Archaeology – An Overview

For my final four-field overview post, I want to talk a little bit about archaeology.  You can find some more specific information about bioarchaeology in my previous posts, but there’s far more to archaeology than just the bones!

First and foremost, let’s clarify, archaeology is not the study of dinosaur fossils.  That would be paleontology, which is a subfield of geology.  Archaeology is, broadly speaking, the study of ancient communities through what they left behind–i.e. their artifacts, architecture, their bones etc. It may seem like an obvious distinction, but it’s a mistake made hilariously often.  My supervisor at the American Museum of Natural History volunteered to talk to a kid on a radio show, and this boy was only interested in dinosaur bones. So please learn the difference and save the soul of an archaeologist today.

Much like biological anthropology, archaeology has some pretty iffy roots in colonialism and eurocentricity.  The first ‘archaeologists’ emerged from something called Antiquarianism.  Interest in artifacts, or even bodies, was superficial in the sense that antiquarians were only concerned with aesthetic.  Provenience (the artifact’s location of origin) and context (what the artifact was associated with in situ, including geological features) were incidental to these early ‘archaeologists,’ and whatever deductions were made about these ancient cultures were correspondingly superficial. A PRIME example of the antiquarian archaeologist is Indiana Jones.  Another good way to break an archaeologist’s heart is to compare them to this particular character.  From an archaeological perspective, the boobytraps that Indy nonchalantly destroys are far more informative in regard to the community that created them than the shiny statue!  These early attitudes lead to the pillaging of colonized countries for their national treasures under the guise of ‘rescuing history.’  The Ishtar Gate, which now resides in Berlin, was originally ‘saved’ from Iraq, and the museum even uses this kind of language to justify their continued possession of this beautiful Babylonian treasure.  Even here in merrie olde England, the debate rages on about many of the collections in British museums across the United Kingdom.  The most famous, or infamous really, is the case of the Elgin Marbles. The British Museum came by these sculptures while Greece was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, bought from a man who literally lassoed them down from the Parthenon and sold them for pennies.  Most of the damage done to these statues is not because of age, rather their acquirement by the British.

This is a cringeworthy history, on a social level by stealing the ancient heritage of disenfranchised peoples, and on an academic level because we could no longer examine these artifacts and monuments in context. Thankfully archaeology has come a long way, producing truckloads of theory. With some stops in between, Antiquarianism morphed into Processual Archaeology, meaning that archaeologists began to look at artifacts in order to learn about the culture they came from.  To the Processualists, artifacts were culture manifested outside of the body and could be used to objectively examine the ‘evolution of culture’ through the scientific method. I put the phrase ‘evolution of culture’ in quotation marks as this concept is based upon the erroneous notion that evolution is a strict line of progression, with civilization (i.e. European civilization) as the pinnacle of progress to which every other culture naturally aspires.  Processualism then became Post-Processualism, which emphasizes the subjectivity of the archaeologist when analyzing archaeological remains. To the Post-Processualists, archaeological finds could only be interpreted in relationship to material that exists in the archaeologist’s experience, and in order to gain the most insight, archaeologists must remain as reflexive as possible.  And when archaeology became a subjective practice, it opened up the discipline to all types of different paradigms of analysis. With this mindset, archaeologists could look at artifacts through a Marxist, structuralist, or feminist lens to name a few. And these conversations are still happening today. Some of my thesis is based upon something called Sensorial Archaeology, which deals with the preeminence of the visual in the practice of archaeology, and how problems with the western hierarchy of the senses manifest in excavations.

Hopefully that didn’t put you straight to sleep, although I wouldn’t blame you. The methods used in archaeological excavations and analysis are a bit more interesting, but probably not nearly as exciting as the movies make them out to be. There is a lot of tedious digging in spots where you’ll inevitably find nothing. My first proper fieldwork was the test pitting stage of an excavation run through Cambridge University. It involved wading through endless fields of rapeseed in the rain, with a grim sandwich for lunch, and looking for lithics (manipulated stone) in a field brimming with flint deposits. It was an exercise in character development.

Working on the more advanced stages of an excavation was far more satisfying.  Barring the 5am wake up call, the excavation of a Roman Necropolis in Spain was incredibly enjoyable. Each dig produced finds, as we were trained how to identify the graves before we began troweling. You can see the edges of the tomb beginning to emerge here after 4 days with a literal broom and dust pan.


From my personal experience, putting eager young undergrads into the field is an entertaining yet probably foolhardy decision.  I was so keen to get to the bottom of the grave that it took every fiber of my being to excavate slowly.  I could see from the grave I had taken over from the previous field school group, that they had suffered from the same problem. There were two individuals in this grave, with one full individual laying supine (on his back), which was a rare find, but in their excitement they had removed the femurs before the skeleton had been fully excavated.

Lecture Image

Look at all the loose femurs!

In these scenarios we need to be careful. A fundamental paradox in archaeology is that we excavate to reveal the context, but in so doing we destroy the context. So each step needs to be documented through field notes and sketches at the very least.  This can be a glacial process that the untrained archaeological student can mess up in a matter of minutes. Nothing is more tempting than to pull out a pesky root as you would when gardening, but roots are sneaky and you cannot risk damaging any artifacts they may have grown through by pulling them willy nilly. And as a novice I was so excited to do things like cranial reconstructions, but the taphonomy that lead to the breakage of the skull in the first place is just as much part of the context as anything else in the grave, and so it’s actually frowned upon now to glue pieces of the skeleton back together.  Undergrad Sarah didn’t understand that the reconstructed skull on the left was actually inferior to the one on the right held together by soil.

Forensic anthropology is, of course, a bit different because if we reconstruct a cranium we can then attempt a facial reconstruction or to match dental records. And in the instances when we do find relatives to return the skeleton to, a full skull helps to humanize the skeleton–which is incidentally another aspect of my doctoral thesis!

Have any questions about archaeological theory or methods?

As always, ask away!



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