Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Archaeology (or archeology) is the study of human cultures through the analysis of material remains (such as architecture, artifacts, biofacts, the human body, landscapes).

Table of contents
1 History reconstruction
2 History of Archaeology
3 Theory
4 Archaeological techniques
5 Regions within Archaeology
6 See also
7 External Links
8 Further Reading

History reconstruction

Archaeology is the primary means for reconstructing the human past when there is no written record (generally, more than 5,000 years ago), when the written record is incomplete, or when the written record is biased. The material remains of human activity often have aesthetic, political, and monetary value. Consequently, many people identify archaeology with the collection of political or economic treasures. This is promulgated, for example, in popular movies dealing with the exploits of fictional archaeologists, e.g. Indiana Jones or the archaeologists in the recent film The Mummy and those in the book King Solomon's Mines. (For more, see this list of movies that include archaeologists or archaeology in the plot.) It is also promulgated by some high profile amateur archaeologists, including Graham Hancock searching for the Ark of the Covenant (as Indiana did) or Erich Von Daniken (author of "Chariot of the Gods"), but other archaeologists refer to these endeavors as pseudoarchaeology.

Archaeology is a much broader field than suggested by these common conceptions. For example, ethnoarcheologists contribute to the study of contemporary societies. One branch of archaeology that is not usually associated with academic archaeologists is Cultural Resources Management (CRM). Among the goals of CRM are the identification, preservation, and maintenance of cultural sites on public and private lands, and the removal of culturally valuable materials from areas where they would otherwise be destroyed (such as construction sites or dam-flooded areas). CRM is a thriving entity, especially in the United States and Europe where archaeologists from private companies and all levels of government engage in the practice of their discipline. In the United States, CRM archaeology has been a growing concern since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and most of the archaeology done in that country today proceeds from either direct or related requirements of that measure. In the United States, the vast majority of taxpayers, scholars, and politicians believe that CRM has helped to preserve much of that nation's history and prehistory that would have otherwise been lost in the expansion of cities, dams, and highways.

In the United States, archaeology is one of four fields of anthropology, the scientific study of humanity as a whole. In the UK and other countries, archaeology is a separate discipline in its own right, although it retains strong links with anthropology and history. Some major (although not exhaustive) goals of archaeology are to document and reconstruct cultural systems, define and interpret the use and meaning of past material culture and technology, explain cultural change and cultural evolution, and explore the relationship between cultural systems, landscapes, and natural environments and other organisms. Much American archaeological theory is motivated by the attempt to derive models of cultural systems, processes, and changes based on material remains. Some schools of archaeology (e.g. processualism) tend to describe the underlying systems, trying to find common ground between cultures and themes in cultural development; other schools (post-processualism) either believe this impossible or fraught with difficulty, and so focus on the social meaning and use of material culture within its specific cultural context. Additionally, the exact definition of what archaeology is can differ from one country to another.

Much of the early history of professional archaeology was motivated by an attempt to distance itself from pseudo-archeologists and dilettantes, and to establish itself as a science. While this battle has been won, archaeology has been and remains a cultural, gender and political battlefield. Many groups have tried to use archaeology to prove some current cultural or political point. Marxist or Marxist-influenced archaeologists in the USSR and the UK (among others) often try to prove the truth of dialectical materialism or to highlight the past (and present) role of conflict between interest groups (e.g. male vs. female, elders vs. juniors, workers vs. owners) in generating social change. Some contemporary cultural groups have tried, with varying degrees of success, to use archaeology to prove their historic right to ownership of an area of land. Many schools of archaeology have been patriarchal, assuming that in prehistory men produced most of the food by hunting, and women produced little nutrition by gathering; more recent studies have exposed the inadequacy of many of these theories. Some used the "Great Ages" theory implicit in the three-age system to argue continuous upwards progress by Western civilization. Much contemporary archaeology is influenced by neo-Darwinian evolutionary thought, phenomenology, post-modernism, agency theory, and cognitive science.

There is still a tremendous emphasis in the practice of archaeology on field techniques and methodologies. These include the tasks of surveying areas in order to find new sites, and digging sites in order to unearth the cultural remains therein, and classification and preservation techniques in order to analyze and keep these remains. Information can be derived throughout this process.

History of Archaeology


The exact origins of archaeology as a discipline are hazy. Excavations of ancient monuments and the collection of antiquities have been going on for at least two thousand years. It was only in the 19th century, however, that the systematic study of the past through its physical remains began to be carried out in a manner recognisable to modern students of archaeology. Prior to this, excavation had tended to be haphazard; the importance of concepts such as stratification and context was completely overlooked. In 1803, there was widespread criticism of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin for removing the "Elgin Marbles" from their rightful place on the Parthenon in Athens; but the marble sculptures themselves were valued by his critics only for their aesthetic qualities, not for the light they might throw on Greek civilisation.

Britain was one of the first countries to develop a systematic approach to archaeology and to recognise it as a discipline in its own right (though the debate over whether it is an "art" or a "science" continues). The first individuals to take a serious interest in the subject were clergymen. Many vicars recorded local landmarks within their parishes, and these might include details of the landscape, as well as ancient monuments such as standing stones -- even where they did not recognise the significance of what they were seeing. It is thanks to them that we know about many archaeological features which have since disappeared or been moved.

A major figure in the development of archaeological method was Augustus Pitt Rivers. Archaeology was still an amateur pastime, but Britain's colonial period had provided opportunities for "gentlemen" to study antiquities in many other countries. Pitt-Rivers himself, having caught the bug during his military career, brought many artefacts back from overseas and, having inherited a large estate with numerous prehistoric features, collected more artefacts off his own land. From his personal collection (the nucleus of the museum named after him, in Oxford), he developed a typology, something few had thought of doing but which would be of enormous significance for dating purposes.

In France, similar things were happening at around the same time. Napoleon's army carried out excavations during its Egyptian campaign. The emperor had taken with him a force of five hundred civilian scientists, specialists in fields such as biology, chemistry and languages, in order to carry out a full study of the ancient civilisation. The work of Jean-François Champollion in deciphering the Rosetta stone and discovering the hidden meaning of hieroglyphics proved the key to the study of Egyptology.

These developments were not limited to Europe. In America, Thomas Jefferson was also an amateur archaeologist, and, possibly inspired by his time in Europe, supervised the excavation of an Indian burial mound on his land in Virginia in 1784, earning the nickname "father of archaeology". Although Jefferson was ahead of his time in his investigative methods, they would be considered primitive by today's standards. He did not simply dig down into the mound in the hope of "finding something"; he cut a wedge out of it in order to examine the stratigraphy. The results did not inspire his contemporaries to do likewise, and they continued to hack away at tell sites in the Middle East, destroying valuable archaeological material in the process.

Development of Archaeological Method

The next major figure in the development of archaeology in the UK was Mortimer Wheeler, whose highly disciplined approach to excavation and systematic coverage of much of the country in the 1920s and 1930s brought the science on swiftly. It was not until the introduction of modern technology, from the 1950s onwards that a similar leap forward would be made in field archaeology. Wheeler's method of excavation, laying out the site on a grid pattern, though gradually abandoned in favour of the open-area method, still forms the basis of excavation technique.

Meanwhile, the work of Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos in Crete had shed light on the Minoan civilisation. Many of the finds from this site were catalogued and brought to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where they could be studied by classicists, whilst an attempt was made to reconstruct much of the original site. Although this was done in a manner that would be considered inappropriate today, it helped raise the profile of archaeology considerably.

Archaeology was increasingly becoming a professional activity. Although the bulk of an excavation's workforce would still consist of volunteers, it would normally be led by a professional. It was now possible to study archaeology as a subject in universities and even schools, and by the end of the 20th century nearly all professional archaeologists, at least in developed countries, were graduates.

Introduction of Technology

Undoubtedly the major technological development in 20th century archaeology was the introduction of radiocarbon dating, based on a theory first developed by American scientist Willard Libby in 1949. Despite its many limitations (it can only be used on organic matter), the technique brought about a revolution in archaeological understanding. For the first time, it was possible to put reasonably accurate dates on discoveries such as bones. This in some cases led to a complete reassessment of the significance of past finds. Classic cases included the Red Lady of Paviland. It was not until 1989 that the Catholic church allowed the technique to be used on the Turin Shroud, demonstrating that the linen fibres were of medieval origin.

Radiocarbon dating was developed almost in tandem with dendrochronology, another valuable archaeological technique. Dates could be calibrated by reference to the bristlecone pine of California, which can survive in situ for four thousand years or more. These developments led indirectly to other scientific advances. For field archaeologists, the most significant of these was the introduction of the geophysical survey, enabling an advance picture to be built up of what lies beneath the soil, before excavation even commences. The entire Roman city of Wroxeter has been surveyed by these methods, though only a small portion has actually been excavated.


There is no single theory of archaeology, and even definitions are disputed. Until the mid-20th century and the introduction of technology, there was a general consensus that archaeology was closely related to both history and anthropology. Since then, elements of other disciplines such as physics, chemistry, biology, metallurgy, engineering, medical science, etc, have found an overlap, resulting in a need to revisit the fundamental ideas behind archaeology.

The first major phase in the history of archaeological theory is commonly referred to as Culture History, or the ordering of artifacts and by inference cultures in time and place.

The "New Archaeology" proposed by Lewis Binford and others during the 1960s, challenged the traditional Euro-centric view of archaeology and the popular conception of it as being the province of historians, advocating the processual model which would lead archaeologists to look at discoveries in a new way.

The current major phase of archaeology is sometimes referred to as "Post-Processual" archaeology, or an opening up of archaeological theory and inquiry to include the topics from the other disciplines of the social sciences, philosophy, and even art and literature.

Many archeologists find the archeological opportunities clearing house, Shovelbums, founded in the 1990s by R. Joe Brandon a useful resource for connecting with other archeologists and employment opportunities in their field.

Schools of Theoretical Archaeology

These include:

Archaeological subdisciplines

Archaeological techniques

Regions within Archaeology

See also

External Links

Further Reading