differ in mass) to measure how much time has passed. Carbon-14 is the one carbon isotope that is radioactive — which doesn’t mean it’s dangerous, just that it emits energy — and by finding the amount of it in a substance, we can tell how old it is. Since we have lots of evidence from very old things, like trees, we can use those as reference points to get very accurate dates, to within a few centuries.


Kids Unearth Ancient Native American Town

More than 400 years ago, Spanish explorers built a small fort in the Native American town of Joara in the mountains of North Carolina. Today, archaeologists are exploring the fields where Joara once stood. And students get to help. Involving lots of work and lots of fun, it’s the only way to learn about hands-on archaeology for kids. Learn more at

Inside the Bridges of the Roman Empire

lasar and radar
What is it? The world’s most technical lawn mower? A mobile battery cart for really intense computing on the go? The latest exercise craze? Nope. Read on to find out a little about using the latest technology to see into the hidden past.
Researchers at the University of Vigo in Spain have studied more than 80 Roman and medieval bridges to learn how they are put together. Historians and engineers alike are interested to learn what the bridge-builders of old knew. Conservationists also want to know about any flaws so they can make sure the structures last far into the future.

Since taking apart a stone bridge that has been standing for more than a thousand years would be a bad idea, they needed another way to see inside.

They were able to do that with the help of ground-penetrating radar.

A ground-penetrating radar unit is made up of an antenna that emits and receives short pulses, a control unit and a computer. The ensemble can be set up in a type of cart (pictured above), in which the system is installed or in a mobile survey vehicle to collect data along the road of the bridge.

“The information from this system is combined with the information provided by the LiDAR or terrestrial laser scanner, whose beam sweeps over the whole bridge and in a few minutes takes the XYZ coordinates of millions of points of the monument,” says Dr. Mercedes Solla, one of the authors and current professor at the Defence Academy (Marín, Pontevedra).

The result is a mathematical computer model called a “point cloud,” from which detailed plans and 3D models of the bridge can be obtained.

3D Roman Bridge Model
3D model of the roman bridge of Segura, on the border between Spain and Portugal.

This sort of approach is perfectly in line with the latest trends in archaeology. Whenever possible, researchers want to learn as much as they can without digging up, taking apart, or otherwise destroying the thing they are studying.

Not only does this preserve cultural heritage for its own sake, it means that far into the future even more advanced techniques can be used to learn about the past.

Photo credits: Grupo de Geotecnologías Aplicadas (UVigo)

Press Release:

History Underfoot: Trash Piles or Treasure Troves?

historyunderfootThink you have to go to Egypt and find a mummy to be an archaeologist? Think again!

Archaeologists are equal opportunity explorers and want to learn how all kinds of people lived in all kinds of places. Ancient cities and secret chambers filled with golden treasure are certainly exciting. But so is the friendly neighborhood trash dump of a few hundred years ago!

Earlier this month at Virginia’s Washington and Lee University, construction workers began a project to restore a building on campus. An archaeology professor went to check out the work site. Guess what. She immediately noticed artifacts on the surface of the ground where the grass had been removed.

The professor, Alison Bell, worked with one of her students to dig up a small square of ground. They soon found thousands of artifacts from the early 1800s.

Among the finds were belt buckles, buttons, a penny, a pocketknife, bone toothbrushes, writing slates, medicine vials, broken plates and pottery, bone handles, various types of bullets, a small metal musical instrument called a jaw harp — the list goes on and on.

This treasure trove of artifacts had been buried for 200 years just two inches deep in the ground. Students had been walking over them on their way to class the whole time.

Bell believes she may be digging in what amounts to a trash pile that built up outside a building where students lived from 1804 to 1835. In those days, it was common to simply throw broken items and trash out the back door. “Everybody did this, and we find collections of artifacts often accumulate around doorways,” she said.

It will take more time and more study for Bell to test her idea, but the items are sure to help researchers learn more about the day-to-day lives of university students of that time.

And there’s a lesson in this story for you, too.

When you are walking around, pay attention the next time workers are tearing up a sidewalk or digging a trench to bury underground cable. The nearby pile of dirt — especially if it has been rained on a time or two — may begin to show little bits of broken cups and plates. The rain washes away loose dirt, leaving the hard items right on the surface of the dirt.

If you are downtown in a city that has been around for a 100 years or more, it is not rare at all to find artifacts. The trick is figuring out what you are looking at and how old it is. As you do research to learn when and where the broken teacup handle you found was made, you’ll be doing the time-honored work of Archaeology!

How Do You Spell That, Again? Archaeology is one of those words that can be spelled two ways: Arch-a-eology and Archeology (without the second ‘a’). The first way is a little more common, and also looks a bit more old-fashioned — perfect for a word about studying the ancient past. Learn to spell it both ways to impress friends and teachers, alike!


Archaeologist: A type of scientist who studies past cultures, normally by studying the sites where they lived and the old things they used (artifacts).

Artifact: A portable object made, modified or used by humans. Think of arrowheads used by Native Americans, cave paintings in France, or the metal helmets worn by the solders of ancient Greece.


Washington and Lee Archeologists Make Major Finds at Construction Site

National Park Service: Archeology for Kids

Archaeology Facts

Dig: The Archaeology Magazine for Kids

Historical Archaeology at The Florida Museum of Natural History

PHOTO CREDIT: Alison Bell, associate professor of archaeology, with a sampling of artifacts from the Robinson Hall site. Courtesy of Washington and Lee University, Office of Communications and Public Affairs.