Details, Explanation and Meaning About Archaeology

Archaeology Guide, Meaning , Facts, Information and Description

Archaeology or archeology (American English) is the study of human cultures through the recovery, documentation and analysis of material remains, including architecture, artefacts, biofacts, human remains, and landscapes. The goal of archaeology is to shed light on long-term human prehistory, history, behaviour and cultural evolution. It is the only discipline which possesses the method and theory for the collection and interpretation of information about the pre-written human past, and can also make a critical contribution to our understanding of documented societies. Other subfields of anthropology supplement the findings of archaeology, especially cultural anthropology (which studies behavioural, symbolic, as well as material dimensions of culture) and physical anthropology (which includes the study of human evolution and osteology). Other disciplines also supplement archaeology, such as paleontology (the study of prehistoric life), including paleozoology and paleobotany, geography, geology, history, art history, and classics.

Archaeology has been described as a craft that enlists the sciences to illuminate the humanities.

Archaeology is an approach to understanding lost cultures and the mute aspects of human history, without a cut-off date: in England, archaeologists have uncovered the long-lost layouts of medieval villages abandoned after the crises of the 14th century and the equally lost layouts of 17th-century parterre gardens swept away by a change in fashion. In downtown New York archaeologists have exhumed the 18th-century remains of the Black burial ground.

In the study of relatively recent cultures, which have been observed and studied by Western scholars, archaeology is closely allied with ethnography. This is the case in large parts of North America, the South Pacific, Siberia, and other places. In the study of cultures that were literate or had literate neighbours, history and archaeology supplement one another for broader understanding of the complete cultural context, as at Hadrian's Wall.

Table of contents
1 Importance and applicability
2 Goals
3 Field methods
4 Post-excavation analysis
5 History of archaeology
6 Archaeological theory
7 Relations with the public
8 Related topics
9 External links
10 Further reading

Importance and applicability

Most of human history is not described by any written records. Writing did not exist anywhere in the world until about 5000 years ago, and only spread among a relatively small number of technologically advanced civilisations. These civilisations are, not coincidentally, the best-known; they have been open to the inquiry of historians for centuries, while archaeology has arisen only recently. Even within a civilisation that is literate at some levels, many important human practices are not officially recorded. Any knowledge of the formative early years of human civilisation - the development of agriculture, cult practices of folk religion, the rise of the first cities - must come from archaeology.

Even where written records do exist, they are invariably incomplete or biased to some extent. In many societies, literacy was restricted to the elite classes, such as the clergy or the bureaucracy of court or temple. The literacy even of an aristocracy has sometimes been restricted to deeds and contracts. The interests and world-view of elites are often quite different from the lives and interests of the masses. Any writings that were produced by people more representative of the general population were unlikely to find their way into libraries and be preserved there for posterity. Thus, written records tend to reflect the biases of the literate classes, and cannot be trusted as a sole source. The material record is nearer to a fair representation of society, though it is subject to its own inaccuracies, such as sampling bias and differential preservation.

In addition to their scientific importance, archaeological remains sometimes have political significance to descendants of the people who produced them, monetary value to collectors, or simply strong aesthetic appeal. Many people identify archaeology with the recovery of such aesthetic, religious, political or economic treasures rather than the reconstruction of past societies.

This view is often espoused in works of popular fiction, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy, and King Solomon's Mines where the field has become profitable fodder for entertainment. When such unrealistic subjects are treated more seriously, accusations of pseudoscience are invariably levelled at their proponents (see Pseudoarchaeology, below). However, these endeavours, real and fictional, are not representative of the modern state of archaeology.


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 analyse and keep these remains. Every phase of this process can be a source of information.

The goals of archaeology are not always the same. There are at least three broad, distinct theories of exactly what archaeological research should do. (These are beyond the scope of the present discussion, and are discussed at length below.) Nevertheless, there is much common ground.

Academic sub-disciplines

Archaeological research is sometimes categorised according to the time period that it studies. Certain civilisations have attracted so much attention that their study has been specifically named. These sub-disciplines include Assyriology (Mesopotamia), Classical archaeology (Greece and Rome), and Egyptology (Egypt).

The other main division of archaeology is into historical archaeology, which examines civilisations that left behind written records and prehistoric archaeology, which concerns itself with societies that did not have writing systems. However, the term is generally valid only in Europe and Asia where literate societies emerged without colonial influence. In areas where literacy arrived relatively late, it is more convenient to use other terms to divide up the archaeological record. In areas of semi-literacy the term protohistoric archaeology can be adopted to cover the study of societies with very limited written records. One example of a protohistoric site is Fort Ross on the northern California coast, which included settlements of literate Russians and non-literate American Indians and Alaska nativess.

Ethnoarchaeology is the study of modern societies resembling extinct ones of archaeological interest, for archaeological purposes. It is often difficult to infer solid conclusions about the structure and values of ancient societies from their material remains, not only because objects are mute and say little about those who crafted and used them, but also because not all objects survive to be uncovered by scholars of a later age. Ethnoarchaeology seeks to determine, for instance, what kinds of objects used in a living settlement are deposited in middens or other places where they may be preserved, and how likely an object is to be discarded near to the place where it was used.

Taphonomy is the study of how objects decay and degrade over time. This information is critical to interpretation of artefacts and other objects, so that the work of ancient people can be differentiated from the later work of living creatures and elemental forces.

A selective list of sub-disciplines distinguished by time period or region of study is given below.

The following is a list of other sub-disciplines. Some of these are not areas of study in their own right, and are only methods to be used in larger projects.

There are also a wide variety of techniques used for post-excavation analysis (see below).

Cultural resources management

Cultural resources management (CRM) (also called heritage management in Britain) is a branch of archaeology that accounts for most research done in the United States and much of that in western Europe as well. 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. Along with other statutes, this mandates that no construction project on public land or involving public funds may damage an unstudied archaeological site.

The application of CRM in the United Kingdom is not limited to government-funded projects. Since 1990 PPG 16 has required planners to consider archaeology as a material consideration in determining applications for new development. As a result, numerous archaeological organisations undertake mitigation work in advance of (or during) construction work in archaeologically sensitive areas, at the developer's expense.

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 by human activity, such as proposed construction. This study involves at least a cursory examination to determine whether or not any significant archaeological sites are present in the area affected by the proposed construction. If these do exist, time and money must be allotted for their excavation. If initial survey and/or test excavation indicates the presence of an extraordinarily valuable site, the construction may be prohibited entirely. 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.

Cultural resources management has doubtless mitigated the destruction of the archaeological record by the ever-sprawling works of Western civilisation, but it leaves something to be desired. CRM is conducted by private companies that bid for projects by submitting proposals outlining the work to be done and an expected budget. It is not unheard-of for the agency responsible for the construction to simply choose the proposal that asks for the least funding. CRM archaeologists face considerable time pressure, often being forced to complete their work in a fraction of the time that might be allotted for a purely scholarly endeavour.

Field methods


A modern archaeological project often begins with survey. Regional survey is the attempt to systematically locate previously unknown sites in a region. Site survey is the attempt to systematically locate features of interest, such as houses and middens, within a site. Each of these two goals may be accomplished with largely the same methods.

Survey was not widely practiced in the early days of archaeology. Cultural historians and prior researchers were usually content with discovering the locations of monumental sites from the local populace, and excavating only the plainly visible features there. Gordon Willey pioneered the technique of regional settlement pattern survey in 1949 in the Viru Valley of coastal Peru, and survey of all levels became prominent with the rise of processual archaeology some years later.

Survey work has many benefits if performed as a preliminary exercise to, or even in place of, excavation. It requires relatively little time and expense, because it does not require processing large volumes of soil to search out artefacts. (Nevertheless, surveying a large region or site can be expensive, so archaeologists often employ sampling methods.) It avoids ethical issues (of particular concern to descendant peoples) associated with destroying a site through excavation. It is the only way to gather some forms of information, such as settlement patterns and settlement structure. Survey data are commonly assembled into maps, which may show surface features and/or artefact distribution.

The simplest survey technique is surface survey. It involves combing an area, usually on foot but sometimes with the use of mechanised transport, to search for features or artefacts visible on the surface. Surface survey cannot detect sites or features that are completely buried under earth, or overgrown with vegetation. Surface survey may also include mini-excavation techniques such as augers, corers, and shovel test pits.

Aerial survey is conducted using cameras attached to aircraft, balloons or even kites. A bird's-eye view is useful for quick mapping of large or complex sites. Aerial imaging can also detect many things not visible from the surface. Plants growing above a stone structure, such as a wall, will develop more slowly, while those above other types of features (such as middens) may develop more rapidly. Photographs of ripening grain, which changes colour rapidly at maturation, have revealed buried structures with great precision. Aerial survey also employs infrared, ground-penetrating radar wavelengths, and thermography.

Geophysical survey is the most effective way to see beneath the ground. Magnetometers detect minute deviations in the Earth's magnetic field caused by iron artefacts, kilns, some types of stone structures, and even ditches and middens. Devices that measure the electrical resistivity of the soil are also widely used. Most soils are moist below the surface, which gives them a relatively low resistivity. Features such as hard-packed floors or concentrations of stone have a higher resistivity.

Regional survey in maritime archaeology uses side-scan sonar.


Archaeological excavation existed when the field was still the domain of amateurs, and it remains the source of the majority of data recovered in most field projects. It can reveal several types of information usually not accessible to survey, such as stratigraphy, three-dimensional structure, and verifiably primary context.

Modern excavation techniques require that the precise locations of objects and features, known as their provenance or provenience, be recorded. This always involves determining their horizontal locations, and sometimes vertical position as well. Similarly their association, or relationship with nearby objects and features, needs to be recorded for later analysis. This allows the archaeologist to deduce what artefacts and features were likely used together and which may be from different phases of activity. For example, excavation of a site reveals its stratigraphy; if a site was occupied by a succession of distinct cultures, artefacts from more recent cultures will lie above those from more ancient cultures.

Excavation is the most expensive phase of archaeological research. Also, as a destructive process, it carries ethical concerns. As a result, very few sites are excavated in their entirety. Sampling is even more important in excavation than in survey. It is common for large mechanical equipment, such as backhoes (JCBs), to be used in excavation, especially to remove the topsoil (overburden), though this method is increasingly used with great caution. Following this it is usual to hand-clean the exposed area with trowels or hoes to ensure that all features are apparent.

The next task is to produce a site plan and then use it to help decide the method of excavation. Features dug into the natural subsoil are normally excavated in portions in order to produce a visible archaeological section for recording. Scaled plans and sections of individual features are all drawn on site, black and white and colour photographs of them are taken and recording sheets are filled in describing the context of each. All this information serves as a permanent record of the now-destroyed archaeology and is used in describing and interpreting the site.

Post-excavation analysis

Once artefacts and structures have been excavated, or collected from surface surveys, it is necessary to properly study them, to gain as much data as possible. This process is known as post-excavation analysis, and is normally the most time-consuming part of the archaeological investigation. It is not uncommon for the final excavation reports on major sites to take years to be published.

At its most basic, the artefacts found are cleaned, catalogued and compared to published collections, in order to classify them typologically and to identify other sites with similar artefact assemblages. However, a much more comprehensive range of analytical techniques are available through archaeological science, meaning that artefacts can be dated and their compositions examined. The bones, plants and pollen collected from a site can all be analysed (using the techniques of zooarchaeology, paleobotany and palynology), while any texts can usually be deciphered.

These techniques frequently provide information that would not otherwise be known and therefore contribute greatly to the understanding of a site.

History of archaeology

Main article: History of archaeology

The history of archaeology has been one of increasing professionalisation, and the use of an increasing range of techniques, to obtain as much data on the site being examined as possible.

Excavations of ancient monuments and the collection of antiquities have been taking place for thousands of years, but these were mostly for the extraction of valuable or aesthetically pleasing artefacts.

It was only in the 19th century that the systematic study of the past through its physical remains began to be carried out. Archaeological methods were developed by both interested amateurs and professionals, including Augustus Pitt Rivers and William Flinders Petrie.

This process was continued in the 20th century by such people as Mortimer Wheeler, whose highly disciplined approach to excavation greatly improved the quality of evidence that could be obtained.

During the 20th century, the development of urban archaeology and then rescue archaeology have been important factors, as has the development of archaeological science, which has greatly increased the amount of data that it is possible to obtain.

Archaeological theory

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, medicine, 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 cultural, or culture history. The product of cultural history was to group sites into distinct "cultures", to determine the geographic spread and time span of these cultures, and to reconstruct the interactions and flow of ideas between them. Cultural history, as the name suggests, was closely allied with the science of history. Cultural historians employed the normative model of culture, the principle that each culture is a set of norms governing human behaviour. Thus, cultures can be distinguished by patterns of craftsmanship; for instance, if one excavated sherd of pottery is decorated with a triangular pattern, and another sherd with a chequered pattern, they likely belong to different cultures. Such an approach naturally leads to a view of the past as a collection of different populations, classified by their differences and by their influences on each other. Changes in behaviour could be explained by diffusion whereby new ideas moved, through social and economic ties, from one culture to another.

The Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe was one of the first to explore and expand this concept of the relationships between cultures especially in the context of prehistoric Europe. By the 1920s sufficient archaeological material had been excavated and studied to suggest that diffusionism was not the only mechanism through which change occurred. Influenced by the political upheaval of the inter-war period Childe then argued that revolutions had wrought major changes in past societies. He conjectured a Neolithic Revolution, which inspired people to settle and farm rather than hunt nomadically. This would have led to considerable changes in social organisation, which Childe argued led to a second Urban Revolution that created the first cities. Such macro-scale thinking was in itself revolutionary and Childe's ideas are still widely admired and respected.

In the 1960s, a number of young, primarily American archaeologists, such as Lewis Binford, rebelled against the paradigms of cultural history. They proposed a "New Archaeology", which would be more "scientific" and "anthropological". They came to see culture as a set of behavioural processes and traditions. (In time, this view gave rise to the term processual archaeology). Processualists borrowed from the exact sciences the idea of hypothesis testing and the scientific method. They believed that an archaeologist should develop one or more hypotheses about a culture under study, and conduct excavations with the intention of testing these hypotheses against fresh evidence. They had also become frustrated with the older generation's teachings through which cultures had taken precedence over the people being studied themselves. It was becoming clear, largely through the evidence of anthropology, that ethnic groups and their development were not always entirely congruent with the cultures in the archaeological record.

In the 1980s, a new movement arose led by the British archaeologists Michael Shanks, Christopher Tilley Daniel Miller and Ian Hodder. It questioned processualism's appeals to science and impartiality by claiming that every archaeologist is in fact biased by his or her personal experience and background, and thus truly scientific archaeological work is difficult or impossible. This is especially true in archaeology where experiments (excavations) cannot possibly be repeatable by others as the scientific method dictates. Exponents of this relativistic method, called post-processual archaeology, analysed not only the material remains they excavated, but also themselves, their attitudes and opinions. The different approaches to archaeological evidence which every person brings to his or her interpretation result in different constructs of the past for each individual. The benefit of this approach has been recognised in such fields as visitor interpretation, cultural resource management and ethics in archaeology as well as fieldwork. It has also been seen to have parallels with culture history. Processualists critique it, however, as without scientfic merit. Even if you can't perfectly replicate digs, one should try to follow science as rigorously as possible, they say.

Post-processualism provided an umbrella for all those who decried the processual model of culture, which many feminist and neo-Marxist archaeologists for example believed treated people as mindless automatons and ignored their individuality.

This divergence of archaeological theory has not progressed identically in all parts of the world where archaeology is conducted. Australian archaeologists have embraced post-processualism, while those in the United States freely combine it with older approaches and methods.


Much of the early history of professional archaeology was motivated by an attempt to distance itself from pseudo-archaeologists 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 civilisation. Much contemporary archaeology is influenced by neo-Darwinian evolutionary thought, phenomenology, post-modernism, agency theory, and cognitive science.

Schools of theoretical archaeology

These include:

Relations with the public

Early archaeology was largely an attempt to uncover spectacular artefacts and features, or to explore vast and mysterious abandoned cities. Such pursuits continue to fascinate the public, portrayed in books (such as
King Solomon's Mines) and films (such as The Mummy and Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Much thorough and productive research has indeed been conducted in dramatic locales such as Copán and the Valley of the Kings, but the stuff of modern archaeology is not so reliably sensational. In addition, archaeological adventure stories tend to ignore the painstaking work involved in modern survey, excavation and data processing techniques. Some archaeologists refer to such portrayals as 'pseudoarchaeology'.

Nevertheless, archaeology has profited from its portrayal in the mainstream media. Many practitioners point to the childhood excitement of Indiana Jones films and Tomb Raider games as the inspiration for them to enter the field. Archaeologists are also very much reliant on public support, the question of exactly who they are doing their work for is often discussed. Without a strong public interest in the subject, often sparked by significant finds and celebrity archaeologists, it would be a great deal harder for archaeologists to gain the political and financial support they require.

Where possible, archaeologists now make more provision for public involvement and outreach in larger projects than they once did. However, the move towards being more professional has meant that volunteer places are now relegated to unskilled labour, and even this is less freely available than before. Developer-funded excavation necessitates a well-trained staff that can work quickly and accurately, observing the necessary Health and Safety and indemnity insurance issues involved in working on a modern building site to tight deadlines. Certain charities and local government bodies sometimes offer places on research projects either as part of academic work or as a defined community project. There is also a flourishing industry selling places on commercial training excavations and archaeological holiday tours.

Archaeologists prize local knowledge and often liaise with local historical and archaeological societies. Anyone looking to get involved in the field without having to pay for the privilege should contact a local group.


Main article: Pseudoarchaeology.

Pseudoarchaeology is an umbrella term for all activities that claim to be archaeological but in fact violate commonly accepted archaeological practices. It includes much fictional archaeological work (discussed above), as well as some actual activity. Many non-fiction authors have ignored the scientific methods of processual archaeology, or the specific critiques of it contained in Post-processualism.

An example of this type is the author, Erich von Däniken. His Chariots of the Gods (1968), together with many subsequent, lesser-known works, expounds a theory of ancient contacts between human civilisation on Earth and more technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilisations. (This theory, known as palaeocontact theory, is not exclusively Däniken's.) Works of this nature are usually marked by the renunciation of well-established theories on the basis of limited evidence, and the interpretation of evidence with a preconceived theory in mind.


Looting of archaeological sites by people in search of buried treasure is an ancient problem. For instance, many of the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs were looted in antiquity. The advent of archaeology has made ancient sites objects of great scientific and public interest, but it has also attracted unwelcome attention to the works of past peoples. A brisk commercial demand for artefacts encourages looting and the illicit antiquities trade which smuggles items abroad to private collectors. Looters not only damage the integrity of a historic site and rob local people of their heritage but by removing artefacts from their context, they also deny archaeologists valuable information that would be learnt from excavation.

The popular consciousness may associate looting with poor Third World countries. Many are former homes to many well-known ancient civilisations but lack the financial resources or political will to protect even the most significant sites. Certainly, the high prices that intact objects can command relative to a poor farmer's income make looting a tempting financial proposition for some local people. However, looting has taken its toll in places as rich and populous as the United States and Western Europe as well. Abandoned towns of the ancient Sinagua people of Arizona, clearly visible in the desert landscape, have been destroyed in large numbers by treasure hunters. Sites in more densely populated areas farther east have also been looted. Where looting is prescribed by law it takes place under cover of night, with the metal detector a common instrument used to identify profitable places to dig.

Public outreach

Motivated by a desire to halt looting, curb pseudoarchaeology, and to secure greater public funding and appreciation for their work, archaeologists are mounting public-outreach campaigns. They seek to stop looting by informing prospective artefact collectors of the provenance of these goods, and by alerting people who live near archaeological sites of the threat of looting and the danger that it poses to science and their own heritage. Common methods of public outreach include press releases and the encouragement of school field trips to sites under excavation.

The final audience for archaeologists' work is the public and it is increasingly realised that their work is ultimately being done to benefit and inform them. The social benefits of local heritage awareness are also being recognised with initiatives to increase civic and individual pride through projects such as community excavation projects and better interpretation and presentation of existing sites.

Descendant peoples

In the United States, American Indians tend to mistrust archaeology. This mistrust is well-founded. For years, American archaeologists have been digging up Indian burial grounds and other places considered sacred, and carting away any artefacts and human remains to storage facilities for further study. Adding insult to injury, many skeletons were not even thoroughly studied. Furthermore, Western archaeologists' views of the past are different from those of tribal peoples. The West views time as linear; for natives, it is cyclic. From a Western perspective, the past is long-gone; from a native perspective, disturbing the past can have dire consequences in the present. To an archaeologist, the past is long-gone and must be reconstructed; to a native, it is yet alive.

As a consequence of this misunderstanding, American Indians have often attempted to prevent archaeological excavation of sites inhabited by their ancestors, while American archaeologists have paid them little heed. This situation is beginning to change. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA, 1990), limits the right of research institutions to possess human remains. Due in part to the spirit of postprocessualism, some archaeologists have begun to actively enlist the assistance of native peoples likely to be descended from those under study.

Archaeologists have also been obliged to re-examine what constitutes an archaeological site in view of what native peoples believe to constitute sacred space. To many native peoples, natural features such as lakes, mountains or even individual trees have cultural significance. Australian archaeologists especially have explored this issue and attempted to survey these sites in order to give them some protection from being developed. Such work requires close links and trust between archaeologists and the people they are trying to help and at the same time study.

While this cooperation presents a new set of challenges and hurdles to fieldwork, it has benefits for all parties involved. Tribal elders cooperating with archaeologists can prevent the excavation of areas of sites that they consider sacred, while the archaeologists gain the elders' aid in interpreting their finds. There have also been active efforts to recruit aboriginal peoples directly into the archaeological profession.

Related topics

External links

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