Once the hard work of excavating is finished, archaeologists try to make sense of the materials they have uncovered. This is often the most time-consuming part of the process.
First, objects that are particularly delicate or unstable may require conservation before they can be studied. Artifacts are then inventoried, classified, and analyzed. In trying to interpret a site, an archaeologist will look not only at individual objects but also at the context—the relationships among the objects and between the objects and the architecture and landscape. Frequently, he or she will enlist the help of other specialists—botanists, cultural anthropologists, zoologists, geologists—in analyzing and interpreting the relevant artifacts, ecofacts, and features.
Archaeologists use the data they collect to answer broad questions about the cultures they study, based on their initial research goals. For example, what was the social structure of a given group like? What did they eat? Because ancient artifacts generally tell us relatively little about individuals and their beliefs, the interpretation of archaeological remains tends to focus on the activities of groups of people, especially as they interact with and construct their physical and social environments. Unfortunately, the archaeological record is always incomplete— generally, only a small portion of most sites is excavated, and many materials from the past do not survive the ravages of time. Archaeologists must do their best with the evidence at hand to help us understand the lives and cultures of those who came before.