Archaeology is the study of the ancient and recent human past through material remains. It is a subfield of anthropology, the study of all human culture. From million-year-old fossilized remains of our earliest human ancestors in Africa, to 20th century buildings in present-day New York City, archaeology analyzes the physical remains of the past in pursuit of a broad and comprehensive understanding of human culture.
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How does archaeology help us understand history and culture?
Archaeology offers a unique perspective on human history and culture that has contributed greatly to our understanding of both the ancient and the recent past. Archaeology helps us understand not only where and when people lived on the earth, but also why and how they have lived, examining the changes and causes of changes that have occurred in human cultures over time, seeking patterns and explanations of patterns to explain everything from how and when people first came to inhabit the Americas, to the origins of agriculture and complex societies. Unlike history, which relies primarily upon written records and documents to interpret great lives and events, archaeology allows us to delve far back into the time before written languages existed and to glimpse the lives of everyday people through analysis of things they made and left behind. Archaeology is the only field of study that covers all times periods and all geographic regions inhabited by humans. It has helped us to understand big topics like ancient Egyptian religion, the origins of agriculture in the Near East, colonial life in Jamestown Virginia, the lives of enslaved Africans in North America, and early Mediterranean trade routes. In addition archaeology today can inform us about the lives of individuals, families and communities that might otherwise remain invisible.
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Types of Archaeology
Prehistoric archaeology focuses on past cultures that did not have written language and therefore relies primarily on excavation or data recovery to reveal cultural evidence. Historical archaeology is the study of cultures that existed (and may still) during the period of recorded history--several thousands of years in parts of the Old World, but only several hundred years in the Americas. Within historical archaeology there are related fields of study that include classical archaeology, which generally focuses on ancient Greece and Rome and is often more closely related to the field of art history than to anthropology, and biblical archaeology, which seeks evidence and explanation for events described in the Bible and therefore is focused primarily on the Middle East. Underwater archaeology studies physical remains of human activity that lie beneath the surface of oceans, lakes, rivers, and wetlands. It includes maritime archaeology—the study of shipwrecks in order to understand the construction and operation of watercraft—as well as cities and harbors that are now submerged, and dwellings, agricultural, and industrial sites along rives, bays and lakes. Some of the other specialties within archaeology include urban archaeology, industrial archaeology, and bioarchaeology. Cultural Resource Management archaeology, known as “CRM” refers to archaeology that is conducted to comply with federal and state laws that protect archaeological sites.
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An archaeological site is any place where physical remains of past human activities exist. There are many, many types of archaeological sites. Prehistoric archaeological sites include permanent Native American villages or cities, stone quarries from which raw materials were obtained, rock art petrogylphs and pictographs, cemeteries, temporary campsites, and megalithic stone monuments. A site can be as small as a pile of chipped stone tools left by a prehistoric hunter who paused to sharpen a spear point, or as large and complex as the prehistoric settlements of Chaco Canyon in the American southwest, or Stonehenge in England. Historical archaeology sites can be found in areas as densely populated as New York City, or far below the surface of a river, or sea. The wide variety of historical archaeological sites studied include shipwrecks, battlefields and other military sites, slave quarters, plantations, cemeteries, mills, and factories.
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Artifacts, Features, and Ecofacts
Even the smallest archaeological site may contain a wealth of important information. Artifacts are objects made or used by people that are analyzed by archaeologists to obtain information about the peoples who made and used them. Non-portable artifacts called features are also important sources of information on archaeological sites. Features include things like soil stains that indicate where storage pits, garbage dumps, structures, or fences once existed. Ecofacts found on archaeological sites are natural remains such as plant and animal remains that can help archaeologists understand diet and subsistence patterns.
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Context in archaeology refers to the relationship that artifacts have to each other and the situation in which they are found. Every artifact found on an archaeological site has a precisely defined location. The exact spot where an artifact is found is recorded before it is removed from that location. In the 1920s when a stone spear point was found lodged between the ribs of a species of bison that went extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, it settled an argument that had gone on for decades, establishing once and for all that that people had inhabited North America since the late Pleistocene. It is the context or association between the bison skeleton and the artifact that proved this. When people remove an artifact without recording its precise location the context is lost forever and the artifact has little or no scientific value. Context is what allows archaeologists to understand the relationship between artifacts on the same site, a well as how different archaeological sites are related to each other.
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- The Draw-an-Archaeologist Test by Dr. Susan Dixon-Renoe
This activity, which helps to elicit student misconceptions about archaeology, can be used as a pre-unit activity as well as a concluding activity for an archaeology unit.
- Myths and Misconceptions
Check out how much you know about what archaeologist do and don’t do!
- Artifact Interpretation
A simple exercise that demonstrates the amount of information that the study of a single artifact – a coin – can yield about a society.
- How is this Used?
In this lesson students observe the form and shapes of tools of the past and make predictions about tool functions based on contemporary examples.
(Adapted from Intrigue of the Past, Smith et. al. 1996.)
This classroom activity uses a game and a discussion to demonstrate the importance of artifacts in context for learning about the past.
- Archaeology and You
This booklet from National Geographic Society and the Society for American Archaeology is designed to serve as a single reference about all aspects of the science of the past. Its topics range from basic definitions of archaeology, anthropology, and related disciplines to detailed glimpses at what archaeologists do and why they do it.
- Explore careers in archaeology with your students using these brochures:
The Path to Becoming an Archaeologist from the Society for American Archaeology
Underwater Archaeology and Careers in Historical Archaeology from the Society for Historical Archaeology.