What Do Archaeologists Study? - Definition & Types

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about the field of archaeology, all of its branches, and how it has helped us to learn and understand more about the human past. After the lesson, take the quiz and see what you've learned.

What Exactly is an Archaeologist?

Relics at Troy, one of the most famous digs
Findings at Troy

An archaeologist, or archeologist, is a person who studies the human past through its material culture and environmental data. That sounds complicated, but all it really means is that archaeologists study what humans before us have left behind to learn about our past.

If they are studying an ice age site, they would look for spearheads and other stones that they might have used as tools. If they can find a body, they might see what the group ate by examining its stomach. They would examine its clothes to see what they wore and how sophisticated their technology was. Maybe the body is buried or burned. Either way it tells an archaeologist something about their beliefs.

They'll also check out the environment. Maybe the cave the tribe stayed in had generations of bears before them but never had another one after they arrived, or maybe the area had rabbits before they got there but none after that. Maybe human arrival coincides with the first apple trees.

What Periods Do Archaeologists Study?

Most archaeologists study humans before they learned to write, so from about 4,000,000 years ago to the start of the first civilizations. That's about 99% of human history and no one recorded any of it, so archaeologists are very important to that period.

Archaeologists study all periods, though. Without them, we wouldn't know anything about the destruction of Pompeii and no one would have excavated Homer's Troy. Archaeology has been very important in studying the the King Arthur period in Great Britain, too. Anyone who studies a period where people could write is called a historical archaeologist. People who study living cultures are called ethnoarchaeologists.

How Do They Study?

Believe it or not, archaeology can be a very tedious and an extremely precise discipline. When digging up remains, they don't use shovels and picks, but trowels and even brushes. Each piece, or artifact, they find is carefully placed on a three-dimensional map so that they can later be examined exactly as they were found. All this work means that properly excavating a site might take months or even years.

When they are finished digging, archaeologists examine everything. Archaeologists used to use carbon dating, or the rate at which carbon leaves an organism after it dies, to get a rough idea about when it lived. But they've done enough of that now that they've been able to compare wood samples and use their rings to figure out when the trees were cut down to the year. They call that field of study dendrochronology.

They've been able to use the same approach to better understand the environment (palynology), plants (paleoethnobotany), and animals (zooarchaeology) that were around at the same time. There is a separate study of how humans learned to work rocks as tools, lithic analysis, and metals, archaeometallurgy.

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