What is Archaeology?

Archaeology is complex and simple. Scientific and artistic. To discover the lives of those that lived in the past we as archaeologists must destroy the areas in which they flourished. It is often called a “destructive science,” and with good reason.

The Four Branches

Archaeology (equally interchangeable with Americanized ‘archeology’) is a subset of Anthropology, which seeks to understand humans and how they live. We study cultures near and far, alive or dead. There are four main branches of Anthropology: Cultural (or ethnographic) anthropologists go “into the field” to observe and learn about cultures in the present day. Linguistic anthropologists study languages and how communication structures and influences society. Biological anthropologists study the human body and how evolution over the last millennia have shaped us as a species. Archaeology, as the fourth subset of Anthropology, seems to include each of the other subsets, but is most similar to cultural anthropology in that we study and observe cultures around the world, it is only that our subjects are long dead. To learn about the lives of those that are no longer here to tell us, we must look at what they have left behind. The remains, also called material culture, is any physical object that is found in an excavation that has withstood the test of time (i.e., decay). For prehistoric archaeologists like myself, common artifacts are projectile point/knives and ceramic pottery.

Material Culture and the Social Sciences

For much of the public, digging is what comes to mind when they hear about archaeology. And, yes, digging is a part of the process. But archaeologists study material culture in its relation not only to the people in which they are researching, but also of the landscape in which it was found. As a destructive science, archaeologists must be sure of what they are looking for, why they are looking for it, and what they hope to do with what they find before the first shovel is put into the earth. Artifacts and materials that are found within excavations are used to help answer these questions. But the artifacts themselves aren’t the only thing we are looking for. Their location within the site is just as key as the artifact itself.

Finding a cluster of ceramics in one area, and a cluster of chert flakes (tiny pieces of modified rock, usually found in tool making contexts) in another is important to map correctly. Ceramics signify cooking, home life. Chert flakes signify tool making, hunting, and the sharp flakes would not be close to a home environment.

Looting is an extreme concern for archaeologists because of this context they can add. Projectile points and decorated pottery are beautiful and exciting objects to find, which is why they are usually picked up and taken as a souvenir. But taking these artifacts away from their context could possibly mean a loss of significant cultural data. Archaeologists could lose a date range, a distinct culture group, or whether the site had been a home or tool making area.

Archaeologists do not take material culture as a reminder of a great dig, or because it is pretty (I mean, that’s just an added bonus). We uncover these artifacts to find out about who these people were, when they lived, and how these pieces of the puzzle were a part of their daily lives. Archaeologists seek to understand the cultures of the past that are not here to speak for themselves. That is why the material artifacts are so important, they are our version of personal interaction to discover the mysteries of the past.

Tricks of the Trade

To study the many different types of material culture found in excavations, Archaeology has many sub-branches. Bio-archaeology, geo-archaeology, zooarchaeology, landscape archaeology, maritime archaeology, archaeometry, ethnoarchaeology, to name quite a few. This does not even begin to cover the cultural or temporal distinctions by region or country. Archaeology is heavily interdisciplinary, incorporating geology, geography, mathematics, English/writing, physics, chemistry, art, and on and on. Each branch calls for their specific distinctions, but archaeology at its basest level will always include each of these subjects in order to complete a full excavation.

All areas of these sciences and arts are used to study human cultures of the past, present, and even used to warn us about the future (how humans react and adapt to climate change, anyone?).

So, what is Archaeology, exactly?

It is scientific research of the past cultures through the study of what is left behind in the earth. The study of human behavior over time starting with evidence left behind by the first peoples.

In a future post, I will go through the (southeastern prehistoric) step-by-step archaeological process from project design to excavation. Stay tuned!


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