What is Archaeology?

What is Archaeology?

The popular image of archaeology seems to be of treasure hunters or dusty professors commanding an army of laborers in the excavation of a lost civilization in a strange and exotic land. That sounds exciting, but it is not exactly accurate. Perhaps we should start with what archaeology is not. It is not “Indiana Jones” or “Tomb Raider,” and it is not pot hunting or grave robbing. None of that is science. It is not geology, the study of the earth and its mineral components, and it is not paleontology, the study of plant and animal fossil remains. Although these are also scientific disciplines, and archaeologists do sometimes deal with rocks and fossils, they are not archaeology.

So what is archaeology? Archaeology is the study of cultures that lived in the past. It is a subfield of anthropology, the study of human cultures. The other subfields are cultural anthropology that studies living cultures, physical anthropology that studies human biology and where humans fit among the living and extinct species of our family tree, and linguistics that studies human language. Archaeology is primarily concerned with reconstructing extinct cultures from the material remains of past human behavior, or the things people made or used and left behind. These remains are called artifacts. Much of what we see around us – computers, clothing, food, books, and buildings – are artifacts. Even natural objects, like a stick of wood or a piece of bone, are artifacts if humans have used them for some purpose.

From these artifacts archaeologists build a model of what a culture was like. Archaeologists look for patterns in the artifacts they study that give them clues about how the people who made and used them lived. For instance, the way people made pottery in the southwest changed over time, reflecting their skill, different technologies used to produce it, the ways they used designs and other decorations, and how they used the pottery.

There are several different kinds of archaeology: prehistoric, historic, classical, and underwater, to name a few. These often overlap. For example, when archaeologists studied the wreck of the Civil War ironclad, the Monitor, they were doing both historic and underwater archaeology. The two main types are prehistoric and historic archaeology. Prehistoric archaeology refers to the study of human prehistory, or the period of human history before written records existed. This comprises most of our human past. The human family can be traced back at least five million years. The first modern humans appeared about fifty thousand years ago. Human did not start writing things down until 5,200 years ago. That leaves many thousands of years of human experience that was not recorded.

Historic archaeology studies that portion of the human past that has written records. While it shares many of the techniques used in prehistoric archaeology, written records give historic archaeology an advantage in it research. In Europe, archaeology is not a subfield of anthropology, but oh history. This is because most cultures in the Old World had written languages. But archaeologists in the New World did not have that resource, with the exception of Mesoamerican archaeologists studying the Maya whose hieroglyphic language has only recently been deciphered. Because of this difference, New World archaeologists have more in common with anthropologists than they do with historians in many cases. Classical archaeology may be considered a branch of historic archaeology that studies the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, including Greece and Rome. Egyptology can also be considered a branch of historic archaeology. In North America, historic archaeologists study colonial sites like Jamestown or Salem, or Civil War sites like the Gettysburg Battlefield.

Prehistoric archaeology has similar divisions. There are Paleoindian archaeologists who study the first populations that migrated to the Americas. There are Mesoamerican archaeologists, Southwestern archaeologists, South American archaeologists, and many more, who concentrate on specific cultures and time periods. But when all the various branches are boiled down, they all must rely on evidence from the archaeological record. This means artifacts, the place they were found, and with what they were found. Even in sites for which there are written records, there is a great deal of information left out. For instance, Thomas Jefferson kept meticulous records for his Monticello estate, but what was life really like for one of his slaves? How did the field hands live? It was the archaeological excavations of slaves’ quarters at Monticello that helped to shed light on the lives of those who could not tell their own story. Another example is the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. We have the dramatic accounts from the Roman historians about what happened to these communities when Vesuvius erupted, but it was not until archaeologists began to uncover Pompeii and Herculaneum that we really began to understand this catastrophic event and perhaps more importantly, how Romans lived their everyday lives. Archaeologists use many kinds of evidence to reconstruct the past. The excavations at Pompeii utilized the classical written accounts, state of the art geology to understand the layers of volcanic debris, physical and forensic anthropology to study the human remains, and art conservators to uncover the beauty of a Roman city that was frozen in time.


The Record of the Past

So how do archaeologists study the past? The record of the past, or archaeological record, is fragmentary at best. Most of the material objects left behind are perishable. Organic materials like food or clothing decay and disappear. But some artifacts, such as pottery, stone, and bone are not as perishable, and a great deal of information about past cultures can be gleaned from them. Stone tools can tell archaeologists about types of food resources utilized – flaked stone projectile points for hunting, ground stone for grinding corn. Different types of structures can tell archaeologists about social organization. A pithouse, for instance, indicates a small family unit while a pueblo indicates a much larger and more complex social group. And an understanding of when certain artifacts appear in the archaeological record tells archaeologists when a site was occupied.

The most basic place archaeologists study is called the site. A site is any location where there is evidence of human activity. This can be a small campsite with a scatter of flaked stone indicating tools were being manufactured or modified, or it can be as large and complex as Chaco Canyon with hundreds of structures and millions of artifacts. One kind of archaeological evidence is called a feature by archaeologists, and is a non-portable group of artifacts. Features can be hearths, storage pits, architectural structures, burial mounds, or a cluster of petroglyphs at a rock art site. Evidence can also be gathered from seeds, pollen, snail shells, or animal bones that were not directly used by humans but can tell archaeologists about the diet of the people who occupied a site and what the environment was like when they lived there.

Perhaps the most important part of understanding the past is how artifacts are placed in time and space. This relationship is called context. It is based on the geological law of association, which states that objects found in the same geological level are contemporary with each other. Also, objects found in lower layers are older than those found in above them according to the geological law of superposition. These laws help the archaeologists to establish artifacts within a framework of time and space. Context is everything to an archaeologist. Without it artifacts are just objects that provide little more than general information about their function or the people who made them.

Archaeologists conducting test excavations
Archaeologists conducting test excavations
at a site near Deming, New Mexico.
Archaeologists are like detectives. They use artifacts and the sites the artifacts come from as clues to the past. By definition an artifact is something either made or used by a human, so archaeologists try to determine what its function or purpose was in a variety of ways. For example, the form of a ceramic vessel can indicate its function. A jar could have been used for storage or cooking. Where the jar was found – near a hearth – could further point toward a cooking function. Some artifacts, like projectile points, stone knives, or ax blades demonstrate their function more clearly, but the function of others can be much less clear, at least to modern eyes. The famous “Venus” figurines manufactured by the first modern humans across Europe twenty to thirty thousand years ago are such artifacts. Animal effigies made of stone or bone or ceramic are also examples of objects whose purpose is unknown. These artifacts are often referred to as ritual, ceremonial, symbolic, or artistic by archaeologists for lack of a better word. Archaeology may never be able to explain such artifacts to any greater degree, but there are instances when new evidence sheds light on an artifact, turning a strange lump of etched rock into a Rosetta Stone.