What is Archaeology?

I recently realized that I’ve spent a lot of time writing and discussing the act of doing  archaeology, but I haven’t done much to explain what archaeology actually is.

At first thought, the question seems simple and obvious: “You know, Indiana Jones and digging and stuff…” Sure, Harrison Ford did play an “archaeologist” in the epic movie series, but when people bring him up I always come back with “kind of, but I shoot a lot less brown people;” I also steal less artifacts than he did (That’s actually an important point that I’ll touch on in a later post).

Harrison-Ford-as-Indiana-Jones-in-Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark
Pictured: Artifacts being stolen.

Also, I can only remember one scene where Indy did any actual excavation. While that’s reflective of the workflow of real archaeology (only a minority of our time is spent in the field doing excavation), I can guarantee that Spielberg and Lucas weren’t trying to capture the model for an academic archaeologist conducting research and investigation.

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Even when you’re in the field, there’s still plenty of not-digging to be done.

So the whole digging and Indiana Jones answer is a bit simplistic. What’s a better answer? “You look for old stuff like dinosaur bones and ancient ruins, right?” Sure…but no. To be clear, dinosaur bones are things that Paleontologists study and find.

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Dr. Grant from Jurassic Park was a Paleontologist. Unlike him, I don’t get chased by velociraptors.

There’s a huge biology element that separates Paleontology from Archaeology, with only a tiny bridge of interdisciplinary fellowship thanks to our Paleobotanist, Archaeozoologist, and Paleoanthropologist colleagues. A more traditional definition of the role of an archaeologist will certainly include something about ancient ruins, but we still need to refine what we’re talking about.

If you’re a little annoyed by now, whether it’s with me for pretentiously debunking the layman’s understanding of archaeology or with the layman for not understanding what archaeology is, that’s OK. Explaining what we do and how it is important is an ever present failing of the discipline. It’s also worth mentioning that I have had many colleagues, supervisors, and even instructors who, in my opinion, missed the mark in creating a comprehensive and meaningful definition for archaeology. There was a point where I was involved with a committee of graduate students aspiring to write a departmental archaeology textbook. The project had been inexplicably stalled for years and when a fellow student and I had sat down to write the introductory chapter, we literally couldn’t get past the first two words: “Archaeology is…”

To be fair, anyone trying to concisely and comprehensively explain “what they do” to someone not of their field should be challenged. For Archaeology, this is especially true because of its interdisciplinary nature; that is, Archaeology borrows theory, methods, research questions, and outcomes from many different fields. Reading a selection of archaeological journal articles should make you feel like you’ve just read some history, sociology, theology and religion, philosophy, anthropology, chemistry and physics, geography, geology, biology, and, hell, I’ve even seen the occasional sprinkle of astronomy. That’s a whirlwind of topics but it’s actually par for the course in humanities disciplines. Why? Well, modern humanities is about researching and exploring us. Humanities is all about understanding the human condition, seeking deeper meaning in how we perceive and shape the world around us and, hopefully, provide a little self awareness in how perceive and shape the world in the present and future.

OK, so what is Archaeology? Here’s my best shot at a definition:

Archaeology is an interdisciplinary, humanities-rooted profession that focuses on humanity’s past with a special interest in understanding and attributing meaning to the experiences of past individuals and their interactions with each other and their environment. Archaeological research varies in scale from focusing on the presence, impact, and perception of a single person to the relationships and events that occurred between multiple state-entities. As a discipline, it is unique in that it applies the scientific method to the recovery and analysis of material remains from past human activity to answer these questions.

Archaeology was not always so complex or reflective, however. It has origins in antiquarianism, imperialism, aristocratic society, and autocratic politics. As a discipline, its development is inextricably tied to a fascination with history that extends to even before Herodotus, enlightenment philosophy of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the development of modern museum institutions. Archaeology has been, and sometimes still is, used to justify the policies of oppressive regimes and to validate racist ideologies. Nevertheless, archaeology is relevant and holds the potential to add value to present day society and culture.

In future posts, we’ll expand on these topics. For now, hopefully, we’ve settled on a definition of archaeology that covers all the bases.

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