Frequently Asked Questions

"What is archaeology?"

Archaeology is the study of past people. Emphasis on people is what sets archaeology apart from paleontology, which is the study of fossilized plants and animals. So to answer your question, "Do archaeologists study dinosaurs?" the answer is No! Paleontologists study dinosaurs, and archaeologists study people. Archaeologists study the past by excavating artifacts, food remains, architectural remains, and other evidence of human occupation from the ground. We then piece these clues together like a puzzle to create a picture of what life in the past was like.

Archaeologists do much more than “dig!” Archaeologists in federal, tribal and state government agencies are responsible for managing, protecting and interpreting archaeological sites on public land.  Working in museums, archaeological parks, or historic sites, archaeologists may manage collections of artifacts, work in education or public programming, or become administrators that manage programs relating to research, collections, education, and exhibitions. Colleges and universities employ archaeologists as faculty members that teach undergraduate and graduate students. In addition to teaching, academic archaeologists are active researchers in their field. They write grants to raise money to fund their fieldwork, In addition to directing excavations; they oversee the analysis and interpretation of the projects and publish the results of their work in books, and scholarly journals, as well as in popular publications that help make their research available to the public.

Professional archaeologists work in a wide variety of settings.  Archaeologists are employed by federal and state government agencies,   museums and historic sites, colleges and universities, and engineering firms with cultural resource management divisions. Some archaeologists work as consultants or form their own companies.

The majority of archaeologists today are employed in cultural resource management, or CRM.  CRM companies are responsible for archaeology that is done to comply with federal historic preservation laws that protect archaeological sites.  Archaeologists employed in CRM firms may be hired as temporary field or laboratory assistants, or may be project managers or administrators. CRM archaeologists direct field and lab work, manage staff, and are responsible for writing reports and other publications to share the results of their surveys and excavations. CRM archaeologists may also be engaged in public education and outreach efforts to share the results of their work with the public through site, tours, brochures, and exhibits.

"What is Wisconsin archaeology?"

Wisconsin archaeology is all that described above - in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Archeological Society exists to advance the field of archaeology in Wisconsin, to understand more about the prehistory and history of the state. Our rich past includes thousands of years of human occupation stretching back to times when glaciers covered the state and mammoths and mastodons roamed the landscape. More recently were the first European explorers, the fur-trade, and the founding and growth of historic cities like Milwaukee, Madison, Prairie du Chien, La Crosse, and Green Bay. All these aspects of our shared past are part of Wisconsin archaeology.

"Who can join the Wisconsin Archeological Society?"

The Society is not just for professionals! Many of our members are not archaeologists at all, but are simply interested in Wisconsin's past and are passionate about preserving it. All members, whether professional archaeologists or not, are welcome to participate in the Society and serve on committees or as board members.

"I found an artifact. Can you tell me more about it?"

We would be very happy to help in any way. Please send an email to describing what you found, where you found it, and any other information possible. If you can, send pictures of the item. Your email will be sent along to whomever is most qualified to help you.

See "Is it alright to collect artifacts?" for more information

"Is it alright to collect artifacts?"

In some case, removing an artifact from where you found it is against the law—in state and national parks, for example, and on tribal lands. Removing artifacts from these areas is a crime that is punishable by jail time and fines. Collecting artifacts on private property is not against the law if you have permission of the landowner.

If you find an artifact on your private land or land you have permission to be on, it is always best to leave it in place until information can be collected about it. Most of the importance of an artifact comes from its context - that is, where exactly it was found, how it was positioned, what it was found next to, etc. When an artifact is removed from its context, that information is lost forever - and the artifact becomes much less useful. If you find something and intend to remove it, record AS MUCH information about it as possible first. Take pictures of the item as you found it, and pictures of the area it was found in so that context information can be reconstructed later.

There's no reason be afraid to let an archaeologist know what you found and where you found it. In the United States, property law is very strong - if you find an artifact on your private land, an archaeologist cannot take it away from you. We just want to record as much information about it as possible!

"I think I found human bones. What do I do?"

Immediately call your local sheriff's office and the Wisconsin Historical Society's Burial Sites office. The Burial Sites office can be reached at  1 (800) 342-7834 (if you are in Wisconsin); otherwise call (608) 264-6507.  If the discovery is made on Federal or Tribal land, or private land within the exterior boundaries of an Indian reservation, please contact the specific Tribal Historic Preservation Office or the nearest office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Find out more at the Wisconsin Historical Society's Burial Sites website.

"Archaeology? Archeology? Why the spelling difference?"

"Archaeology" (with the "a") has been the common spelling for the discipline and practice of archaeology for roughly the last 40 years. Prior to that, the spelling was "archeology" without the "a". The Wisconsin Archeological Society was founded in 1903, and we have chosen to maintain the original spelling for both the name of the Society and the name of our publication, The Wisconsin Archeologist

Some content modified from the Society for American Archaeology. See their website for more questions and answers.