Archaeology: The Study of Human History


Pottery found at an archaeological dig site.

Archaeology is the study of societies that span the history of mankind. This particular field of knowledge is often considered a branch of anthropology and is a scientific discipline. Archaeologists are working members within the field of archaeology that utilizes various theories and methods in order to obtain information about the past. Methods such as surveying, excavating and gathering and interpreting information are commonly used by archaeologists analyze objects artifacts, inscriptions and monuments. Archaeology is also considered a discipline of humanity because archaeologists study religions, cultural habits, written works, symbols, laws, ancient economies and social characteristics. The field of archaeology has subdivisions which include anthropology, art, history, classics, geology, semiology, physics, chemistry; and many other subdivisions of science and the humanities.

Understanding the World through Archaeology

The study of archaeology is important because it helps modern people to understand how people lived in the past. Archaeology also helps to connect modern man with their ancient counterparts. Many of the cultural and social rights and benefits that modern man enjoys now were first established by people who lived a long a time ago. Aspects of society such as law, taxes and social interaction have always been a part of the existence of man. The field of Archaeology explains and illustrates how these social institutions and components have developed over hundreds or even thousands of years.

Archaeology provides modern people with valuable insight about how the contemporary world is connected to past civilizations. Without the findings and information that archaeologists provide, modern man would have an extremely difficult time understanding the past. Modern man would also have a hard time avoiding major mistakes and situations from the past that has cast a dark shadow over all of humanity. People should also be aware of the fact that archaeology is also necessary for interpreting modern man and his characteristics. Future generations will want to know how contemporary man has lived and archaeologists who are living in the present are currently ensuring that this knowledge will be available for future reference.

Key Members who helped Establish Archaeology

Since time began there have always been people who have surveyed, studied, evaluated and uncovered information about the past. In ancient times people passed down oral traditions of culture and with it their history, origins and religious beliefs. Many of these people have visited ancient sites, tombs, cities and other areas in order to discover past civilizations and people who were alive on the Earth before their time.

As people became more sophisticated in their forms of communication they developed the system of writing. Once man started to record information, they began to categorize and explore many different things including the history of their cultural groups and the world around them. For thousands of years, various cultures and societies have gathered knowledge of the past from their region and different of the world. Many historians who were alive during the Middle Ages traveled throughout the globe gathering first hand information about various cultures and civilizations that were living during and before their time. Historians such as Pliny the Elder, Josephus, Ibn Battuta and even Marco Polo could arguably be considered “archaeologists” because their findings and recordings unearthed a wealth of information that is still being used today because of its credibility.

However, it was not until the late 18th century that modern archaeology was born. A man by the name of William Cunnington had begun to excavate an area in Wiltshire, England around 1798. Cunnington was funded by a benefactor named Sir Richard Colt Hoare to make accurate recordings of Neolithic and Bronze Age barrows. He created the archaeological terms that have come to define this field. His early methods are also still in use within the field of archaeology as well.

Thomas Bateman is another important figure to the development of archaeology because he improved upon Cunnington’s methodology. Bateman conducted archaeological work during the 1840s in Derbyshire, England. His work significantly changed how sites are managed to this era.

The study of stratigraphy is a branch of geology that is used to study rock layers and layering. This sub-discipline of archaeology is important because it helps archaeologists to easily date and classify the types of artifacts that they find during their digs. William Smith, James Hutton and Charles Lyell were three men who managed to develop and integrate this sub discipline into the field of archaeology.

Augustus Pitt Rivers was a 19th century ethnologist who conducted archaeological digs in England. His methodology for dating and classifying artifacts was considered groundbreaking. To this day his methods for classifying objects are still in use.

William Flinders Petrie was a prominent archaeologist who scientifically evaluated the pyramids in Egypt during the late 1880s. His work was so thorough that he influenced modern methodologies that are connected to archaeological discoveries. His work was so prominent that he trained a whole era of archaeologists. Howard Carter was a famous archaeologist’s who learned from Petrie. Carter went to discover the Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb and became a famous all over the world because of his efforts.

Henrich Schliemann, Frank Calvert, Wilhelm Dorpfeld, and Carl Blegen unearthed nine different cities that had been built over the ancient site of Troy. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, provided modern archaeology with the grid system that is used in excavation. Each of these major figures

Types of Archaeology

There are many different types of archaeology disciplines and each one is focused on a particular aspect of the past of the present. Here is a list of some of the major sub-divisions of archaeology.

  • Prehistoric Archaeology

Prehistoric archaeology is the study of the past before written records were first used. Prehistoric archaeologists do not use dates to explain the past before the use of written records. They relay information about the past in terms of cultures. In other words, they inform people about whole societies instead of focusing on select individuals who are representative of a society and era.

  • Historical Archaeology

Historical archaeology focuses on the past from the time of oral traditions and written records. This discipline of archaeology deals with places, issues and things from the past and the present. Archaeologists who work in this particular field conduct their work on ancient or present societies where literacy was common or at least present.

  • Virtual Archaeology

Virtual archaeology is a discipline that uses computer generated graphics to outline sites. This method is used to recreate past environments with 3D rendering software.

  • Underwater (maritime) archaeology

Underwater archaeology is also called maritime archaeology and it is a technique that is used to excavate underwater sites and sites that located near shorelines. Anything material object or location that is located near the water is also areas of maritime archaeology.

Forensic Archaeology

  • Forensic archaeology is a fairly modern discipline within archaeology that uses archaeological investigation techniques in association with historical crimes.
  • Urban

Urban archaeology focuses on cities and towns and the vast amount of material and written information that past people left behind in these places.

  • Industrial

Industrial archaeology is similar to urban archaeology with the exception the focus is exclusively on buildings, machinery, infrastructure and documents. Each of these components must be associated with the extraction, transportation and construction of products or a range of products.

  • Public

Public archaeology produces its findings for the general pubic and not for scholarly or historical information. This is a fairly new type of archaeology where archaeologists use various forms of media such as television, radio and even museums to inform the public about the types of discoveries that they have made.

  • Pseudo

Pseudo archaeology is also fairly new kind of sub discipline within this field that rejects establish forms of archaeological methodology. This form of archaeology also creates unusual theories that are not based on sound principles, ideas or theories.

  • Biblical

Biblical archaeologists unearth artifacts and findings pertaining to the Bible and the Judeo-Christian religion.

  • Cultural Resources Management Archaeology (CRM)

Cultural Resources Management (CRM) archaeology is a discipline that focuses on the traditional and historic culture. Archaeologists who focus in this area analyze current culture, progressive and innovative cultures from the past and present. Individuals who work on this aspect of archaeology manage and teach fine arts and heritage.

  • Processual archaeology

Processual archaeology focuses on the use of constructing the past form artifacts.

  • Post processual archaeology

Post processual archaeology focuses on interpreting the subjectivity of archaeological finds.

Other types of archaeology include bioarchaeology, ethnoarchaeology, experimental archaeology and archaeometry. These are some of the major subdivisions within the field and there are many more.

Archaeology Methods

All archaeologists use specific methods for gathering data. First, they determine an area that will be excavated and then they use various types of technology to help them to map out an area. GPS, mapping stations and gradiometers are some of the equipment and instruments that are used by archaeologists.

After a site has been surveyed, archaeologists will use various excavation methods to retrieve artifacts. These methods typically include site clearing, making a site grid, soil removal and shoring. Techniques such as vertical and open area excavation and trenching are also used to discover artifacts. Once artifacts have been discovered, archaeologists will then categorize them and take soil samples. They will also take photographs, write notes, make drawings and measure areas with GPS technology.

Archaeologists use tools such as penknives, brushes, scalpels, calipers, plumb bobs, daggers, chopsticks and dental picks in order to retrieve objects. Sometimes archaeologists return unearthed artifacts back into the ground. Often time they carefully clean or restore the pieces and store them away for future use.

Archaeological Education and Employment

Archaeology became a credible field of study and profession during the first half of the 20th century. Many universities and colleges added this discipline to their list of courses and developed a standardized curriculum for the profession.

In order for an individual to gain employment within the field archaeology today they must acquire a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral agree. Most archaeology programs require students to complete and pass courses and field work. Requirements vary by institution.

A bachelor’s degree usually allows them an entry level position within the field. Most archaeologists are employed by federal and state government agencies, museums, colleges, universities, engineering firms with CMR divisions and historical sites. Archaeology is not a high paying field, but employees who manage to stay committed to their work for some time could eventually go on to earn as much as $80,000 a year. They also must continue their education in order to obtain an upper level degree in order to make this amount of money.

Most archaeologists work inside of offices, but quite a few work out in the field. Many are employed by the government on development sites and they are also assigned as members of governmental engineering teams that are used for securing or discovering fuel sources. Museums hire archaeologists to categorize and care for their collections and historical pieces. Historical sites need archaeologists to preserve the natural artifacts and surroundings within the area. Archaeologists are also employed by the tourist industry.

The field of archaeology is considered an important and credible line of work though it is not a popular type of employment. Most people who have graduated in the field of archaeology are able to find work. This profession only has a 4% unemployment rate, but once again, the field does not pay a lot of money for entry level workers.

Archaeological Societies

Archaeological societies are beneficial to would be archaeologists because they keep practicing archaeologists and students current with information and current trends within the field of archaeology. Archaeological societies also work closely with government, universities, colleges and museums. Some of these organizations will even let members join who are not directly involved in the field of archaeology.

The field of archaeology is expanding because the need for trained and qualified archaeologist will increase over the coming years. Archaeology is expanding and branching off into different directions as the need for modern archaeology becomes more apparent and as governments continue to search for and secure fuel sources. Recording the present is just as important as keeping track of the past and many archaeologists are now needed for this purpose. Though this field is not all that popular it still continues to gain more notoriety through media outlets such as National Geographic and the History Channel as an exciting and adventurous profession.

Social Sciences | Archaeology

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