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What is Archaeology?

Machu Picchu

In a previous blog post, you learned that Archaeology is one of the 4 fields of Anthropology. But what exactly is it?

Archaeology has been called “past tense of Cultural Anthropology.” Cultural Anthropologists study living people, while Archaeologists study the things that people left behind, which are called material culture. Material culture can include buildings, tools, weapons, pots, and many other artifacts.

Archaeology. Image of a rock cliff and houses built into the rocks.

Archaeologists study all past cultures, including those with written history and those without written history. We only have written evidence from past societies starting from about 3,000 B.C., so material remains are the only source of information about people before that point. 

There are several specializations within Archaeology. Some archaeologists focus on certain time periods, such as the Paleolithic (before 10,000 years ago) or Classical Greece. Some archaeologists focus on certain geographical areas, such as Egypt or China. 

Archaeology. Image of an ancient theater in Greece.

Some specializations are not related to time or geography, such as environmental archaeology or underwater archaeology. Environmental archaeology studies how humans used plants and animals, while underwater archaeology focuses on material culture found under the ocean. 

Other specializations include bioarchaeology (the study of bones and other biological remains), geoarchaeology (geological science applied to archaeology), and archaeogenetics (using molecular genetics to study the past).

Archaeology. Image of a projectile point ("arrowhead").

There is even something called experimental archaeology, where archaeologists test hypotheses by recreating things from the past. For example, some archaeologists create replicas of projectile points (“arrowheads”) to study how they are made and used. 

Archaeologists ask lots of questions about the past, including:

  • What were the people like?
  • What was the environment they were living in?
  • What time period were they alive in?
  • What did people eat?
  • How did they make and use tools?
  • What contact did they have with other people?
  • What did they think?
Archaeology. Image of a person scrubbing artifacts that were excavated.

Archaeologists then use excavation (“digging things up”) to find things that can be used to answer all these kinds of questions. Archaeologists also spend a lot of time in laboratories, analyzing the evidence that they found during excavation. They interpret the material culture and try to reconstruct the past. 

Want to learn more? Check out the Archaeology magazine, a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America at this link.

Thanks for reading!

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