Theory & Method


Archaeological methods serve two very specific purposes: data acquisition and data analysis. At Pitt, we provide training in both to the extent that they enable us to address research questions about the nature of human culture, organization, and social life. We specialize in field and laboratory methods of data collection, and in quantitative analyses of space, material culture, human remains, organic and inorganic refuse, ecological factors and impacts, and patterns of activity.

Mapping and surveying instruments. In-field data collection is a priority for most faculty and students, and we have all the usual instruments necessary for high-resolution mapping, including total stations and differentially correctable, sub-meter accuracy global positioning systems.

Survey Little Takli Island, Alaska

Geophysical prospection and remote sensing. In many parts of the world, destructive full-scale excavation is untenable or impractical. We have a variety of instruments (such as gradiometers, resistivity meters, and magnetic susceptibility probes) that enable sub-surface remote sensing of settlements, features, and activity areas.

Gradiometry Class on Campus

X-Ray fluorescence. Elemental composition analyses of lithics, ceramics, and other materials are increasingly important to our ability to answer questions about raw material provenance and acquisition, mobility, trade, exchange, social connectivity, and interaction at many scales. And when combined with various methods of geophysical prospection and remote sensing, elemental measurement is a very powerful tool for mapping different kinds of human activity in settlements. We use a portable x-ray fluorescence instrument to approach these issues both in the field and in the lab.

XRF Darkhad Mongolia

Stable and radioactive isotope sample preparation lab. Though we are not a full-service laboratory for isotopic analysis, we do have the facilities to process a wide range of organic materials (from charcoal to bone) for bulk and compound-specific stable isotope analysis, and for radiometric dating. The purpose of this preparation lab is to reduce the per-sample cost of these measurements to enable sample sizes that permit statistical confidence.

Wood Lab 2

Computation and spatial analysis lab.
Post-field data analysis is an essential component of archaeological research at Pitt. We have a dedicated laboratory space for this, along with the personnel to support its maintenance and use. Students and faculty use this facility regularly, and it features prominently in courses on statistics and geographic information systems.

Comparative collections.  In addition to the aforementioned instruments and laboratory spaces, we have a comprehensive comparative collection of faunal bone (focused on northern Eurasia and North America), and we have access to human osteology collections and hominin fossil casts in the Physical Anthropology labs.

Cranial Case Comparative Collections

Experimental archaeology.  The Department also has laboratory space devoted to collections work, and experimental archaeology (ceramics, lithics, and paleoethnobotany).

Metal Lab Workspace