Archeology - AccessScience from McGraw-Hill Education http://accessscience.com/content/archeology/047900


Article by: Thomas, David Hurst American Museum of Natural , New York, New York. Last updated: 2014 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1036/1097-8542.047900 (https://doi.org/10.1036/1097-8542.047900)

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Methods Law of superposition Links to Primary Literature Types Excavation Additional Readings Cultures Relation to other disciplines

The scientific study of past material culture. The initial objective of archeology is to construct cultural , attempting to order past material culture into meaningful temporal segments. The intermediate objective is to breathe life into these chronologies by reconstructing past lifeways. The ultimate objective of contemporary archeology is to determine the cultural processes that underlie human behavior, both past and present. See also: Archeological (/content /archeological-chronology/047850)

Thus, archeology is both scientific and humanistic. Throughout many parts of the world, archeology is considered a subdiscipline of anthropology, focusing on the anthropology of past cultures. In other parts of the world, archeology is regarded as an extension of history, attempting to write a prehistory of people who lack a written history of their own. See also: Anthropology (/content/anthropology/039400); Physical anthropology (/content/physical-anthropology/513500)

The material culture of the past is of infinite variety. It is the scientific study of this evidence that differentiates the contemporary archeologist from the nineteenth-century antiquarian. So broad is the task that there is no such thing as any single archeological method, although over the past century archeologists have evolved what can be termed an overall archeological approach.


By constant confirmation and independent dating techniques, the archeologist often attempts to establish synchronism with what has already been established historically. In 1945, for example, during excavations at Pondicherry, India, Mortimer Wheeler found pottery sherds of well-dated Roman types in close association with certain East Indian wares. Subsequently, he was able to establish a comparable date for the unknown Indian ceramics on the basis of the historically dated Roman ceramics. This type of association is called , using the index concept. Archeologists also employ techniques, which provide calendrical or numerical ages of archeological materials. See also: Index fossil (/content /index-fossil/340600)

The primary difference between archeology and history is the use of the scientific method to refute ideas. The scientific approach aims at discovering universal laws and develops theories to explain the human history uncovered by archeology. The hallmark of archeology is interdisciplinary research, using the best of the natural sciences to study the past. Archeology is a one-shot deal—once it is dug, it is destroyed. It is up to the archeologist to meticulously record those findings and to save the information from the past for the future.

1 of 6 2/23/2017 8:45 AM Archeology - AccessScience from McGraw-Hill Education http://accessscience.com/content/archeology/047900 Types

Archeologists use a number of types to categorize similar artifacts. Most common is the temporal type, a principle similar to the index fossil concept used by the . A temporal type can be any kind of archeological artifact or feature, but ideally it is some object of common use in which the form is subject to change, because of either the whim of fashion or technological improvement. One example is the simple flint arrowhead with side barbs and central tang. It is typical of the British Bronze Age and was not in fashion earlier or later. Ceramic types have been established by archeologists located around the world, and a thoroughly tested ceramic chronology is invaluable as a temporal ordering device, no matter where the archeologist is working.

The nature of the artifact employed as a temporal type is irrelevant, and its use may not even be known. In the future, for example, the metal springs of modern clothespins that remain after the wooden parts have decayed may serve, for the archeologist, as a means to define periods and cultural associations, even though the original use may be lost in the past.

Archeologists also establish other types. Functional types attempt to group artifacts on the basis of known or presumed functions. Function may be established through experimentation, through analogy to existing groups, or through microscopic analysis of wear on the artifact itself. Archeologists also establish technological types, divisions that reflect the mode of manufacture. Technological types are particularly helpful when studying stone-tool manufacture.


The concept of culture is used in two different ways by contemporary archeologists. When dealing with cultural chronologies, the archeologist most commonly uses a modal or shared view of culture. It is this normative collection of shared ideas that causes artifacts to change in systematic ways through , and temporal types can be established on the basis of this shared culture. When attempting to reconstruct lifeways, however, the archeologist can no longer rely on the shared aspects of culture. When transcending temporal associations, contemporary archeologists tend to view culture systematically, as people's extrasomatic (that is, learned) method of dealing with the social and cultural environment. In this sense, one does not share a cultural system—one participates in it. Participation is controlled by cultural roles, often expressed through intricate sets of status relationships and through individual decisions.

As worldwide cultural sequences become better known, archeologists are able to abandon the modal concept of culture in favor of the more satisfactory, if more complex, systemic view of cultural phenomena.

Law of superposition

The law of superposition was formulated initially by Nicolaus Steno (1638–1686). Steno's law, simply stated, is as follows: In any pile of sedimentary rocks that have not been disturbed by folding or overturning, the strata on the bottom were deposited first. The law of superposition thus holds that, all else being equal, older deposits will tend to be buried beneath younger ones. Thomas Jefferson is generally credited with being the first archeologist to have applied systematic principles of to archeology.

Mere stratigraphic equivalence, however, does not necessarily indicate contemporaneity, as there can be misleading mixtures of successive occupational debris on one surface. There are many factors that disturb archeological sites. In sandy areas, successive occupations may have been covered by layers of blown sand. Where the covering layers are intact, no better sealing and separation of occupational surfaces can be found. However, if wind activity is reversed, and sand is removed rather than deposited, two or more distinct layers of human occupation may become falsely associated. Archeologists must therefore study the processes of cultural and natural deposition (site formation processes) in order to recognize the difference

2 of 6 2/23/2017 8:45 AM Archeology - AccessScience from McGraw-Hill Education http://accessscience.com/content/archeology/047900 between intact and disturbed strata. See also: Stratigraphy (/content/stratigraphy/659000)


Contemporary excavation must be conducted with a plan, a firm research design that attempts to provide answers to definite questions. Archeology is one of the few sciences that destroys its own data in the process of generating them. Archeologists must therefore be extremely careful to make the appropriate observations at the time of excavation. If problems are not in mind, delicate archeological associations might be overlooked. Once a site is excavated, only the data from that excavation exist; the site itself has actually been destroyed.

A critical feature of archeology comes after the excavation: conservation and cataloging, deriving typologies, and chronological relationships. Archeological techniques attempt to record and clarify such relationships. The chronological relationship, for example, between two structures lying side by side may be of interest; one structure can be established as later if it overlies the other. On a larger scale, one may wish to ascertain the duration, successive extents, economies, and purposes of occupation of a given site or area.

Contemporary archeologists are faced with the unprecedented destruction of sites because of deep plowing, quarrying, construction, and leveling of large areas of land (such as for parking lots and airports). In Europe, excavation at these threatened sites has been termed rescue archeology; in the New World, the unwieldy term cultural resource management has been applied to the effort to preserve these sites, or at least to mitigate the impact on the survival of the archeological sites.

Relation to other disciplines

The task of deciphering meaning from past material culture is so complex that the archeologist is often required to borrow from allied disciplines in the physical and natural sciences. Only a few will be mentioned.


Geological studies provide information on the natural barriers, obvious routes, and the source of ores that people use. provides information regarding changes in sea level and the extent of glacial ice sheets and loess deposits. It serves as a basis for assigning relative dates to archeological discoveries, particularly of Paleolithic stone implements. See also: (/content/geology/286600); Geomorphology (/content/geomorphology/287100); Loess (/content/loess /388900); Paleolithic (/content/paleolithic/483950); Pleistocene (/content/pleistocene/528200); Strand line (/content /strand-line/658700); Varve (/content/varve/728500)

Climatology and

The analysis of ancient plant pollen and spores—palynology—and information regarding former climates has recently become one of archeology's best methods for examining prehistoric ecological adaptations. Dates also have been determined by studying annual growth in trees. The identification of cereal grains in the surface of ancient pottery has helped in piecing together the story of the beginnings of agriculture. See also: Agriculture (/content/agriculture/016200); Climatology (/content/climatology/140700); (/content/dendrochronology/185700); Paleobotany (/content/paleobotany/483200); Paleoecology (/content/paleoecology/483700); Palynology (/content/palynology /484800); Postglacial vegetation and climate (/content/postglacial-vegetation-and-climate/539600)


The study of fossil remains helps the archeologist to identify finds of bone, antler, and ivory and to reconstruct people's natural environment in successive periods. Paleontological studies also shed light upon the history of the domestication of

3 of 6 2/23/2017 8:45 AM Archeology - AccessScience from McGraw-Hill Education http://accessscience.com/content/archeology/047900 animals and the development of the bodily structure of human beings. See also: Domestication (anthropology) (/content /domestication-anthropology/800360); Fossil (/content/fossil/270100); Fossil humans (/content/fossil-humans/270300)

Land snails often have restricted habitats. A study of the shells of these creatures, taken, for example, from different levels in the material that has accumulated at different in a ditch made by humans, may show that there were large trees growing in the immediate neighborhood when the ditch was first excavated. Later, pottery may have found its way into the half-filled ditch and, with it, the shells of snails typical of open grassland, therefore indicating that the area had been cleared of trees by the time the pottery was being made.

Along with the pottery and grassland snail shells, there may be found the wing cases and other remains of beetles. The restricted habitat of beetles serves the same purpose as that of snails, as far as environmental studies are concerned. There have been cases where the remains of a particular kind of dung beetle have shown that cattle were present at the time that a certain deposit was made. In one case, the finding of the wings of certain ants showed that a mound had been built up at a particular time of the year, since these ants are known to fly only during their mating season. See also: (/content/paleontology/484100)


The mineralogist has been called on to compare and identify the sources of metal ores and materials used in the manufacture of implements and to name the origin of stones. Without this information, archeologists would not have known that the bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried in South Wales, nor would archeologists have found the sites in North Wales and Westmoreland where stone axes discovered in southern England were made. See also: (/content/mineralogy /426200)


The science of physics has provided the archeologist with a means of dating finds in years, for it has made available the study of the rates of decay of radioactive substance. The study of and the orientation of magnetic particles in strongly heated structures and pottery may eventually provide a means of dating archeological finds. By using the magnetometer, which measures minute differences in magnetic fields, the archeologist is often able to confirm the suggested existence of filled-in pits and ditches, for which no surface evidence appears. See also: Paleomagnetism (/content /paleomagnetism/484000); (/content/radiocarbon-dating/569300)

Other techniques include the use of LIDAR (an acronym for light detection and ranging, which is a remote optical sensing system that collects topographic data) to map known sites and to discover new ones; the use of special underground imaging apparatus, such as ground-penetrating radar, to penetrate into the earth and to record the interior of buried chambers; and the use of soil conductivity instruments to record differences in electrical potential and thus detect irregularities below the surface. See also: Ground-penetrating radar (/content/ground-penetrating-radar/757572); Lidar (/content/lidar/380750); Physics (/content/physics/514300)


The study of chemistry provides knowledge of natural processes in the soil and helps in the identification of invisible evidences of occupation, such as decayed layers of buried turf. Certain chemical techniques also make possible the preservation and reconstruction of archeological finds for study and exhibition. See also: (/content /amino-acid-dating/028050); Archeological chemistry (/content/archeological-chemistry/047800)


4 of 6 2/23/2017 8:45 AM Archeology - AccessScience from McGraw-Hill Education http://accessscience.com/content/archeology/047900 The archeologist must have some understanding of all these sciences to extract from sites and materials every possible piece of information that may lead to a better understanding of prehistory. One requirement, however, is necessary for the archeologist to make any contribution to humanity's inheritance of knowledge: The archeologist must be able to record and publish every minor fact for the benefit of colleagues and successors, because the writing of prehistory requires the synthesis of all archeological discovery and interpretation.

David Hurst Thomas

Links to Primary Literature

R. Pérez-Castillo, I. G-R. de Guzmán, and M. Piattini, Business process archeology using MARBLE, Inform. Software Tech., 53(10):1023–1044, 2011 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infsof.2011.05.006 (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infsof.2011.05.006)

Additional Readings

L. R. Binford, In Pursuit of the Past: Decoding the , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2002

I. Hodder, Archaeological Theory Today, Blackwell, Oxford, 2001

M. Johnson, Archaeological Theory: An Introduction, 2d ed., Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA, 2010

J. Jones, Archaeological Theory and Scientific Practice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002

R. L. Kelly and D. H. Thomas, , 5th ed., Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, 2010

R. L. Kelly and D. H. Thomas, Archaeology: Down to Earth, 4th ed., Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, 2011

R. L. Kelly and D. H. Thomas, Doing Fieldwork: Archaeological Demonstrations, version 2.0 (CD-ROM), Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, 2010

J. Sabloff, Archaeology Matters, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, 2008

A. Corbin and M. A. Russell (eds.), Historical Archeology of Tourism in Yellowstone National Park, Springer, Heidelberg, Germany, 2010

R. L. Kelly and D. H. Thomas, Archaeology, 6th ed., Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, 2013

Archaeology (http://www.archaeology.org)

Society for American Archaeology (http://www.saa.org)

Society for Historical Archaeology (http://www.sha.org)

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