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. The Record of the Past
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.
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
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.