“Chemistry and Archaeology… how does that work?” is a common response when I tell people that I do research in archaeological chemistry. Sometimes I get “oh, that’s carbon dating isn’t it?” Slightly better, but no, actually, it isn’t.
In fact, I look at the carbon and nitrogen and other elements in human bones, animal bones and plants and use the results to try and understand more about what people’s lives were like at the very beginnings of when humans started farming.
This probably sounds impossible; taking miniscule amounts of what are essentially chemicals and making the huge leap to sweeping statements about emerging elites and the growth of the first cities. I’m not pretending that I’m going to find the answers to these grand questions with chemical methods alone, far from it, but it is one way to glean more information from the remains – the bones and the burnt debris – left behind by our forebears.
Archaeological chemistry is like forensics for squeamish people… CSI without the gribly bits (or at least it is when we’re looking at the archaeology of people over 6000 years in the past).