How come archaeological ruins are always underground?

Dear Cecil:

All of the points you mentioned in answering this question are valid. But you omitted something that is equally valid. The question “How come archaeological ruins are always underground?”, and your answers to that question, imply a fact that’s not necessarily true. The implication, put concisely, is that “old stuff, especially old stuff left by human cultures, is always buried.” You then proceed to give reasons why this would be so. But you don’t question the implication. Here’s what I think. Old stuff is left unburied all the time. Maybe less than buried stuff, maybe more. But items left unburied are, by that very exposure, subject to all sorts of elements and factors that prevent preservation through the ages. Rain, wind, sandstorms, human and animal scavenging, centuries of being stepped on by animals – all contribute to the disappearance of this material, leaving the buried (and thereby protected and preserved) stuff for archaeologists to find and study.

Maybe this seemed self-evident, so you didn’t bring it up. But I think it deserves mention.




IOW, for each ruin (depending on the weather, climate, topography, etc.) all those sandstorms either erode it to nothing or bury it, whichever happens to come first.

There is (or at any rate was at the time I did my degree) very little archaeological evidence of the dwellings inhabited during the British Bronze age. One explanation given was that they were living in areas with shallow soil subject to erosion and were building with perishable material such as wood. A complementary theory was that they were somewhat nomadic during this period, practising seasonal migration and therefore not putting down deep roots anywhere.

I would like to see a link to the column but surely the notion that all* archaeological ruins* are buried is obviously untrue. Whilst archaeology deals in the excavation and analysis of the buried remains of human activity it does not ignore any stuff that does remain above ground.

Getting back to the original point, in any place that humans occupy for any length of time there is an accumulation of stuff, most of which ends up as rubbish of one sort or another. This detritus has a tendency to build up in layers burying what came before. This is why urban sites are unlikely to disappear completely as the inhabitants are bringing stuff in and building stuff up faster than it could be eroded. It needs a catastrophe like the eruption of Thera to remove the evidence completely (and that only applies to whatever was in the vanished middle of the island). Moreover even evidence of human activity that has been removed from its original location by natural forces can still turn up. I was involved in the excavation of caves which were filled with material that had originally been on the banks of a river, before it was swept into the caves. People had been living by the river and so the material inccluded their tools, the bones of the animals they had killed and eaten and (rarely) fragments of human bone.

How come archaeological ruins are always underground? – dated February 26, 1988, so itself an underground archaeological ruin.

I can understand finding pottery or jars being buried especially if that jar in question was thrown away by the owner, but what about jewelry or weapons, valuable stuff which (outside of grave goods) presumably would not have been thrown away in the general course. Only so many women would throw away mother in laws jewelry.

There are a number of ways in which valuable stuff can get left to be preserved:

Hoards; Banks either don’t exist, or you don’t trust them - so you bury your valuables in a pot under your floor, or in some other location; in particular, if there’s some kind of unrest (maybe your land is being invaded) - carrying valuables on your person makes you a target, so you bury them in secret. Then you are killed, or taken captive, or maybe you just die of disease - and your secret dies with you.

Loss into mud, etc; you drop your sword whilst fording a muddy river, or your bracelet falls into a latrine pit, or you drop a coin and it disappears into a crack between the flagstones, or your brooch falls off in some busy, cluttered place, and you don’t notice straight away - so you don’t even know where to search for it. Maybe someone else finds it - maybe not.

Catastrophe; your home is destroyed by earthquake, landslide, flood, etc, which naturally buries stuff straight away.

Accidental disposal; you take off your ring and, so as not to lose it, put it in that cup with the chipped rim. Someone else throws the cup in the garbage heap.

Etc. The modern world is comparatively neat and tidy, and yet we still lose things, and they stay lost.

Also throw in religious/ceremonial reasons. Swords, cups and such are found in bogs as offerings to the gods. Ancient writers mention acts like this so it’s not just speculation.

Welcome to the Straight Dope Message Boards, marlenemccall. An interesting insight, and we’re glad to have you with us.

For future ref, when one starts a thread, it’s helpful to other readers to provide a link to the column in question. Helps keep us on the same page and avoids repetitions and saves search time. No biggie, I’ve added a link to the bottom of your post, and you’ll know for next time. And, as I say, welcome!

Mangetout has covered this pretty thoroughly so I’ll just add that most valuables don’t turn up archaeologically as they were generally recycled (ie melted down or remade) when broken or out of fashion.