Archaeological Science

Archaeological Science

Field Museum anthropologists work to further the scientific understanding of human evolution, culture, society, and diversity through their field and collections based research.  Archaeological Science is the study of the human past through modern technology.  Field Museum archaeologists conduct survey and excavation projects around the globe and research the Field Museum's own rich archaeological collections. 

Anthropology also houses the Elemental Analysis Facility (EAF), which contains instrumentation that allows for the rapid compositional analysis of materials collected during excavations and field work conducted by our curators.   Additionally, these methods of compositional analysis are revealing new information about collections that have been housed at the museum for over a century in some cases.

The Anthropology Spatial Analysis Laboratory is outfitted for advanced technological prospection and spatial analysis of archaeological remains using GIS, satellite imaging, and ground based geophysics. Resources include workstations running ArcGIS 10 and Agfasoft Photoscan for site based, regional, continental, and global geographic information systems applications. Field mapping equipment include a Phantom Vision 2 drone, a TOPCON total station and SMI data collector, as well as several WAAS and differential capable GPS units. Ground based geophysics resources include Mala Geoscience X3M instrumentation for ground penetrating radar and a GEM Systems Overhauser gradient magnetometer, as well as analytical software (ReflexW). The lab is directed by Dr. Ryan Williams.

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    Ryan Williams

    Associate Curator and Section Head Integrative Research Center

Archaeological Science Collections

Andean Clays

The pre-Hispanic states of Andean South America are famous for their polychrome ceramics. They are recovered during archaeological excavations of burials, houses, palaces and temples. Ceramic vessels were used for many functions, including cooking, storage and in ritual events. In order to understand not only what ceramic vessels were used for but also how they were made, Field Museum scientists have been examining pottery production in the ancient Andes by investigating where people procured the raw clays used to make ceramic vessels.

Andean Fine-grained Volcanics

Field Museum curator Ryan Williams and colleagues have conducted an intensive survey of basalt, rhyolite, and andesite sources in the western Titicaca basin to examine the potential for compositionally matching raw materials from these sources to archaeological artifacts, monuments, and prehistoric architecture on the Altiplano, including archaeological collections from middle Horizon archaeological sites at Taraco and Isla Esteves in the north basin and the sites of Tiwanaku, Lukurmata, and Iwawe in the south.  Basalt and other fine-grained volcanic rocks were a key resource in the an

Coastal Peru Collection

Material records of pre-contact cultures include ceramics and textiles from settlements thriving between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 1300 on the Peruvian coast. These pieces came to light through the excavations of Field Museum Curators George Dorsey in the 1890's and Donald Collier in the 1940's and 50's as well as University of California anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in the 1920s.

New Guinean Clays

Potting was first introduced to Papua New Guinea over two thousand years ago, and remains a flourishing craft there even today.  Potters on the Sepik coast of northern Papua New Guinea utilize complex paste recipes to produce their final finished ceramics, often mixing several types of clays and other materials such as beach sands (referred to as "temper") to obtain exactly the consistency and working properties that they favor.  During field work on the Sepik coast between 1990 and 1997, Field Museum curator John Terrell and his colleagues collected clays and tempering materials

North American Obsidian

Obsidian, natural glass formed during volcanic eruptions, was an important raw material in prehistory worldwide.  Obsidian was prized for tool making for a number of reasons, including its workability, sharpness, and visual appeal.  Consequently, prehistoric peoples went to great lengths to obtain obsidian, often from very distant sources.  For archaeologists, obsidian is a powerful tool for understanding prehistoric economy and interaction, because individual obsidian outcrops are usually spatially discrete and chemically distinct from one another.  During the 1960s, ar