What is Archaeology?

“You guys dig up dinosaurs, right?”  Upon hearing that dreaded phrase, most archaeologists wish they could throw up their hands and scream a resounding “no!” in that person’s face and walk away.  While that would be satisfying, it’s not exactly helpful in dispelling the numerous myths surrounding our field.  It’s hard to not have the same reaction when hearing about ancient aliens or Indiana Jones.  When thinking about what archaeology is all about (i.e. people, but we’ll come back to this), sometimes it’s easier to consider what archaeology is not.  Archaeology has nothing to do with dinosaurs–paleontologists deal with those giant fossilized birds.  It is always possible, although extremely rare, for a dinosaur bone to pop up in a place where people once lived; someone in the past picked it up and thought, “cool, I’m taking this home.”  In that kind of situation, an archaeologist might have to deal with a dinosaur bone, but a paleontologist will have to be called in to identify whatever ancestor of chickens that bone once belonged to.

An image showing a dinosaur, alien ship above a pyramid, and Indiana Jones crossed out with red x's.
Archaeology has nothing to do with dinosaurs, aliens, or Indiana Jones.

Popular media, such as the History Channel and Discovery Channel, has brought the whole ancient aliens debate to the forefront, driving archaeologists absolutely nuts with trying to combat the theories.  Shows like Ancient Aliens try to convince the viewer that aliens were behind some of the greatest technological advances in history, like the construction of the Great Pyramids.  To be frank, there is no evidence for aliens.  Pyramids are a great way to stack rocks, that’s why there are different kinds of pyramids throughout the world.  The answer is never aliens.  The whole aliens debate is part of a long history to discredit the truly remarkable achievements of past peoples.  Approximately one hundred years ago, the debate was that Egyptians or Romans must have traveled the world to build huge stone structures and pyramids since the ancestors of the local population would have been “too primitive” to create such wonders.  This was all part of dehumanizing indigenous peoples (i.e. part of the history of colonialism within archaeology, but that’s another blog post for another day).  Today, aliens are being used as means to discredit the achievements and relationship with the past of indigenous people. There are a lot of great resources that really get into this topic.

And even though Indiana Jones gets somewhat closer to the truth of what archaeology is all about, he is an absolutely terrible example of an archaeologist.  He stole from indigenous populations, he destroyed archaeological sites, and he was a horrible professor.  Despite Jones’s claim that “it belongs in a museum,” most artifacts could probably stay right where they are, with the people it belongs to, in its country of origin.  Repatriation is all about returning stolen artifacts from other countries (or from indigenous people of that country) and Jones needed to get on board.  Now, he does punch a number of Nazis throughout the Indiana Jones franchise and I think that’s something we can all root for.

So, if it’s not about dinosaurs, aliens, or Indiana Jones, what is archaeology all about?  Archaeology is the study of the human past through what people leave behind.  Unlike history, archaeology is able to go back further in time before the written record and try to understand the lives of our earliest ancestors.  Archaeology encompasses a huge span of time.  Archaeologists can study the earliest stone tools made by our ancestors nearly 1.8 million years ago in Africa to historic tin cans left at cowboy camps in the western USA.  And, there are a variety of unique cultures all over the world to study, from the Romans to the Maya.  Archaeologists are interested in how people lived on different kinds of landscapes, how they shaped their environment, the different kinds of houses they constructed, the tools they made, how they hunted, collected, and/or grew food, what society was like– essentially, what it meant to live in that particular place and time.

The image shows a series of images including an archaeological site of a roman villa with a mosaic, an obsidian blade, clay decorated pottery, a historic log cabin, and an architectural fragment from an Egyptian building that was painted.
Archaeologists study the HUMAN past, which can include the remains of Roman Villas, obsidian stone tools, decorated pottery, historic cabins, and/or fragments of Egyptian art.

There is a lot of jargon in archaeology, such as artifacts to lithic analysisArtifacts are those objects made by human hands that were then thrown away or left behind.  Artifacts can include things like projectile points (i.e. spearheads and arrowheads), pottery, metal tools, baskets, clothing, jewelry, and so much more.  Lithic analysis is the study of stone tools, such as arrowheads, bifaces, unifaces, debitage, cores– more jargon!  The remains of features and structures, such as campfires and houses, help archaeologists understand how people cooked their food and built their homes.  There are a variety of terms when studying pottery fragments (sherds) to the different ways of dating artifacts through tree ring dating (dendrochronology) or organic matter (radiocarbon dating).

Within the field of archaeology, there are a variety of subfields that archaeologists can focus on, such as animal bones (zooarchaeology), human bones (bioarchaeology), shipwrecks or submerged towns (underwater archaeology), and earth sciences (geoarchaeology).  If there’s a particular part of the past you’re interested in, there’s likely a subfield of archaeology associated with that topic.  Just not aliens.  Or dinosaurs.  Let’s look a little more closely at one of these subfields.  As noted, zooarchaeologists study animal bones found in the archaeological record.  What do they do with those bones?  From tiny fragments, zooarchaeologists attempt to discover the types of animals people hunted or domesticated (i.e. sheep); how people butchered those animals with stone or metal tools; where people lived based on the available animals; and so on.  It’s amazing what we can learn from one small fragment of bone!  The most important thing to keep in mind with the field of archaeology, and the many different ways you can study archaeology, is that it’s all about people.

For more information:

What is Archaeology?: https://www.amnh.org/explore/ology/archaeology/what-is-archaeology

Archaeology as a Career: https://www.saa.org/about-archaeology/archaeology-as-a-career

Artifacts: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/artifacts/

Podcast Episodes on different types of archaeology:

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