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
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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,
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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
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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.
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.
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:
- Could the Past be in Your Future (for Middle School students)
Is the Past in Your Future? (for High School students) from the Society
for American Archaeology
Archaeology from the Society for Historical Archaeology.
Click here for more Lesson Plans and Activities
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