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Collapse: Why do civilizations fall?
Collapse: Why do civilizations fall?Mesopotamia
Related Web Sites 

Ruins of the White Temple and Ziggurat
Learn about Uruk, one of the earliest cities in the fertile valley that lay between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.

NOVA Online: Lost City of Arabia
Describes the search for the ancient Arabian city of Ubar and how NASA's remote sensing technology helped to locate it.

Archeology's Interactive Dig
Follow online as ancient civilizations are unearthed. Get full access to frequently updated field notes, Q&A with archaeologists, personal journals, and more.

Ancient Mesopotamia
This site tells the story of ancient Mesopotamia now present-day Iraq.

Archaeological Sampling Strategies
How do archaeologists know where to dig? Explore the sampling techniques they use to choose potential sites.

Finding and Interpreting the Evidence

Imagine that the entire contents of your office or classroom — clothes, papers, furniture, and so on — were thrown into a large pit. Then the pit was filled in with dirt and left to weather for a few centuries. What would be left? How accurate do you think those remains would be in telling people about your life? Finding and interpreting evidence from the past can be a difficult task.

Hunting for clues

Much of our archaeological evidence consists of pottery sherds, bone fragments, lines and discolorations in the soil, and other small broken pieces of stuff that constitute the remains of a people who lived hundreds or thousands of years earlier. We rely on context to give meaning to this evidence. Space (where an artifact was found in the site and what was associated with it) and time (how old and how deep in the ground it was) are invaluable in providing context.

In reality, very little evidence survives to be discovered by archaeologists. Erosion, decay, fire, weather, and natural disasters all play a role in erasing or altering the evidence. People may destroy sites by looting or warfare, or obscure an old site by building a new structure on top of it. Of the sites that have survived, only a fraction have been surveyed. Of those, only a fraction have also been fully excavated and examined.

Hazor, a site in modern-day Israel, is an example of how the size of a site can prevent its full excavation. With Hazor's upper city and lower city combined, the site is 205 acres in size. Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, working from 1955 to 1958 with a crew of 30 archaeologists and more than 100 laborers, was still only able to clear 1/400 of the site. At that rate, it would take 800 years to completely excavate the site. Hazor may seem a gargantuan excavation task, but it is small in comparison to fabled Babylon (2,500 acres in size) and Nineveh (1,850 acres).

Interpreting the past

Archaeologists use many different techniques to help interpret evidence. Often, interpretation involves drawing on what you know (from history, human behavior, artifacts, or other sources) to explain what you don't know. A controlled imagination is helpful in coming up with hypotheses that will guide further research, but also has its dangers. Over time, archaeologists may forget that these hypotheses are speculative, and they may come to be seen as established fact.

For example, twenty years ago, we believed that the Maya were peaceful. Archaeologists had come to this conclusion based on their knowledge of modern Mayan society. They also assumed that any society that had writing and mathematics must be peaceful. Evidence of warfare in the land of the Maya was explained as being due to Toltec invaders. Today archaeologists know that this picture of peaceful Maya ruled by philosopher-kings was false. The Maya have told us so through their writing and their sites. Archaeologists have been forced by overwhelming evidence to re-evaluate their picture of the Maya.

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