Archaeology is an interesting area of study: an academic subject, albeit one that is most commonly associated with fieldwork. It seems to be fundamentally connected with the quest for buried treasure, lost cities, and priceless artifacts. This naturally overlooks the fact that archaeology is an academic study first and foremost, and most of what archaeologists do does not involve glamorous adventures.
There is something fascinating about the fact that you can dig below the surface and find evidence of humans from history: standing where they stood, seeing where they lived, ate, and slept. Archaeology provides a way for us to connect with people from the past at an individual level and find out incredible details about their everyday lives.
Knowing details about their daily life makes them seem both familiar and alien at the same time. This juxtaposition is what makes archaeology so captivating.
When you think of an archaeologist, the popular image is probably that of Indiana Jones, toiling over the excavation of a priceless relic in an exotic location before embarking on adventures to keep the artifact out of the wrong hands.
This is obviously a Hollywood exaggeration about the lives of archaeologists, although there is a kernel of truth to it: the job of an archaeologist is to uncover historical objects from the ground to increase knowledge of human history.
Archaeology, therefore, refers to the study of human remains through tangible, material remains. Anatomically modern humans have existed for around 300,000 years, and roughly 50,000 of that have demonstrated modern behaviors.
Humans have been ‘civilized’ for just over 3,000 years, with cities and written language developing in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley in roughly the same period.
The birth of cities and larger settlements created a wealth of information for archaeologists to uncover. An archaeologist may undertake fieldwork to find out more about buildings in the twentieth century, showing that it doesn’t have to involve studying things from the distant past.
The history of
The history of archaeology as a subject dates from the Renaissance when European people ‘rediscovered’ the culture of the Greeks and Romans. The desire to access and possess ancient statues and other materials led to people digging up former Greek and Roman settlements.
Early archaeology, therefore, was no different from art collection. This fueled the growth in the field, particularly in the 18th Century, when the Queen of Naples funded an excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum – two cities that had been buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, teams of archaeologists began to dig up the treasures of the Ancient Egyptians. The Sphinx was uncovered after having been buried in the sand for centuries.
Perhaps the most famous archaeological discovery of the period was the Rosetta Stone, which contained writing in Egyptian hieroglyphics and Ancient Greek. By comparing the two, linguists were able to decipher this previously unknown language.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, archaeologists began to discover more and more historic artifacts, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. The discovery of the Valley of the Kings and Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 was the most famous example of this (and perhaps explains why archaeology and treasure hunting are linked in the popular imagination).
Archaeology soon spread beyond the Middle East, with excavations in China, Pakistan, and Scandinavia all finding examples of settlements which give clues as to the lives of ancient peoples.
Modern archaeology utilizes technology such as satellite imaging and online cataloging, meaning that archaeologists can now better predict where objects are before digging and can share knowledge more readily. However, the fundamentals of archaeology have not changed, in that it still involves searching for priceless artifacts hidden under the ground, at subterranean levels.
One of the most common misconceptions about archaeologists is that they search for dinosaur bones. This is incorrect – people who search for dinosaur bones are called paleontologists.
Both are involved in digging up objects from below the ground: the key difference is that archaeologists are looking for evidence of human life, paleontologists are looking for evidence of pre-human life.
Because of the rarity of preserving bones from large animals, paleontologists often have to fly to specific locations to search for dinosaur bones, although smaller fossils are more common and are often preserved in more accessible locations.
By contrast, archaeologists are able to find items more commonly, because they are looking for much for recent objects. Archaeologists work in terms of centuries (or sometimes even decades); paleontologists measure things in millions of years.
As a rule of thumb to help you remember:
if it’s a human, it’s archaeology,
if it’s a dinosaur, it’s paleontology.
Anthropology is a further related field. Anthropology refers to the study of human society. The best way to think of anthropology is the study of humans as a species (in the same way you would study an animal). Anthropology therefore also studies contemporary societies, not just historical ones.
An anthropologist would be interested in an archaeologist’s findings, although would be interested in the implications for what it tells us about human society, rather than just the context it provides on human history.
Within the wider field of archaeology, there are four main branches. Each of these takes into account a different area of study and uses different approaches (a lot different in the case of underwater archaeology). Each still fundamentally deals with the idea of uncovering historical information from below the ground. The four main types are:
Classical archaeology refers to the study of architecture from the ‘classical period’ – Ancient Greece and Rome. Classical architecture was the first type of architecture, as historians in the nineteenth century began to investigate the sites from Greek and Roman literature.
The classical period covers roughly 2,000 years from 1500 BCE to 500 CE. Most of this archaeology takes place in the modern-day countries of Greece and Rome, as well as the wider Mediterranean region (many sites, such as the historic city of Troy are in modern-day Turkey).
Historical archaeology is the broadest form of archaeology, encompassing all historical periods outside of the classical period. These type of archaeology attempts to find artifacts that give evidence of the lives of people throughout history.
A lot of historical archaeology center on discovering cultures and rituals and other daily behaviors for societies across the world.
As the name suggests, underwater archaeology refers to excavating artifacts from under the water.
Most of it centers on looking for cities and other sites that have been buried by the water – most often by the sea. In addition, some underwater archaeology looks for and explores shipwrecks.
Because of the nature of underwater archaeology, it is a very niche pursuit often involving very expensive equipment. Underwater archaeologists often use echolocation or other technologies to scan the sea (or lake) floor, before sending down divers using SCUBA equipment.
Underwater archaeology can, by nature of its location, be extremely dangerous, particularly because archaeologists often have to explore structurally unsound surfaces in areas of limited visibility and at significant depths.
Although it is dangerous, underwater archaeology can uncover extremely interesting pieces of evidence. Archaeologists occasionally find evidence of objects being traded that suggest connections between very disparate cultures. By piecing together these trade networks, we can build a picture of historical connections across the globe.
Ethno-archaeology is a relatively modern branch of archaeology and attempts to study contemporary cultures to gain a sense of how historical cultures operated.
Many ethno-archaeologists, for example, look at modern hunter-gatherer tribes, in an attempt to understand how the first humans behaved when they were hunter-gatherers.
By looking at hunting techniques, weapons technology, and family organization, ethno-archaeologists can make evidence-based assumptions about humans from the Neolithic period.
Many of these ethno-archaeologists live with the people they are observing, allowing them to see all aspects of their lives. By living closely with these people, ethno-archaeologists can look at typical practices and compare that with objects they have discovered to determine potential uses.
Archaeological sites can be literally anywhere that humans have ever been to. However, most archaeology involves looking at permanent settlements of historical regions. Because of the difficulties of digging up urban areas, the largest archaeological sites are often in areas where cities once were but are no longer.
Occasionally, in cities such as London or Rome, with long histories of occupation, a major building project may give archaeologists an opportunity to search and explore for historical items.
Archaeologists can be found on every continent. In 2018, NASA imaging showed geometric shapes more than a mile below the ice in Antarctica. Archaeologists from around the world examined the shapes, and many came to believe that it was evidence of an ancient civilization. Because of the remote location, and the difficulty of digging so far down, it is unlikely that archaeologists will be able to access the site in the immediate future.
However, it demonstrates that archaeological sites exist across the globe. Indeed, in the future, it is likely that international archaeologists will be excavating sites on other planets, searching for the existence of life.
Ultimately, one of the interesting aspects of archaeology is the fact that it relies on material culture; that is, it is based on finding specific objects. Unlike historians, who may analyze writings or myths, or anthropologists, who study behaviors and rituals, archaeologists study material objects.
While this makes things more tangible, it often means that archaeologists are forced to extrapolate whole cultures and societies based on single items. One way to understand archaeology is as the study of objects and the study of a culture’s material goods.
A fun way to get kids interested in archaeology is to set up a digging area in your backyard, sandbox, or designated area.
Note: make sure you are not digging near any water or electrical lines.
Here are some ideas for making this a fun activity for kids:
Before the kids arrive, place objects in the ground that will be fun for them to find. These objects could be interesting rocks, toys, or a painted pot or planter that has been broken into many pieces.
The idea here would be for them to find all of the pieces and put it back together.
Give them plastic shovels. This is a light activity and kids do not need to be wielding hard metal shovels.
Teach them how to dig like an archaeologist by first gently removing the topsoil and carefully uncovering the object, as objects that have been in soil for long periods of time can become brittle.
Once all of the pieces have been dug up, they can brush them off with a clean paint brush and put them back together like a puzzle.
If you do not want to dig in your backyard, you can create little digging areas of sand and dirt in small buckets or bins in your basement.
The basement is a great place, because you are already underground, which adds to the effect, and it is often a place where things can get a little messy without stress.
Archaeology provides more context to a given historical period. As already mentioned, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone allowed linguists to crack the secrets of the hieroglyphic language.
Other archaeological findings, such as the Terracotta Warriors of Qin Shi Huang allow us to understand the grandiose burial rituals of historical emperors.
Macchu Picchu was also rediscovered by American archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911. This allowed historians to understand just how advanced and powerful the Incan civilization was in its mid-fifteen century zenith.
Less glamorous, or famous, archaeological discoveries allow us to understand how people lived, worshipped, traded, and died. Ultimately, this is the cornerstone of what history is.
Archaeology is one of the most fascinating fields of study for someone interested in history, culture, or society. Although it may not ever meet the dramatic levels of an ‘Indiana Jones’ movie, there is something extremely adventurous about digging up historical treasures from below the ground.
The idea of re-discovering something that belonged to someone centuries ago provides a connection that it isn’t always possible to get from studying history books.
Archaeology also allows for the ability to do detective work. To take a fragment of a pot or a corner of a foundation stone, and to extrapolate and build a picture of a whole town or a culture provides endless fascination.
Archaeology allows you to time travel, discover buried treasure, and to play detective. It’s truly a remarkable area of study that continues to open our eyes to new truths.
Sources and Further Reading