The survival of organic materials in within the archaeological record hangs greatly upon the environment in which they were left. As they are comprised of biodegradable materials, it is only under extreme circumstances that they can be properly preserved. Plant, animal, and human remains, textiles, wood, etc. are all examples of organic materials that require specific climates in order to be properly preserved and found centuries, if not millennia later.
There are three main environments where organic material can successfully be preserved:
Climates or environments that are arid and lack moisture provide perfect conditions for dry preservation. The hot sands of Egypt are perhaps the most common example of this. Dry does not always need to be hot though, as can be seen by the airtight coffin that preserved the Lady of Dai in China. Without moisture entering the environment, bacteria and microorganisms are not able to flourish and begin their work on decomposing organic material.
Similar to our own refrigeration system, freezing organic material can essentially keep a moment in time locked away until thawing occurs. The arctic offers a great deal of unlocked archaeological evidence, and has proven to preserve some extraordinary things: the Ötzi man, for example, or the immaculate woolly mammoths pulled from the tundra. Flesh and skin are so well preserved, that archaeologists can see tattoos, as well as decipher a plethora of vital information regarding daily life.
Wet (Waterlogged) Preservation
If wetland archaeology weren’t as expensive as it was, it would probably be one of the most popular forms of excavation as it can preserve the most organic material. Submersion in a lake, bog, swamp, etc. essentially creates an anoxic environment for the artefact. Without oxygen, bacteria cannot grow or feed on the organic material, leaving it essentially untouched until it is uncovered by excavation. Bog bodies are an example of famous finds in waterlogged environments. Waterlogged archaeological wood is also vital for tree ring dating timelines. The main concern lies with removal from the wet environment as it immediately begins to dry out and degrade. Careful attention must be paid to wet finds and they must be conserved accordingly.
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Looking to Find Out More?
Colin Renfrew and Paul Bhan, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice
Purdy, B.A. (ed.). 1988. Wet Site Archaeology. Telford Press: Caldwell.
Binford, L.R. 1983. In Pursuit of the Past: Decoding the Archaeological Record. Thames & Hudson: London & New York.
The World’s Best Preserved Mummy- The Lady of Dai is Soft to the Touch, has Bendy Arms, and is 2100 Years Old