AskDefine | Define archaeologists

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  1. Plural of archaeologist

Extensive Definition

Archaeology, archeology, or archæology (from Greek: αρχαιολογία - archaiologia, from αρχαίος - archaios, "primal, ancient, old" and λόγος - logos, "study") is the science that studies human cultures through the recovery, documentation, analysis and interpretation of material remains and environmental data, including architecture, artifacts, features, biofacts, and landscapes. Because archaeology's aim is to understand mankind, it is a humanistic endeavor.
The goals of archaeology vary, and there is debate as to what its aims and responsibilities are. Some goals include the documentation and explanation of the origins and development of human cultures, understanding culture history, chronicling cultural evolution, and studying human behavior and ecology, for both prehistoric and historic societies. Archaeologists are also concerned with the study of methods used in the discipline, and the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings underlying the questions archaeologists ask of the past. The tasks of surveying areas in order to find new sites, excavating sites in order to recover cultural remains, classification, analysis, and preservation are all important phases of the archaeological process. These are all important sources of information. Given the broad scope of the discipline there is a great deal of cross-disciplinary research in archaeology. It draws upon anthropology, history, art history, classics, ethnology, geography, geology, physics, information sciences, chemistry, statistics, paleoecology, paleontology, paleozoology, paleoethnobotany, paleobotany .

Origins and definitions

In parts of Europe and the Old World, the discipline has its roots in antiquarianism and the study of Latin and Ancient Greek, and so has a natural affinity with the field of history.
Archaeology in ancient China developed from antiquarian pursuits as well, specifically from the scholar-official's desires to revive the use of ancient relics in state ritual. This pursuit of his Chinese peers was criticized by Shen Kuo (1031–1095), who asserted that archaeology should be the pursuit of studying functionality, discovering the methods of manufacture from ancient times, and should be studied with an interdisciplinary approach. Yet there were others who took the discipline as seriously as Shen; the official, historian, poet, and essayist Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072) compiled an analytical catalogue of ancient rubbings on stone and bronze which pioneered ideas in early epigraphy and archaeology.
In North America archaeology is one of the four sub-fields, or branches of anthropology. The other three branches are cultural anthropology, the study of living cultures and societies; linguistics, the study of language, including the origins of language and language groups; and physical anthropology, includes the study of human evolution and physical and genetic characteristics.

Importance and applicability

Often archaeology provides the only means to learn of the existence and behaviors of people of the past. Across the millennia many thousands of cultures and societies and billions of people have come and gone of which there is little or no written record or existing records are misrepresentative or incomplete. Writing as it is known today did not exist in human civilization until the 4th millennium BC, in a relatively small number of technologically advanced civilizations. In contrast Homo sapiens has existed for at least 200,000 years, and other species of Homo for millions of years (see Human evolution). These civilizations are, not coincidentally, the best-known; they are open to the inquiry of historians for centuries, while the study of pre-historic cultures has arisen only recently. Even within a literate civilization many events and important human practices are not officially recorded. Any knowledge of the early years of human civilization – 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 often incomplete and invariably 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 aristocrats 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 populace. 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, assumptions, cultural values and possibly deceptions of a limited range of individuals, usually only a fraction of the larger population. Hence, written records cannot be trusted as a sole source. The material record is closer 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 or cultural 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 with 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. 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 modern archaeology.

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 artifacts.
Johann Joachim Winckelmann is called "the prophet and founding hero of modern archaeology,". Winckelmann was one of the founders of modern scientific archaeology by first applying empirical categories of classical (Greek and Roman) style on a large, systematic basis to the history of art and archetecture.
It was only in the 19th century that the systematic study of the past through its physical remains began to be carried out. A notable early development was the founding in Rome in 1829, by Eduard Gerhard and others, of the Institute for Archaeological Correspondence (Instituto di corrispondenza archeologica or Institut für archäologische Korrespondenz). 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.
Another branch, archaeoastronomy, is not as well known as archaeology, but deals with the study of ancient or traditional astronomies in cultural context.

Archaeological theories

There is no single theory of archaeology, and even definitions are disputed. Until the mid-20th century, there was a general consensus that archaeology was closely related to both history and anthropology.
The first major phase in the history of archaeological theory in the United States developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is commonly referred to as cultural, or culture, history. It is best known for its emphasis on historical particularism.
In the 1920's in the American Southwest cultural historical archaeology was intimately tied with the direct historical approach. This approach continues to be pursued in the American Southwest, the American Northwest Coast, Mesoamerica, the Andes, Oceania, Siberia, and other world areas where there appears to be continuity between living, indigenous populations and archaeological remains of past groups. In pursuing the direct historical approach, ethnohistorical and early historical records play an important role in articulating the connections between modern people and the archaeological past. Literary sources can be used in other contexts as well, for example, in the case of Hadrian's Wall.
In the 1960s, a number of primarily American archaeologists, such as Lewis Binford and Kent Flannery, rebelled against the paradigms of cultural history. They proposed a "New Archaeology", which would be more "scientific" and "anthropological", with hypothesis testing and the scientific method very important parts of what became known as processual archaeology.
In the 1980s, a new postmodern movement arose led by the British archaeologists Michael Shanks, Christopher Tilley, Daniel Miller, and Ian Hodder. It questioned processualism's appeals to scientific positivism and impartiality, and emphasised the importance of a more self-critical theoretical reflexivity. This approach is termed post-processual archaeology. However, this approach has been criticized by processualists as lacking scientific rigor. The validity of both processualism and post-processualism is still under debate.
Historical Processualism is an emerging paradigm that seeks to incorporate a focus on process and post-processual archaeology's emphasis of reflexivity and history.
Archaeological theory now borrows from a wide range of influences, including neo-Darwinian evolutionary thought, phenomenology, postmodernism, agency theory, cognitive science, Functionalism, gender-based and Feminist archaeology, and Systems theory.



Aerial survey is conducted using cameras attached to airplanes, balloons, or even kites. A bird's-eye view is useful for quick mapping of large or complex sites. Aerial photographs are used to document the status of the archaeological dig. Aerial imaging can also detect many things not visible from the surface. Plants growing above a buried man made structure, such as a stone 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 photographs taken at different times of day will help show the outlines of structures by changes in shadows. Aerial survey also employs infrared, ground-penetrating radar wavelengths, and thermography.
Archaeological geophysics can be the most effective way to see beneath the ground. Magnetometers detect minute deviations in the Earth's magnetic field caused by iron artifacts, kilns, some types of stone structures, and even ditches and middens. Devices that measure the electrical resistivity of the soil are also widely used. Archaeological Features whose electrical resistivity contrasts with that of surrounding soils can be detected and mapped. Some archaeological features (such as those composed of stone or brick) have higher resistivity than typical soils , while others (such as organic deposits or unfired clay) tend to have lower resistivity.
Although some archaeologists consider the use of metal detectors to be tantamount to treasure hunting, others deem them an effective tool in archaeological surveying. Examples of formal archaeological use of metal detectors include musketball distribution analysis on English Civil War battlefields, metal distribution analysis prior to excavation of a nineteenth century ship wreck, and service cable location during evaluation. Metal detectorists have also contributed to the archaeological record where they have made detailed records of their results and refrained from raising artifacts from their archaeological context. In the UK, metal detectorists have been solicited for involvement in the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
Regional survey in underwater archaeology uses geophysical or remote sensing devices such as marine magnetometer, side-scan sonar, or sub-bottom sonar.


Archaeological excavation existed even 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 (also see Primary Laws of Archaeology). Similarly, their association, or relationship with nearby objects and features, needs to be recorded for later analysis. This allows the archaeologist to deduce what artifacts 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, artifacts from more recent cultures will lie above those from more ancient cultures.
Excavation is the most expensive phase of archaeological research,in relative terms. Also, as a destructive process, it carries ethical concerns. As a result, very few sites are excavated in their entirety. Again the percentage of a site excavated depends greatly on the country and "method statement" issued. In places 90% excavation is common. 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 rather dramatic step, the exposed area is usually hand-cleaned with trowels or hoes to ensure that all features are apparent.
The next task is to form 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. A feature, for example a pit or a ditch, consists of two parts: the cut and the fill. The cut describes the edge of the feature, where the feature meets the natural soil. It is the feature's boundary. The fill is, understandably, what the feature is filled with, and will often appear quite distinct from the natural soil. The cut and fill are given consecutive numbers for recording purposes. 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.


Once artifacts 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 artifacts found are cleaned, catalogued and compared to published collections, in order to classify them typologically and to identify other sites with similar artifact assemblages. However, a much more comprehensive range of analytical techniques are available through archaeological science, meaning that artifacts can be dated and their compositions examined. The bones, plants and pollen collected from a site can all be analyzed (using the techniques of zooarchaeology, paleoethnobotany, 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.

Academic sub-disciplines

As with most academic disciplines, there are a very large number of archaeological sub-disciplines characterised by a specific method or type of material (e.g. lithic analysis, music, archaeobotany), geographical or chronological focus (e.g. Near Eastern archaeology, Medieval archaeology), other thematic concern (e.g. maritime archaeology, landscape archaeology, battlefield archaeology), or a specific archaeological culture or civilisation (e.g. Egyptology).

Historical archaeology

Historical archaeology is the study of cultures with some form of writing.
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 City archaeologists have exhumed the 18th century remains of the African burial ground.


Ethnoarchaeology is the archaeological study of living people. The approach gained notoriety during the emphasis on middle range theory that was a feature of the processual movement of the 1960's. Early ethnoarchaeological research focused on hunting and gathering or foraging societies. Ethnoarchaeology continues to be a vibrant component of post-processual and other current archaeological approaches.

Experimental archaeology

Experimental archaeology represents the application of the experimental method to develop more highly controlled observations of processes that create and impact the archaeological record. In the context of the context of the logical positivism of processualism with its goals of improving the scientific rigor of archaeological epistemologies the experimental method gained importance. Experimental techniques remain a crucial component to improving the inferential frameworks for interpreting the archaeological record.


Archaeometry is a field of study that aims to systematize archaeological measurement. It emphasizes the application of analytical techniques from physics, chemistry, and engineering. It is a lively field of research that frequently focuses on the definition of the chemical composition of archaeological remains for source analysis.

Cultural resources management

While archaeology can be done as a pure science, it can also be an applied science, namely the study of archaeological sites that are threatened by development. In such cases, archaeology is a subsidiary activity within Cultural resources management (CRM), also called heritage management in Britain. Today, CRM accounts for most of the archaeological research done in the United States and much of that in western Europe as well. In the US, CRM archaeology has been a growing concern since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966, and most taxpayers, scholars, and politicians believe that CRM has helped 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, the NHPA mandates that projects on federal land or involving federal funds or permits consider the effects of the project on each 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.
In England, ultimate responsibility of care for the historic environment rests with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in association with English Heritage. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the same responsibilities lie with Historic Scotland, Cadw and the Environment and Heritage Service (Northern Ireland) respectively.
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, however, been criticized. 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. Compounding the time pressure is the vetting process of site reports which are required (in the US) to be submitted by CRM firms to the appropriate State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). From the SHPO's perspective there is to be no difference between a report submitted by a CRM firm operating under a deadline, and a multi-year academic project. The end result is that for a Cultural Resource Management archaeologist to be successful, they must be able to produce academic quality documents at a corporate world pace.
The annual ratio of open academic archaeology positions (inclusive of Post-Doc, temporary, and non tenure track appointments) to the annual number of archaeology MA/MSc and PhD students is grossly disproportionate. This dearth of academic positions causes a predictable excess of well educated individuals who join the ranks of the following year's crop of non-academically employed archaeologists. Cultural Resource Management, once considered an intellectual backwater for individuals with "strong backs and weak minds" has reaped the benefit of this massive pool of well educated professionals. This results in CRM offices increasingly staffed by advance degreed individuals with a track record of producing scholarly articles but who have the notches on their trowels to show they have been in the trenches as a shovelbum.

Popular views of archaeology

Early archaeology was largely an attempt to uncover spectacular artifacts and features, or to explore vast and mysterious abandoned cities. Such pursuits continue to fascinate the public. Books, films, and video games, such as Indiana Jones, 'King Solomon's Mines, The Mummy, and Tomb Raider'' all testify to the public's interest in the discovery aspect of archaeology.
Much thorough and productive research has indeed been conducted in dramatic locales such as Copán and the Valley of the Kings, but the bulk of activities and finds of modern archaeology are not so sensational. Archaeological adventure stories tend to ignore the painstaking work involved in carrying out modern survey, excavation, and data processing. Some archaeologists refer to such portrayals as "pseudoarchaeology".
Archaeology has been portrayed in the mainstream media in sensational ways. This has its advantages and disadvantages. 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.

Public Archaeology

Motivated by a desire to halt looting, curb pseudoarchaeology, and to help preserve archaeological sites through education and fostering public appreciation for the importance of archaeological heritage, archaeologists are mounting public-outreach campaigns. They seek to stop looting by combatting people who illegally take artifacts from protected sites, and by alerting people who live near archaeological sites of the threat of looting. Common methods of public outreach include press releases, and the encouragement of school field trips to sites under excavation by professional archaeologists. Public appreciation of the significance of archaeology and archaeological sites often leads to improved protection from encroaching development or other threats.
One audience for archaeologists' work is the public. They increasingly realize that their work can benefit non-academic and non-archaeological audiences, and that they have a responsibility educate and inform the public about archaeology. Local heritage awareness is aimed at increasing civic and individual pride through projects such as community excavation projects, and better public presentations of archaeological sites and knowledge.
In the UK, popular archaeology programs such as Time Team and Meet the Ancestors have resulted in a huge upsurge in public interest. Where possible, archaeologists now make more provisions for public involvement and outreach in larger projects than they once did, and many local archaeological organizations operate within the Community archaeology framework to expand public involvement in smaller-scale, more local projects. Archaeological excavation, however, is best undertaken by well-trained staff that can work quickly and accurately. Often this requires observing the necessary health and safety and indemnity insurance issues involved in working on a modern building site with 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, which is one reason why Community archaeology projects are starting to become more common. Often archaeologists are assisted by the public in the locating of archaeological sites, which professional archaeologists have neither the funding, nor the time to do. Anyone looking to participate in archaeological opportunities should contact one of these local societies or organizations.


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 writing of 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, or Ancient astronaut theory, is not exclusively Däniken's, nor did the idea originate with him. 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.
Xenoarchaeology is the hypothetical future examination of the archaeology of extraterrestrials. It is theoretical and based in science fiction work, and is not a recognised sub-discipline of archaeology.
Cryptoarchaeology claims to be a valid form of archaeology, in that it may follow commonly accepted best practices and the scientific method of processual archaeology, though it focuses on anomalous discoveries and other such remains that do not adhere to orthodox theory and thought.




Further reading

External links

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