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It’s All Relative: Archaeology as an Early 20th Century Profession

By Joel Wodhams

Imagine that you are an archaeologist working shortly after the First World War. It’s your first excavation, and you have found small fragment of pottery. What questions would you ask?

Was one of your questions “how old is it”? This is a core question that can be tricky to answer. From 1914 to 1940, archaeologists refined stratigraphy, seriation, and typology in an effort to better understand the age of an object, and of the site as a whole.

Archaeologists use typography to sort artifacts and identify their cultural associations, while stratigraphy is a technique that determines whether an object is older or newer than another object based on its position in the ground. Seriation tracks changes in an object through time. However, all of these methods of dating are relative: they can only tell us if something is older or younger, not exactly how old it is.

By combining relative dating methods such as stratigraphy, seriation, and typology, archaeologists create chronologies. We identify the changes and interactions of cultures using these chronologies.

During this historical-chronological period, archaeology has become more of a scientific profession. Archaeologists work with the government and with museums.

W. Wintemberg at Lawson Site

Pioneer archaeologist W.J. Wintemberg was the first archaeologist to use scientific methods to excavate the Lawson Site from 1921 to 1923. Creating a chronology of the site proved difficult, as local collectors had disturbed the site since the mid 1800’s looking for artifacts.

Wintemberg was able to assign the projectile points at Lawson to specific typologies. He based this on the style of the point, as well as the geographical location of the site. It is useful to sort information, but we cannot assign how the past populations of the Lawson Site identified themselves.

Wilfrid Jury also started working in archaeology during this period. He founded the Museum of Ontario Archaeology in 1933. Jury’s work helped ensure that the archaeology of the Lawson Site remained public. His work reflects the growing public nature of archaeology during this period.


Anderson, J. (2009). The Lawson Site: an Early Sixteenth Century Iroquoian Fortress. London: Museum of Ontario Archaeology.

Renfrew, C., & Bahn, P. (2008). Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice (5 ed.). London: Thames & Hudson.

Willey, G., & Sabloff, J. (1974). A History of American Archaeology. London: Thames and Hudson.

Wintemberg, W. J. (1939). Lawson Prehistoric Village Site, Middlesex County, Ontario. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada.

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