Being an archaeologist is very rarely the "treasure hunt" type of existence portrayed in the movies! In the United States most archaeologists study American Indian sites. Since these groups did not leave a written record, the primary goal of an archaeologist is to reconstruct a picture of their way of life (culture) by examining what remains can be obtained, primarily through excavation.
Typically, this entails:
Choosing an area for study
Ideally, the archaeologist has chosen to investigate a specific area to gather data for testing an academic hypothesis. For instance, one such excavation at Cahokia Mounds in the 1960's was undertaken to prove that the Cahokians had constructed a large palisade wall. Furthermore, early aerial photographs of plowed fields disclosed faint streaks of discoloration that indicated where to excavate to find indications of the wall. In reality, the majority of excavations are related to the construction of highways and other federally funded projects. Environmental assessments are usually conducted prior to highway and airport construction and the searching of the area for significant archaeological remains is a part of that research. As a result, most sites excavated today are being investigated ONLY because they are scheduled for destruction. Some areas of Cahokia Mounds have, in fact, been excavated due to road relocations and plans for the construction of highways!
Setting up a Grid System
A grid system is established. This allows the researcher to identify the exact locations of all finds in three dimensions. At Cahokia there is a master grid for the whole site that all excavators are required to used.
Producing a Topographic Map
Very accurate maps of the shape of the terrain (topographic maps) are made. These are sometimes useful in the planning of an excavation. The locations of houses, pits and other features found during the excavation can be superimposed on the original terrain, yielding an indication of the relationship between the local inhabitants and their natural surroundings.
Conducting Remote Sensing
The area might also be scanned by various types of remote sensing equipment. This process also produces maps of the area which indicate such things as the locations of high electrical resistivity, conductivity, or disturbances in the earths magnetic field etc. Such studies might indicate areas of prehistoric activity. Sometimes such studies actually show the location of specific buildings and storage pits!
Conducting a Surface Collection
Often the ground is plowed and all artifacts seen on the surface are collected and placed in bags labelled with their location within the grid system. The artifacts are washed and labelled in the lab and the distribution of various kinds of artifacts can then be superimposed on both the original terrain and the remote sensing results.
Each area to be excavated is literally drawn on the ground using string. Each square is carefully oriented along the grid system established earlier. The location of excavation units might be very specifically determined ahead of time (as in the case of the palisade), oriented to sample a specific area, or distributed randomly within 'zones.'
Observing Soil Disturbances to Identify Pits, Wall Trenches, Mound Stages, Burial Pits, etc.
Some of the more important archaeological discoveries are not physical artifacts. Stains in the soil indicate areas that were disrupted during the construction of houses, pits, temples and mounds. These discoveries can only be observed once, and are then destroyed by the very action of excavating through them. Thus the archaeologist attempts to map and record all aspects of such features, and even samples the soils for future study.
Washing, Labeling and Analyzing Physical Remains
All of the small pieces of debris recovered from excavations must be washed, labelled, sorted and analyzed. The ceramics, faunal, floral and lithic remains are studied by specialists who can sometimes indicate which time period the various features belong to or suggest what activities were likely conducted in some areas.
Writing a Report of Investigations
In this report, the archaeologist details the results of all the various techniques used to gather data from the study area. Hopefully, data is recovered which helps verify or refute the hypothesis begin tested! More often than not, most of the information gathered does not bear directly on the reason for excavating. It is the job of the archaeologist to record all of these (unexpected) findings as accurately and comprehensively as possible. This data will be studied by future researchers in their attempts to answer questions that we cannot currently imagine.
Archaeology, by it's very nature, is a destructive process, and carries with it the responsibility to make accurate and comprehensive observations for the benefit of future researchers. If all this sounds more like hard planning and work rather than the "treasure hunting" often portrayed in the movies, you're right! And this was just a short, somewhat mechanical listing of 'tasks'... Archaeologists must teach, theorize, organize, orchestrate, and sweat hard in the blazing summer sun!