Dig Deeper Blog,  Exhibits

Dig Deeper: How Do Archaeologists Know Who Made the Artifacts at a Site?

Dig Deeper is a monthly blog focusing on the basics of archaeology by taking a closer look at the exhibition Archaeology 101, which is currently featured at the Center.


Now that we understand how archaeologists know where to dig and find archaeology sites, let’s dig deeper and learn about how it is possible to know who made the artifacts that are uncovered during an excavation. There may be many artifacts discovered at one site during a dig and it is the archaeologist’s job to figure out if all of the artifacts were made and left behind by the same people or if different cultures and time periods are being represented at an excavation site. Sometimes a written record may give some indication of the cultures represented but there may still be many unanswered questions. Without a written record (which is the case with many prehistoric sites) archaeologists must use the physical clues that were left behind to interpret and determine where the artifacts came from.


Tool assemblage from San Clemente Island. These tools indicate a reliance on maritime resources.

Context is one of the more important concepts to understand in archaeology. The relationship between artifacts, time, their frequency, and the methodology used for an excavation can give archaeologists important information about the site as a whole. For example, if a chipped stone tool and a grinding stone made of similar raw materials are found at the same depth, and found multiple times throughout a site, then it can be assumed that those tools were made and used by the same group of people. This is why it is incredibly important to leave artifacts where they are if you were to come across one. Even if you pick up and turn the artifact over to a ranger, the artifact loses context because it was removed from its original location and cannot be analyzed properly in relation to the other artifacts found at a site.

Missing Pieces

By the time an excavation happens, regardless of human interaction and disturbance, many artifacts have been destroyed by time or nature. This makes the clues that do survive even more valuable. Archaeologists even must consider the possible missing artifacts to tell a more complete story and develop theories about the possible cultures being represented at a site.


San Dieguito Tradition tool assemblage, 10,000-7,500 years ago. Large stone points and scarpers indicate that they were a hunter-gatherer culture.

When artifacts are found together frequently and are determined to come from the same time period, this is called an assemblage. Assemblages are usually associated with a specific culture. Archaeologists may not know where the people from the specific culture came from, or something as important as the language they spoke, but the similarities found in an assemblage can indicate what people were doing during a specific period of time. Assemblages are given names based on the types of tools found, the location where they were discovered, or the time period associated with an area.


There are over 20,000 archaeological sites in San Diego County. Cultural heritage and resource laws have made it possible to carefully preserve and excavate these sites, allowing archaeologists to form theories, do research, and come to conclusions based on context and assemblages. The materials found at one site can inform archaeologists about similar materials found at a different site, giving insight into the peoples and cultures that came before and how they moved about the region.

Up Next

Come back next month to dig even deeper and explore how stone tools are made!

By Jessica McPheters, Collections Manager

Learn More

Archaeology 101 Exhibit

Volunteers work in the Center’s Research Library, cataloguing materials and organizing on a computer-based system.

Marketing and Administrative Volunteers assist the Development Office or Administration Office with data entry, updating marketing materials and clerical tasks. Computer experience is a plus.

Docents welcome visitors and answer general questions regarding the Center and exhibits. Docents staff the gift shop and help out with administrative and curatorial tasks.

Volunteers support event activities at the Center, such as the Annual BBQ, lectures, workshops, and fundraising events. Be a part of the party!

Volunteer provide support for K-12 programs offered at the Center. These are fun, hands-on programs that kids really enjoy. Teaching experience is a plus, but not required. Background checks are required.


With the assistance of Center staff, the intern will use photogrammetry to prepare one or more archaeological collections for digital preservation, as well as create a virtual museum exhibit for our Public Archaeology department. Per approval, special projects of the intern’s choosing are also available. During the research and planning, the intern will receive guidance as appropriate to their selected project. Prospective interns should already be familiar with photogrammetric procedures, and Agisoft Metashape.

Collections Management

With the assistance of Center staff, the intern will prepare one or more archaeological collections for curation. During the course of the internship, the intern will learn to identify artifacts and ecofacts common to the San Diego region, including lithics, ceramics, historical objects, and faunal, botanical, and mineral specimens. Center staff will instruct the intern on archaeological laboratory procedures such as basic artifact analysis, manual and computer cataloguing, storage requirements, and preventative conservation. In addition, the intern will become familiar with historical trends in archaeological practice in the San Diego area and will be introduced to current legal and ethical issues in archaeological curation as well as the concerns and rights of culturally affiliated groups with regard to archaeological materials.

Development and Marketing

Under the direction of Center staff, the intern will support the department in various activities, including, but not limited to, fundraising and grant research; e-newsletter development; social media marketing; and website maintenance. This internship will give the intern valuable, real-world experience in non-profit fundraising and marketing.

Geographical Information Systems in Archaeology

Prospective Interns must have completed three courses: Introduction to GIS, GIS Database Management, and Intermediate/Advanced Methods in GIS. The intern will be assigned a project where they will create shapefiles and maps for curated archaeological collections, museum exhibits, and/or public outreach using ArcGIS 10.6. Center staff will instruct the intern on archaeological GIS laboratory procedures such as computer cataloguing, storage requirements, and database management.

Library Science

With the assistance of Center staff, the intern will arrange and catalog materials in the Center’s library. During the course of the internship, the intern will take a leading role in the cataloging, sorting and storing of research files and creating user guides for these collections. Center staff will instruct the intern on archival procedures, computer cataloging, storage requirements, and preventative conservation.

Public Archaeology

Harness your passion for Public Archaeology and gain hands-on experience with K-12 museum field trips, lectures, and public outreach. Additional projects may include creating virtual museum exhibits and activities, assisting in the development and implementation of K-12 curricula programs, planning and presenting public facing content, or educational field trip content of your own design. Must be able to pass a Live Scan.