What Is Archaeology? - Definition, History & Topics

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  • 0:04 What Is Archaeology?
  • 1:04 History and Methods
  • 3:10 Specializations
  • 4:02 Time Periods
  • 4:35 Tech Specializations
  • 5:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

This lesson will describe the science of archaeology. Topics will include the definition and history of archaeology, as well as a brief description of its sub-disciplines.

What is Archaeology?

Perhaps the most famous fictional archaeologist is Stephen Spielberg's Indiana Jones. Dr. Jones is the main character in a variety of action films involving lost artifacts and civilizations, cults, and Nazis. Dr. Jones carries his signature whip and hat, and regularly tussles with a wide variety of armed antagonists. However, the filmmakers took a number of liberties with Dr. Jones' occupation as an archaeologist to make things a bit more interesting for viewers. So, what exactly is archaeology? What do real archaeologists do?

Archaeology is the scientific study of past cultures through analysis of physical remains. Essentially, physical remains are bones of early people as well as their manufactured tools, goods (artifacts), and the foundations of settlements. Archaeologists search for and analyze these remains in order to understand something about the culture of the people that left them. Archaeologists often work closely with historians and anthropologists.

History and Methods

In brief, the history of archaeology begins with antiquarianism, progresses through an individualistic phase and then becomes a genuine empirical science.

Antiquarianism is the earliest stage of archaeology. Named for the process of collecting and displaying historical treasures, antiquarianism was generally the domain of wealthy individuals who had the resources to spend time searching for, acquiring, and displaying artifacts. These individuals were motivated by a variety of reasons from nationalism (for instance, the history of the land of their birth) to religious reasons (the examination of Biblical manuscripts). Note that the beginnings of antiquarianism are ancient and may go back to (or further than) the Greek historian, Herodotus, in the fifth century BCE.

The earlier phase of archaeology's history centered on individuals' interests in developing a chronology of past events. Thomas Jefferson is considered responsible for the first archaeological digs in America during this period in 1779. Jefferson's interests were in the Native American mounds that he often saw in his native Virginia.

Beginning in the late 18th century and progressing until the mid-20th century, the development of archaeology into a full-fledged science--and sister discipline to history and anthropology--took a great deal of time.

In terms of methods, archaeologists spend a good deal of their time digging with tools like trowels, and also employ a variety of techniques to aid them in the proper handling, cataloging, and analysis of anything they find. Modern archaeological techniques may also include chemical tests and high tech tools. For instance, archaeologists may use mapping software or ground-penetrating radar to look for other places to dig. Some archaeologists, in particular those working under water, may use remotely-operated robotic assistants to get places humans cannot.

While archaeologists all have general knowledge of the field's history, methodology, and theories, they typically dedicate their work to narrower specialties, by region, time period, and techniques.


Archaeologists tend to specialize in terms of the ancient culture they study, and they often concentrate in a particular aspect of an ancient culture. For instance, while there are plenty of archaeologists with expertise in ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Chinese civilizations, there are also archaeologists with interests in ancient Semitic pottery, specifically. More specialized archaeologists tend to become experts in their niche interests, and their expertise can be called upon to settle questions when they arise about the age or specific culture responsible for leaving behind remains at a particular site.

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