Best Question Contest!

Thank you to everyone who has participated in this year's online "Best Question" Contest! The responses to your inquisitive and thoughtful questions are in! Several members of the NYSM Research & Collections staff contributed to the comprehensive answers below!

We hope that our young (and older!) Museum patrons continue to ask intriguing scientific questions throughout the school year and beyond!


  • When an archeologist finds an artifact that is not easily identified how do they determine what it is, how it was used and what year it is from? (Joshua Z., 5th Grade)

    Response: Dr. Christina Rieth
    When an archaeologist finds an artifact, they will often determine what year it is from by looking at the context and association. Context is whether something is below or above another level. Artifacts that are below a layer are older than those in the layer. Those artifacts that are above the layer are later than the artifact.

    Association refers to whether something is in same contact as something else. If something is lower in the ground surface, it is not associated with the occupation. Artifacts the found in the same association of another artifact are often of the same time period. For instance, cars and trucks are of the same association. Cars and buggies are not of the same time period since they are of several hundred years apart.

    Artifacts are often identified based on its context and association. If we were to excavate a site from the Late Woodland Period, then we would there would be some things that identify the sites and would be used as to determine what period the site is from. Longhouse, corded ceramics, corn, and other materials were used during this period.

    Often, we can’t identify what it is and how it was used. When we use deductive reasoning to determine how it may have been used and how it was used. For instance, a small piece of stone might be used as a hammerstone, to decorate interior of pottery, or as a piece of fire-cracked rock. In addition, there are also materials that may have been akin to these materials. By looking at these materials, we can determine what life was like in the past.


    Response: Dr. Daria Merwin
    Our first step to identifying an artifact, once we’re pretty sure that a person made it, is to figure out the raw material or materials (such as rock, pottery, or metal) from which it’s made.  In many places, that will give us a clue as to age and perhaps where the artifact was made.  The next step is to find someone who can give us more clues- preferably someone close by, like a museum colleague, but the internet works well, too!  After just a few years of doing archaeology, I think most of us readily admit we can’t possibly know everything, and that asking questions is the best way to learn.

  • Do you think some Native Americans left objects around in the past so people in the future would find them early on? Like people who like finding objects that would help us find out about how they lived in the past.... ( Mya R., 5th Grade)

    Question Continued: Also how do you find out what the fossils are if you weren't in that time period? I think it is amazing how you take your time to read all our questions. Thank you!

    Response: Dr. Christina Rieth
    I don’t think most groups would have left objects behind for folks in the future to identify. Most folks were part of some disaster that caused them to move from their settlement (such as warfare, flooding, intensive raids, etc.) Most folks would have picked up much of their possessions and have moved from one location to another with their tools, and other materials.

    At most of our sites, what is left behind are flakes (small lithic materials used to fashion a tool) or smaller pieces of pottery that have broken off. At prehistoric sites, these are the materials that have been used and have been discarded in the archaeological record. 


    Response: Dr. Daria Merwin
    That’s an interesting idea- that people in the past left time capsules for future people to discover!  We do know that Native American peoples left what are called caches- typically buried bundles of stone (lithic) artifacts- that we think were meant for retrieval at a later date.  One example from New York State is a cache of stone tools dating to the Paleoindian period (roughly 10,000 to 12,500 years ago) in the upper Susquehanna Valley, a time when we believe the state was populated by small groups of nomadic people.  Leaving a supply of high quality stone tools in a cache may have been insurance against running low on this valuable material when living quite a distance from the raw material source.

  • How do you date objects that you've found from long ago? (Camryn H., 5th Grade)

    Response: Dr. Christina Rieth
    Most archaeologists use either seriation or absolute dating techniques. Seriation is a relative dating technique based upon the chronological ordering of group. If you had a buggy, an model T, a Volkswagon, and a Taurus, the materials are in the order of oldest to least oldest in succession.

    Chorological techniques are used when we determine the exact time period in which something was used. Radiocarbon dating is used when we want an exact time period in which something is used. For example, the Pilgrims came to America in A.D. 1620. Other types of Chronological techniques include Thermoluminescence dating, potassium argon dating, and Fision-track dating.

    Often these two techniques are used together. Most archaeologists will attempt to use seriation early in the excavation to determine how and why materials are deposited. Afterwards, they will go back and do some chronometric dating to determine the exact date of the deposits.


    Response: Dr. Daria Merwin
    We can usually figure out how old something is by one of two ways: relative dating and direct (or absolute) dating.  Relative dating is the result of comparing artifacts of the same type, figuring out which is relatively older and which is younger by observing where they are found (usually older objects will be found more deeply buried on an archaeological site) and how their style may have changed over time.  Imagine putting a selection of your clothing, your parents’ clothing when they were your age, and your grandparents’ clothing when they were your age out on a table- because you know a bit about how clothing style has changed over time, you’d be able to do relative dating for all the clothing sets.  Absolute or direct dating is when the object itself tells us when it was made (a coin stamped “2018”), and can also be done by measuring chemical traces within some kinds of artifacts, such as radiocarbon dating an artifact made from organic material (such as wood, bone, or shell).

  • How did the first Archaeologist know how to find things? (Mason D., 2nd Grade)

    Response: Dr. Christina Rieth
    There are several ways that an archaeologists know where to dig. Early on, archaeology was easy and often the ruins of early societies were done for treasure or for personal satisfaction. Later on, things became more scientific and were more structured in terms of looking for artifacts.

    Early on, archaeologists would look at ancient texts and listen to local stories about how things were found and their significance. Heinrich Schiemann, who discovered the city of Troy (in the country of Turkey today), was guided by local lore of Homer. By looking at the area, he decided that by digging in the Hellispot, this was the place of the currently city. Howard Carter did the same thing in the Valley of the Kings. By getting certain information, he was able to find the tomb of Tutankhamen.

    Today, there are many methods of finding sites. Aerial photography can see features otherwise invisible to sites. Mounds and hills are often places of lost cities or lost villages in the region. Magnetic detection, SONAR, and Radar can also find irregularities underground and also identified pasts used by ancient societies.



  • Why can further studying skeletal remains found in the Albany, NY region impact society in a noticeable way today? (Peri S., College Sophomore)

    Response: Dr. Lisa Anderson and Julie Weatherwax
    The study of human skeletal remains has become increasingly important as science and technology advance. Here are just a few examples:

    Besides the obvious popular appeal (who doesn’t like a good skeleton story?), bioarchaeology can shed light on the history of a community, like Albany, with unique, first-person evidence that isn’t found in the written record or other archaeological material. It attests to the life experiences of individuals who otherwise would have no voice in the history books, from the original Native American People of the River, to African-Americans who labored in the bondage of slavery, to the city’s 19th century poor and their treatment in life and death. An awareness of history is vital to a community and the education of children. Through research and community participation, bioarchaeology has helped to raise that awareness.

    Beyond the local importance of bioarchaeological research, the curation and study of skeletal remains can have broader implications for public health and human history. Studies of ancient DNA derived from bone and teeth are transforming knowledge of diversity and evolution not only of humans but of the pathogens that plague them. Research on the spread and evolution of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis throughout human history will impact the health of people today and in the future.

    Forensic science also benefits directly from studies of human skeletal material. Methods and techniques developed by osteologists for studying human remains are widely used in forensic investigations to identify age, sex and other key characteristics of an individual. Skeletal remains provide a rich data set for studies to refine and improve such methods that are critical for law enforcement.

  • As a bioarchaeologist how do you know where to dig and how do you know that there are bones where you are digging? (Charlotte D., 5th Grade)

    Response: Dr. Lisa Anderson and Julie Weatherwax:
    If an old cemetery is not marked or recorded anywhere we usually don’t know where to dig to find bones and sometimes they are found accidentally. With the use of technology such as ground penetrating radar, it can be possible to ‘look’ beneath the surface for evidence of old disturbances including graves. If the radar detects a disturbance, archaeologists can then dig in those areas to look for changes in the soil, such as color or texture changes, that might indicate where a grave was once dug. Whenever possible, graves are preserved in place and not removed. However, if they are threatened by construction, a bioarchaeologist will carefully excavate and study them to learn about who they were.

  • If you found a skeleton how could you find out who it was? (Camryn H., 5th Grade)

    Response: Dr. Lisa Anderson and Julie Weatherwax
    To learn about a skeleton, a bioarchaeologist first will determine the age of the person and whether they were male or female. To determine sex, we primarily look at features of the skull and pelvis that tend to vary in males and females. For example, a male skull might have more robust features than a female skull while a female pelvis is shaped differently for childbearing.

    To determine age, we look at stages of growth and development and eventually deterioration in the bones and teeth. Children for example, have more bones than adults because the ends of their long bones are separate to allow for growth. As they get older, the ends gradually fuse to the long bones which can provide a good clue as to their age. Similarly, baby teeth (also known as deciduous teeth) in children are gradually replaced by permanent adult teeth with the stage of dental eruption being a good indicator of age. For adults, age can be determined by the stage of fusion in the bones of the skull and wear and tear on joint surfaces. A bioarchaeologist also will look at the skeleton for evidence of disease, trauma, nutritional deficiencies, and skeletal markers of physical activity. In some cases, DNA analysis might be used to learn about a person’s ancestry or in forensic cases it could lead to knowing their identity.

    Lastly, a bioarchaeologist might want to learn when the person was buried by looking for associated artifacts. For example, someone from the 1700s or 1800s might have been buried in a coffin made with nails or other hardware that can be dated. A Native American grave might include artifacts, such as stone tools or pottery. While we would probably never know the name of the person, we could learn a lot about how and when they lived and sometimes how they died


  • How does it help to know what diseases are in birds? (Rae N., 3rd Grade)

    Response: Naima Starkloff
    It is important to know what kinds of diseases birds have as diseases can make the birds sick and sometimes die. The intensity of a disease also depends on things in our environment, such as temperature or rainfall. So understanding the diseases bird have is important with global warming.


  • What can we learn from studying mollusks? (Amanda M., Sophomore)

    Response: Dr. Denise Mayer
    Thank you for the excellent question about mollusks.  Since “mollusks” include such a broad group of animals - the second largest phylum of animals - I’m going to narrow my answer down to freshwater mussels (bivalves), which are the focus of my research.  By looking at current and historic populations of mussels at a given location, scientist can assess potential impacts from disturbance events such as pollution, invasive species, channelization, sedimentation, etc.  It is important to know mussel community population structure (species diversity, abundance, age, length, etc.) prior to and following the event; museum collections serve an important role as a source of historic, baseline data.  This is just one aspect of what mollusks can teach us much about freshwater ecosystems. 


  • Do you know of the earliest evidence of an Axolotl, a Placoderm fish (Dunkleosteus),or Megalodon? (Blake, 5th Grade)

    Response: Dr. Lisa Amati

    Dear Blake,

    Thank you for your awesome question for the Women of Science day at the New York State Museum! 
    Axolotls are modern animals that have no fossil record.  They are one of the coolest animals (as you probably already know) because they look like baby salamanders even when they are grown adults.  Here is a website with lots more cool information:

    Dunkleosteus is one of my favorite fossils of all time!  I got to pet one once!  Well, a fossil of one.  They lived for only a short time during the Fammenian of the Devonian Period, which lasted from 374.5 to 359.2 million years ago.  I found a neat website about them:

    Megalodon sharks used to give me nightmares when I was little!  I was even afraid of the swimming pool sometimes.  They first evolved 23 million years ago and, thankfully, went extinct only 2.6 million years ago.  They probably went extinct because they were so huge, it was hard for them to find enough food, especially when other predatory sharks evolved to compete with them.  I really like this website about them!

    Thanks again for submitting a question and keep asking good questions and investigating the answers!


    Dr. Lisa


  • Is it possible for dinosaurs to still be alive? And if so is the loch ness monster even a dinosaur? (Abigail M., 6th Grade)

    Response: Dr. Lisa Amati,

    Dear Abigail,

    Thank you for your awesome question for the Women of Science day at the New York State Museum! 

    Your question was, “Is it possible for dinosaurs to still be alive?”  Yes!  They are!  A special line of dinosaurs evolved to become birds, so they are still alive today.  Unfortunately, all of the other types of dinosaurs appear to have gone extinct.  We have absolutely no fossils of them after about 65 million years ago and there are very few places on Earth that have not been explored.

    The second part of your question is about the Loch Ness Monster.  I have been fascinated with cryptozoology, especially the Loch Ness Monster, my whole life.  I really would love for it to be real and to be a dinosaur!  Buuuuuuuuuuut, there is really no hard evidence at all that the monster exists.  I have watched documentaries that scanned the entire lake with no indication that anything out of place lives there.  Bummer.

    Thanks again for submitting a question and keep asking good questions and investigating the answers!


    Dr. Lisa