The “D” Word…Dinosaurs

If you are an archaeologist, you have probably had to spend a lot of time trying to explain to people that you do not excavated dinosaur bones.  This can be a difficult thing to get across because fossils are generally fascinating and the practice of paleontology has a lot in common with archaeology.  In fact, many paleontologists do not even study dinosaurs.  Both studies use similar recording methods, focusing of stratigraphy, chemical and biological analysis, and careful excavation.  The main different is that paleontologists usually work on a much larger time scale than archaeologists.

The common paleontology term, fossil, was used in the 1600s (during these discipline s infancies) to describe anything that was dug up.  This does not mean it has to be millions for years old or even petrified.  It wasn’t until the 1730s when the term was defined as geological remains.  Between those time periods the beloved term artifact was actually fossil (  Not only do we share terminology we also share our favorite chronology tool – STRATIGRAPHY!  Nils Steensen (Steno) recognized a relationship between tongue-stones (shark teeth) and the sediment layers.  He defined normal thought to say that these strata developed and changes and were not deposited solely by the Great Flood. Later archaeologist such as John Frere discovered that some of the fossils dubbed fairy arrows and thunderbolts were actually stone tools created by humans and could be used to date stratigraphic layers (Harris 1989)

Along with scaring principle research terminology, archaeology and paleontology also have similar sub-fields only distinct in the items of study.  Paleobotanists and archaeobotanists both study plant remains.  However, the paleobotanist studies fossilized plants while the archaeobotanist prefers to work with more recently deposited plant remains.  Both fields have specialties in taphonomy or the study of how living things decay and the biotic or abiotic (mostly seen in archaeology) factors that impact the remains after deposition.  Where things begin to get confusing is in the study of fossilized humans and human evolution or paleoanthropology.  Being as this discipline focuses on fossils but also on human remains it can be considered to be a part of both fields.  This is a distinct overlap that has led to amazing discovers in the realm of human evolution.

With so many overlaps it can be easy to see how people can confuse Indiana Jones with Jurassic Park.   The key here is in nicely, patiently, and happily educating the public on the differences and similarities of paleontology and archaeology.  We need to be able to communicate the complexities of our disciplines in a way that is easily understood but respectful and holistic to both disciples.  While I am sure every archaeologist is tired of hearing “dig up any good dinosaurs?” we must remember that many of our paleontologist cousins feel the same.


Can you dig it?


Harris, Edward

1989 Principles of archaeological stratigraphy. 2nd ed. Academic Press, London.


IUP Anthropology