Archaeological Methodology: Prehistoric and Historic Inquiry

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  • 0:08 Archaeological Anthropology
  • 1:19 Prehistoric Archaeology
  • 2:29 Historical Archaeology
  • 4:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the science of archaeological anthropology. In doing so, it will highlight the categories of prehistoric and historical archaeology, as well as define artifacts.

Archaeological Anthropology

I'm guessing if you ask about ten women who grew up in the 80s who their movie heartthrob was, Indiana Jones would come up at least once. In fact, if I was one of the ones you asked, I know he would. After all, who can resist a guy who runs through jungles, defeats bad guys, and still manages to save the girl! Unfortunately for us, today's lesson on prehistoric and historic archaeology might not be as riveting as the whip slinging Indiana Jones. However, it will give us a better glimpse into archaeology, the field of study that the dreamy Dr. Jones made look so glamorous!

For starters, archaeological anthropology, often just shortened to archaeology, is the study of the material remains of past cultures. In this field, scientists work to rebuild the lives of past cultures by studying what they've left behind. In doing this, their main objective is to create theories centering on how cultures functioned and changed, and what caused their demise. With this main objective in mind, let's look at two of the main types of archaeology: prehistoric and historic. Sort of working chronologically, we'll start with prehistoric.

Prehistoric Archaeology

With prehistoric usually defined as the time before the development of writing, prehistoric archaeology is simply the study of cultures that existed before the time of written record. With this definition in mind, it's not surprising that prehistoric archaeology often finds itself dabbling in the Stone Ages, looking for clues about the relatives of our very, very ancient past. Due to the lack of written records to lead the way, prehistoric archaeologists rely heavily on artifacts, objects made by human beings, which are of cultural significance.

For instance, I once had the amazing experience of joining an archaeological team on the island of ancient Crete, which has layers upon layers of excavated cultures, each more ancient than the last. Since many of these uncovered layers are believed to date back to prehistory, the many stone tool technologies found on this island are being used to reconstruct how these ancient cultures hummed along. No, no written records are expected to be found at the lowest layers, so these artifacts serve in the place of words, helping prehistoric archaeologists to paint a picture of prehistoric culture. This isn't just happening in Crete; it's happening across the globe.

Historical Archaeology

Moving up in time, we now come to historical archaeology. Historical archaeology is simply the study of the artifacts and physical remains of cultures with written records. Sort of as a combo of both history and archaeology, a historical archaeologist uses artifacts as well as written records, things like maps, journals, and documents, from past cultures to try and reconstruct how they lived. For those of you familiar with my teenage crush, Dr. Jones, his movies mostly dabbled in historical archaeology as he used maps and written clues to chase down things like the Arc of the Covenant and the Cup of Christ.

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