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Fall 2000 The Big Dig
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Both in the field and in the laboratory, the methods employed by UCLA's archaeologists have advanced dramatically. Global-positioning systems enable researchers to accurately pinpoint excavation sites. Carbon-14 dating allows them to quickly determine the age of artifacts. With DNA testing, researchers can determine whether skeletons from a large burial pit belong to the same family, as a current UCLA project in Turkey seeks to discover.

"With all of these new techniques, we can ask much more subtle questions," says Charles Stanish, associate professor of anthropology and director of the institute's Andean Laboratory. "Now we can tell what people ate, what they died from, whether a particular dynasty was endogenous. The thought of even asking these questions used to be considered ludicrous."

At the same time, much about archaeology hasn't changed. "We can use modern technology to look for anomalies under the ground, but we still have to excavate in a slow, careful way, and we still have to make the interpretations," says Leventhal.

In fact, much of the emphasis of Cotsen Institute archaeologists is on qualitative aspects of societies such as religion, ideology, social structure and politics. "We're asking questions about the lives of ordinary people," says Morris.

In the past, Morris explains, archaeologists were more focused on recovering glamorous artifacts, lost cities and texts. Today they are more apt to use the objects to better understand ancient societies - and to view the artifacts as part of the heritage of present-day cultures.

For some of the same reasons, conservation has become a major issue in archaeology. A generation ago, archaeologists would typically excavate and then backfill, covering up remains once their research was complete. Today the job also includes preserving the past for the future. Leventhal, for example, allocated half of his research budget to preserving the architecture uncovered at his excavation of a Maya site now visited by 25,000 tourists a year. "We must acknowledge that we are not just researchers in the field, but also excavators of people's past," he says.

With preservation becoming all-important, the Cotsen Institute will join with the Getty Trust in offering a master's-degree program in conservation.

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