Archaeology the complete definition

ar·che·ol·o·gy n.

The systematic study of past human life and culture by the recovery and examination of remaining material evidence, such as graves, buildings, tools, and pottery.

[French archéologie, from New Latin archaeologia, from Greek arkhaiologiā, antiquarian lore : arkhaio-, archaeo- + -logiā, -logy.]

archaeological ar’chae·o·log’i·cal (-ə-lŏj’ĭ-kəl) or ar’chae·o·log’ic adj.
archaeologically ar’chae·o·log’i·cal·ly adv.
archaeologist ar’chae·ol’o·gist n.
Scientific study of material remains of past human life and activities. These include human artifacts from the very earliest stone tools to the man-made objects that are buried or thrown away in the present day. Archaeological investigations are a principal source of modern knowledge of prehistoric, ancient, and extinct cultures. The field emerged as an academic discipline in the late 19th century, following centuries of haphazard antiquarian collecting. Among the archaeologist’s principal activities are the location, surveying, and mapping of sites and the excavation, classification, dating, and interpretation of materials to place them in historical context. Major subfields include classical archaeology, the study of ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations; prehistoric archaeology, or general archaeology; and historical archaeology, the study of historic-period remains to augment the written record. See also anthropology; coin collecting; stone-tool industry.

Archaeology is a branch of historical study which has developed its own specialized and highly sophisticated techniques for recovering, dating, and identifying material found largely in the ground, such as skeletons, grave-goods, and the foundation of buildings. For societies which have left little or no literary evidence, it is essential; but it may also be used to correct or modify literary sources. The slightly misleading term ‘industrial archaeology’ has been popularized to describe the recovery and preservation of modern industrial remains, such as mills, railways, mines, pumping-engines, and canals. Marine archaeology is another specialized branch dealing with the recovery of wrecks.

Architecture and Landscaping: archaeology

Systematic scientific study of remains and monuments of earlier periods. Revivals of architectural styles usually have an archaeological phase in which accurate recording of extant buildings and details informs architectural design, e.g. Greek Revival.

Archaeology Dictionary: archaeology

(archeology) [De]

Literally, ‘the study of ancient things’; the term archaeology has developed and grown to embrace a much wider set of meanings through common usage as the discipline itself has expanded and matured. Walter Taylor writing in 1948 was confidently able to assert that: ‘Archaeology is neither history nor anthropology. As an autonomous discipline, it consists of a method and a set of specialized techniques for the gathering or “production” of cultural information.’

Operationally, archaeology has come to mean the study of past human societies and their environments through the systematic recovery and analysis of material culture or physical remains. The primary aims of the discipline are thus: to recover, record, analyse, and classify archaeological material; to describe and interpret the patterns of human behaviours that led to its creation; and to explain or develop an understanding of the reasons for this behaviour. In Europe and the Old World archaeology has tended to focus on the material remains themselves (sites and monuments), the techniques of recovering material, and theoretical and philosophical underpinnings inherent to achieving its goals. In the New World attention is directed more towards the subject matter and past human societies, and as such is considered one of the four fields of anthropology. In both traditions, the attainment of a broadly based archaeology involves multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary endeavour, and it can fairly be said that the discipline of archaeology is a broad church embracing an increasingly large number of different subdiscipline areas or branches.

Originally, archaeology was a descriptive science, documenting, defining, and classifying everything it came across and mainly concerned with the material itself. This developed into an explanatory discipline where interest focused on understanding the causes behind the patterns and the reasons for what could be observed with a consequent obsession with the processes and the methodology whether at the practical level or the theoretical level. Increasingly, attention is being directed to what archaeologists actually produce, the end result of their labours, with an inevitable swing towards concerns over the nature of discourse and the production of knowledge.

Archaeology is the scientific reconstruction and understanding of prehistoric and historic human behavior from the evidence of material remains. Although the theories archaeologists employ for framing their questions of the past have changed dramatically in the short one hundred years of its existence as an academic discipline, archaeology’s primary goals—reconstructing and interpreting past human behavior and culture—have remained essentially unchanged. In the United States, archaeology has traditionally been viewed as one of the four classic subdisciplines of anthropology, along with cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, and linguistics.

While archaeology is also historical in certain aspects, it differs from the study of written and oral history—although it uses both—in two fundamental ways. First, the materials archaeologists generally find in the ground do not indicate directly what to think about them or about the ancient cultures that produced them. Therefore, archaeologists have to make sense of the material remains of the past through analogy to historic cultures, experimentation, inference, behavioral modeling, and good detective work. Second, archaeology is a humanistic discipline as well as a science. As humanists, archaeologists are concerned with how societies function, the evolution of cultural complexity, ethnicity, ideology, power, and a host of other universal questions about human behavior and organization. As scientists, archaeologists develop and construct pictures of the past from limited evidence, just as physicists develop and construct a coherent view of how the natural world works from a limited set of observations. This combination of humanism and science is one of archaeology’s many fascinations and strengths as a discipline: it reflects the ingenuity of the modern scientist through its use of technology and rigorous methodology as well as the processes of the modern historian through its focus on reconstructing the past and giving it relevance to the present and future.

American archaeology as a discipline is divided into two types: prehistoric and historic. Prehistoric archaeology is concerned with testing anthropological theories of human behavior and cultural evolution against the archaeological record of societies that left no known written records. Historic archaeology uses archaeological data both to test hypotheses about the operation of historically known societies and to fill in the historical gaps concerning the more mundane, but crucially important, aspects of the day-to-day functioning of those societies.

The History of Archaeology in the United States

The first systematic, well-planned archaeological investigation in the United States was organized by Thomas Jefferson in 1784. Because Jefferson had decided to carefully excavate one of the prehistoric earthen mounds on his property in Virginia in the hope of finding out who built it, he is often considered to be the “father of American archaeology.” The fact that he excavated was important, since few individuals in his day undertook such a step. His work was also so carefully done that he was able to observe how soil, refuse, and artifacts had built up over time, and he was thus able to link the known present to the unknown past. And, most important, his excavation was carried out not to find objects but to resolve an archaeological question: Were the Native Americans present in Virginia descendants of those who built the mounds? (Jefferson demonstrated that they were.)

While Jefferson’s research was little known until the late nineteenth century, the “mound builder question” did continue to engage the interest of Americans. As a result, several organizations, such as the American Philosophical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Smithsonian Institution, started to try to unravel the mystery. Findings were, however, sporadic and inconclusive. As a result, in 1884, Congress finally dedicated funds to solving the problem through a series of surveys and data collection to be carried out by Cyrus Thomas of the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), the first federally appointed archaeologist. The answer was determined within ten years: all of the mounds present in the United States were the products of the ancestors of current Native peoples. The bureau continued to explore the prehistory of the United States over the course of its eighty-seven year existence, culminating in the multivolume Handbook of North American Indians in the late 1970s. The BAE was incorporated into the Anthropology Department at the Smithsonian Institution in 1965.

The resolution of the question of who built the mounds led to a growing public recognition of the need for cooperation between government agencies, academic institutions, and individual researchers to answer questions about America’s past. This circumstance was one factor that helped lead to the formation of archaeology as a discipline. In addition, by 1906 the federal government saw the need to protect archaeological sites and artifacts and began creating national monuments and parks as well as passing legislation such as the Antiquities Act.

That archaeology was largely incorporated within anthropology by 1900 was a result of the work of Franz Boas, considered to be the founder of anthropology in the United States. Boas realized at the beginning of the twentieth century that no ethnographic study of the quickly vanishing New World peoples could be complete without a thorough understanding of their present culture, their past culture, their biology, and their language. This realization led to the formation of anthropology as a professional discipline with the creation of the American Anthropological Association in 1902 and to the rapid founding of departments of anthropology at universities like Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Michigan, and California at Berkeley. The foundations of academic archaeology in the United States were laid well before Boas, however, with the creation of the Archaeological Institute of America in 1879, which mainly concerned itself with Old World archaeology. Anthropological archaeology focusing on America’s past was not formalized as a discipline until the founding of the Society for American Archaeology in 1934.

Anthropological archaeology as a distinct discipline has gone through many phases in its efforts to understand the past. At first, scholars were mainly interested in finding rare and unique artifacts. Then, archaeologists focused on describing as much as possible about the past by recording the smallest details of many types of artifacts and architecture. Once accurate dating techniques became widely available, archaeologists began to ask more and more complex questions about the past.

The archaeologist who provided the first dating breakthrough was Alfred V. Kidder. Through his painstaking excavation work at Pecos Pueblo in New Mexico from 1918 to 1928, he was able to demonstrate that archaeologists could better understand chronology by carefully paying attention to two factors: how soil, refuse, and artifacts built up over time at a site, and how artifacts change through time at a site. Especially important was his discovery of the series of changes that the pottery in the northern Southwest had undergone. Once this series of changes was understood, a researcher could generally date a site in the region from the pottery found at it. Kidder’s research set the standard for the discipline and is still widely used today.

The problems with exact dating were solved with the advent of dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) in the 1920s by Andrew E. Douglass and radiocarbon dating in the 1940s by Willard F. Libby. Tree-ring dating allowed researchers in the Southwest to obtain the exact dates when certain prehistoric structures were built, while radiocarbon analysis allowed exact dating in a wider variety of contexts and over much greater periods of time. The dating revolution enabled archaeologists to construct highly detailed descriptive temporal sequences for most of the known prehistoric cultures of America. It also opened the door to even bigger questions: When did the first Americans arrive? (The answer turned out to be much earlier than any one had imagined.) When did certain cultures start to develop? When did Native Americans start practicing agriculture? Despite these technical dating advances, the focus of archaeology was still on description rather than explanation.

Nevertheless, the dating revolution signaled the beginning of archaeology as a truly multidisciplinary enterprise, for the new dating techniques were developed by chemists and astronomers, not archaeologists. At present, because researchers have become increasingly interested in how past peoples interacted with and were affected by their surroundings, many archaeological projects now also include biologists, geographers, geologists, and environmental scientists.

The Great Depression helped forge archaeology as a discipline because it generated some of the most massive archaeological projects the United States has ever seen. These projects, carried out by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Projects Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, were intended to keep extremely large numbers of people employed. Such projects required skilled archaeologists with incredible leadership and managerial abilities to run them. Many of the most influential archaeologists of the twentieth century, including James A. Ford, Roger E. Taylor, and Alex D. Krieger, got their start on these projects. Such massive undertakings also signaled the beginning of large-scale government funding of archaeology, which continues to this day.

It was not until the 1960s that many archaeologists finally became frustrated with the discipline’s focus on minute description over concrete explanation. No one was talking about why cultures developed in certain ways or why cultural change took place at all. The infusion of fresh anthropological and scientific thinking into archaeology by a new generation of researchers, such as Lewis Binford, Michael Schiffer, and others, catapulted archaeology into a new era, one that was centered on trying to discover the universal processes behind cultural complexity and change. Despite the postmodern, nonscientific leanings of some current researchers, American archaeology remains largely focused on these goals.

Archaeology and the Public

Archaeology, by discovering history firsthand through the welter of objects left behind from past human activity, has raised the consciousness of the American public with respect to this country’s cultural heritage. Furthermore, the media in all its forms spends a great deal of time showcasing the discoveries of archaeologists, especially the controversial and exciting ones.

Since the 1970s, archaeologists have been embroiled in public debates about who owns the past and has the right to protect it and interpret it. Native Americans have protested that their histories were being written by other people, that their heritage was being sold in auction houses or put on display in museums, and that their ancestral sites were being destroyed. Ultimately, the historic preservation movement, along with the legal protection of unmarked graves, brought much of America’s archaeological heritage under the auspices of the federal and state governments and helped address some Native American concerns. By the 1990s, it was increasingly common for tribes to have their own preservation officers and for archaeologists to plan investigations that addressed both archaeological and indigenous questions and needs.

Archaeology is still struggling with how best to meet the needs of the general public while maintaining its responsibility to preserve the past for the future.


Fagan, Brian M., ed. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Meltzer, David J., Don D. Fowler, and Jeremy A. Sabloff, eds. American Archaeology, Past and Future: A Celebration of the Society for American Archaeology, 1935–1985. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Sturtevant, William C., ed. Handbook of North American Indians. vols. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1978–1996.

Thomas, David Hurst. Exploring Ancient Native America: An Archaeological Guide. New York: Macmillan, 1994.

Trigger, Bruce G. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Willey, Gordon R., and Jeremy A. Sabloff. A History of American Archaeology. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1980.

—Devin Alan White

Columbia Encyclopedia: archaeology

(ärkēŏl’əjē) [Gr.,=study of beginnings], a branch of anthropology that seeks to document and explain continuity and change and similarities and differences among human cultures. Archaeologists work with the material remains of cultures, past and present, providing the only source of information available for past nonliterate societies and supplementing written sources for historical and contemporary groups.

History of Archaeology

The discipline had its origins in early efforts to collect artistic materials of extinct groups, an endeavor that can be traced back to the 15th cent. in Italy when growing interest in ancient Greece inspired the excavation of Greek sculpture. In the 18th cent. the progress of Greek and Roman archaeology was advanced by Johann Winckelmann and Ennio Visconti and by excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii; in the 19th cent., by the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles. The study of ancient cultures in the Aegean region was stimulated by the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy, and of Arthur Evans at Crete. The work of Martin Nilsson, Alan Wace, and John Pendlebury was also significant in this area, and the decipherment of the Minoan script by Michael Ventris raised new speculations about the early Aegean cultures.

The foundations of Egyptology, a prolific branch of classical archaeology because of the wealth of material preserved in the dry Egyptian climate, were laid by the recovery of the Rosetta Stone (see under Rosetta) and the work of French scholars who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt. Investigations that have reconstructed the lives and arts of elite segments of ancient Egyptian society and rewritten Egyptian history were carried on in the 19th cent. by Karl Lepsius, Auguste Mariette, and Gaston Maspero, and in the 19th and 20th cent. by W. M. Flinders Petrie, James Breasted, and others.

Interest in the Middle East was stimulated by the work of Edward Robinson (1794–1863) on the geography of the Bible and by the decipherment of a cuneiform inscription of Darius I, which was copied (1835) by Henry Rawlinson from the Behistun rock in Iran. Archaeology in Mesopotamia was notably advanced in the 19th cent. by Jules Oppert, Paul Botta, and Austen Layard and in the 20th cent. by Charles Woolley, Henri Frankfort, and Seton Lloyd. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, beginning in 1947, aroused new interest in biblical studies (see biblical archaeology).

Interest in complex New World cultures was stimulated by the publication by John Stephens of an account of his travels (1839) in Central America, which excited the interest of archaeologists in the Maya. In the 19th cent. studies began of the Toltec and the Aztec in Mexico and of the Inca in South America. In 1926 the discovery of human cultural remains associated with extinct fauna near Folsom, N.Mex. (see Folsom culture), established the substantial depth of prehistory for the New World (see Americas, antiquity and prehistory of the).

Modern Archaeology

In contrast to the antiquarianism of classical archaeology, anthropological archaeology today is concerned with culture history (i.e., the chronology of events and cultural traditions) and the explanation of cultural processes. A variety of different dating techniques, both relative (e.g., stratigraphy) and absolute (e.g., radiocarbon, obsidian hydration, potassium-argon), are used to place events in time. Attempts at explaining evolutionary processes underlying prehistoric remains began with the conclusion advanced in 1832 by the Danish archaeologist Christian Thomsen that cultures may be divided into stages of progress based on the principal materials used for weapons and implements. His three-age theory (the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age) was essentially based on prehistoric materials from Scandinavia and France.

Concerted investigations began in the mid-19th cent. with the stratigraphic excavation of such remains as the lake dwelling, barrow, and kitchen midden. At first the sequences of culture change uncovered in Western Europe were generalized to include all of world history, but improved techniques of field excavation and the expansion of archaeological discoveries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas challenged the universality of rigid classifications. Technological traditions ceased to be regarded as inevitable concomitants of specific cultural stages.

Later interpretations of prehistoric human life emphasize cultural responses to changing demographic and environmental conditions (see ecology). Thus the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods are evaluated in terms of subsistence technologies, and explanations are sought for the causes underlying these transitions. Advances in the recovery and analysis of botanical remains have allowed investigators to model changes in the prehistoric environment with increasing precision, improving the accuracy of such explanations. Paleobotany, the analysis of ancient plant remains, and ethnobotany, the study of the cultural utilization of plants, therefore play a vital role in modern archaeology. Faunal analysis, the recovery and analysis of animal remains such as bone, also plays an important part in the study of prehistoric ecology and subsistence patterns. The careful analysis of botanical and faunal material, combined with advances in the analysis of genetic material, have led to the detailed understanding of the process of the domestication of plants and animals in both the Old and New World. Contemporary archaeologists are also concerned with the emergence of various forms of complex social organization, including chiefdoms, class stratification, and states. Among the most important work done in the mid-20th cent. was that of Louis and Mary Leakey, who located the skeletal remains of humans in East Africa dating back 1.7 million years (see human evolution). In recent years, a number of archaeologists have turned from traditional concerns and have made efforts to reconstruct ideological elements of extinct cultures.

Modern museums with valuable collections include the Metropolitan Museum and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; the British Museum; the Louvre; national museums in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, rich in remains of the Iron Age; the Vatican and Capitoline museums, Rome; collections from Pompeii and Herculaneum at Naples, Italy; and museums in Athens, Cairo, and Jerusalem. Many universities have established schools and museums of archaeology. Organizations such as the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Geographic Society in the United States promote archaeological studies.


See G. Daniel, A Hundred and Fifty Years of Archaeology (2d ed. 1975); B. G. Trigger, A History of Archaeological Thought (1989); R. J. Wenke, Patterns in Prehistory (3d ed. 1990); G. R. Willey and J. Sabloff, A History of American Archaeology (1990); I. Hodder, Reading the Past (2d ed. 1991).

History 1450-1789: Archaeology

The modern discipline of interpreting the human past by means of material remains is built upon five centuries of antiquarian and scholarly pursuits. Study of the physical remains of the Greco-Roman past complemented the ardent search for classical texts during the Italian Renaissance, since artifacts and monuments provide a visible, tangible, authoritative (and sometimes alternative) past. Early humanists such as Petrarch and Boccaccio studied coins and inscriptions along with their philological inquiries, and Vitruvius’s (first century B.C.E.) treatise on architecture stimulated surveys of architectural remains and the topography of Rome by architects such as Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1471), Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), and Pirro Ligorio (1510–1583). Cyriacus of Ancona (1391–c. 1452) recorded ancient inscriptions and buildings during extensive travels in Italy, Greece, Egypt, and the Levant. In Rome, spectacular chance finds of sculpture like the Laocoön (in 1506) and paintings like those in Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House, 65–68 C.E.) profoundly affected artists, including Michelangelo and Raphael, and augmented papal collections. A lucrative market in antiquities encouraged random digging that sometimes yielded new information, but excavation for the sake of answering historical questions was slow to develop.

During the eighteenth century the grand tour led to Rome as a primary destination, and the enhanced awareness of antiquities and classical topography stimulated further collecting and shaped fashionable tastes. The typical tour was extended to Naples after the discovery of Herculaneum (1709; excavations began 1738) and Pompeii (1748), investigated initially by destructive tunneling in the search for treasures until more systematic efforts began in 1750 under the direction of Karl Weber (1712–1764). Architects visited the temples of Paestum (Giovanni Battista Piranesi) and Sicily and Greece (James Stuart and Nicholas Revett), recording them as antiquities and as models for contemporary practice, while Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s publications shifted antiquarianism toward the discipline of art history. The collections of antiquities that bestowed status on wealthy families eventually became central to national collections in the public museums founded in the nineteenth century.

Antiquarians in England (William Camden, John Aubrey, William Stukeley), France (the Comte de Caylus), and Germany and Scandinavia (Olaus Magnus, Ole Worm) focused on regional histories that could be recovered through close observation, walking surveys, and even some deliberate excavation of henges, megaliths, tumuli, barrows, and urn fields. They sought to merge the distinctive local histories attested by such findings with both the Roman past, using appropriate texts, and biblical antecedents, but biblical chronology constrained their efforts. Nonetheless their meticulous drawings and records and their use of hypotheses based on fieldwork set new standards, and they initiated archaeological investigations of cultures predating the Greco-Roman era.

The documentation of Egyptian antiquities during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt (1798) opened the new field of Egyptology and led to further exploration of the Near East. Soon thereafter developments in stratigraphic geology, paleontology, and especially the theory of evolution led to a more scientific and rigorous archaeology. The antiquarians, however, had successfully applied philological methods to the interpretation of inscriptions and physical remains, and their illustrated publications of Greek and Roman antiquities deeply influenced contemporary art and architecture, interior decoration, and consumer items. Their studies contributed a broader understanding of cultural history, creating taxonomies and typologies still in use and important records of material now lost.


Barkan, Leonard. Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture. New Haven, 1999.

Fagan, Brian M., ed. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. New York, 1996.

Haskell, Francis, and Nicholas Penny. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500–1900. New Haven, 1981.

Salmon, Frank. Building on Ruins: The Rediscovery of Rome and English Architecture. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, Vt., 2000.

Schnapp, Alain. The Discovery of the Past: The Origins of Archaeology. London, 1996.

Trigger, Bruce G. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1989.

Watkin, David. Athenian Stuart: Pioneer of the Greek Revival. London and Boston, 1982.

Weiss, Roberto. The Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity. 2nd ed. Oxford and New York, 1988.


Science Dictionary: archaeology


The recovery and study of material objects, such as graves, buildings, tools, artworks, and human remains, to investigate the structure and behavior of past cultures. Archaeologists rely on physical remains as clues to the emergence and development of human societies and civilizations. Anthropologists, by contrast, to interact with living people to study their cultures.

Wikipedia: Archaeology

The 2,000-year-old remains of Ancient Rome in Italy are being excavated and mapped by these archaeologists.

Roman theater, Alexandria, Egypt
Roman theater, Alexandria, Egypt
Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan.
Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan.

Archaeology, archeology, or archæology (from Greek ἀρχαιολογία, archaiologia – ἀρχαῖος, archaīos, “primal, ancient, old”; and -λογία, -logia) is the science that studies human cultures through the recovery, documentation, analysis, and interpretation of material remains and environmental data, including architecture, artifacts, features, biofacts, and landscapes. Because archaeology’s aim is to understand mankind, it is a humanistic endeavor. The goals of archaeology vary, and there is debate as to what its aims and responsibilities are. Some goals include the documentation and explanation of the origins and development of human cultures, understanding culture history, chronicling cultural evolution, and studying human behavior and ecology, for both prehistoric and historic societiesArchaeologists are also concerned with the study of methods used in the discipline, and the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings underlying the questions archaeologists ask of the past. The tasks of surveying areas in order to find new sites, excavating sites in order to recover cultural remains, classification, analysis, and preservation are all important phases of the archaeological process. These are all important sources of information. Given the broad scope of the discipline there is a great deal of cross-disciplinary research in archaeology. It draws upon anthropology, history, art history, classics, ethnology, geography, geology linguistics, physics, information sciences, chemistry, statistics, paleoecology, paleontology, paleozoology, paleoethnobotany, paleobotany .

Gilt-metal and jade-inlaid pot. Qianlong reign in the Qing dynasty of China (c. 1700)
Gilt-metal and jade-inlaid pot. Qianlong reign in the Qing dynasty of China (c. 1700)

Main article: History of archaeology

Origins and definitions

In parts of Europe and the Old World, the discipline has its roots in antiquarianism and the study of Latin and Ancient Greek, and so has a natural affinity with the field of history. The Italian Renaissance historian Flavio Biondo (1392–1463), is recognised as one of the world’s first archaeologists.[6] The first step forward towards archaeology as a science took place during the Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.[7]

Archaeology in ancient China developed from antiquarian pursuits as well, specifically from the scholar-official’s desires to revive the use of ancient relics in state ritual. This pursuit of his Chinese peers was criticized by Shen Kuo (1031–1095), who asserted that archaeology should be the pursuit of studying functionality, discovering the methods of manufacture from ancient times, and should be studied with an interdisciplinary approach.[8] Yet there were others who took the discipline as seriously as Shen; the official, historian, poet, and essayist Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072) compiled an analytical catalogue of ancient rubbings on stone and bronze which pioneered ideas in early epigraphy and archaeology.[9]

Archaeology in the Middle East began with the study of Egyptology in medieval Islamic Egypt, where Muslim historians attempted to learn about ancient Egyptian culture. The first known attempts at deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs were made by Dhul-Nun al-Misri and Ibn Wahshiyya in the 9th century, who were able to at least partly understand what was written in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, by relating them to the contemporary Coptic language used by Coptic priests in their time. Abdul Latif al-Baghdadi, a teacher at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University in the 13th century, wrote detailed descriptions on ancient Egyptian monuments.[10] Similarly, the 15th-century Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi wrote detailed accounts of Egyptian antiquities.

In North America archaeology is one of the four sub-fields, or branches of anthropology. The other three branches are cultural anthropology, the study of living cultures and societies; linguistics, the study of language, including the origins of language and language groups; and physical anthropology, includes the study of human evolution and physical and genetic characteristics.

In 1589, Jose de Acosta published Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias. In this book, he discussed, among other things, the origins of the Native Americans.

Modern archaeology

The history of archaeology has been one of increasing professionalisation, and the use of an increasing range of techniques, to obtain as much data on the site being examined as possible.

Excavations of ancient monuments and the collection of antiquities have been taking place for thousands of years, but these were mostly for the extraction of valuable or aesthetically pleasing artifacts.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann is called “the prophet and founding hero of modern archaeology,”.[11] Winckelmann was one of the founders of modern scientific archaeology by first applying empirical categories of classical (Greek and Roman) style on a large, systematic basis to the history of art and architecture.

One of the earliest modern archaeologists was Richard Colt Hoare (1758-1838). Thomas Jefferson, possibly inspired by his experiences in Europe, conducted one of the first systematic archaeological excavations in North America.[12] Jean François Champollion and Ippolito Rosellini were some of the first Egyptologists of wide acclaim.

It was only in the 19th century that the systematic study of the past through its physical remains began to be carried out. A notable early development was the founding in Rome in 1829, by Eduard Gerhard and others, of the Institute for Archaeological Correspondence (Instituto di corrispondenza archeologica or Institut für archäologische Korrespondenz). Archaeological methods were developed by both interested amateurs and professionals, including Augustus Pitt Rivers and William Flinders Petrie.

The study of ancient Aegean civilization was stimulated by the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy, and of Arthur Evans at Crete. John Lloyd Stephens was a pivotal figure in the rediscovery of Maya civilization throughout Central America.[13]

This process was continued in the 20th century by such people as Mortimer Wheeler, whose highly disciplined approach to excavation greatly improved the quality of evidence that could be obtained.

During the 20th century, the development of urban archaeology and then rescue archaeology have been important factors, as has the development of archaeological science, which has greatly increased the amount of data that it is possible to obtain.

Another branch, archaeoastronomy, is not as well known as archaeology, but deals with the study of ancient or traditional astronomies in cultural context.

Importance and applicability


Stonehenge, United Kingdom

Often archaeology provides the only means to learn of the existence and behaviors of people of the past. Across the millennia many thousands of cultures and societies and billions of people have come and gone of which there is little or no written record or existing records are misrepresentative or incomplete. Writing as it is known today did not exist in human civilization until the 4th millennium BC, in a relatively small number of technologically advanced civilizations. In contrast Homo sapiens has existed for at least 200,000 years, and other species of Homo for millions of years (see Human evolution). These civilizations are, not coincidentally, the best-known; they are open to the inquiry of historians for centuries, while the study of pre-historic cultures has arisen only recently. Even within a literate civilization many events and important human practices are not officially recorded. Any knowledge of the early years of human civilization – the development of agriculture, cult practices of folk religion, the rise of the first cities – must come from archaeology.[14]


Ten Indus glyphs discovered near the northern gate of Dholavira (perhaps 5000 years old)

Even where written records do exist, they are often incomplete and invariably biased to some extent. In many societies, literacy was restricted to the elite classes, such as the clergy or the bureaucracy of court or temple. The literacy even of aristocrats has sometimes been restricted to deeds and contracts. The interests and world-view of elites are often quite different from the lives and interests of the populace. Writings that were produced by people more representative of the general population were unlikely to find their way into libraries and be preserved there for posterity. Thus, written records tend to reflect the biases, assumptions, cultural values and possibly deceptions of a limited range of individuals, usually only a fraction of the larger population. Hence, written records cannot be trusted as a sole source. The material record is closer to a fair representation of society, though it is subject to its own inaccuracies, such as sampling bias and differential preservation.

In addition to their scientific importance, archaeological remains sometimes have political or cultural significance to descendants of the people who produced them, monetary value to collectors, or simply strong aesthetic appeal. Many people identify archaeology with the recovery of such aesthetic, religious, political, or economic treasures rather than with the reconstruction of past societies.

This view is often espoused in works of popular fiction, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy, and King Solomon’s Mines. When such unrealistic subjects are treated more seriously, accusations of pseudoscience are invariably levelled at their proponents (see Pseudoarchaeology, below). However, these endeavours, real and fictional, are not representative of modern archaeology.

Archaeological theories

Main article: Archaeological theory

There is no single theory of archaeology, and even definitions are disputed. Until the mid-20th century, there was a general consensus that archaeology was closely related to both history and anthropology.

The first major phase in the history of archaeological theory in the United States developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is commonly referred to as cultural, or culture, history. It is best known for its emphasis on historical particularism.[15]

In the 1920s in the American Southwest cultural historical archaeology was intimately tied with the direct historical approach.[15] This approach continues to be pursued in the American Southwest, the American Northwest Coast, Mesoamerica, the Andes, Oceania, Siberia, and other world areas where there appears to be continuity between living, indigenous populations and archaeological remains of past groups. In pursuing the direct historical approach, ethnohistorical and early historical records play an important role in articulating the connections between modern people and the archaeological past. Literary sources can be used in other contexts as well, for example, in the case of Hadrian’s Wall.

In the 1960s, a number of primarily American archaeologists, such as Lewis Binford and Kent Flannery, rebelled against the paradigms of cultural history.[16][17] They proposed a “New Archaeology”, which would be more “scientific” and “anthropological”, with hypothesis testing and the scientific method very important parts of what became known asprocessual archaeology.[15]

In the 1980s, a new postmodern movement arose led by the British archaeologists Michael Shanks,[18][19][20][21] Christopher Tilley,[22] Daniel Miller,[23][24] and Ian Hodder.[25][26][27][28][29][30] It questioned processualism’s appeals to scientific positivism and impartiality, and emphasised the importance of a more self-critical theoretical reflexivity[citation needed]. This approach is termed post-processual archaeology. However, this approach has been criticized by processualists as lacking scientific rigor. The validity of both processualism and post-processualism is still under debate.

Historical Processualism is an emerging paradigm that seeks to incorporate a focus on process and post-processual archaeology’s emphasis of reflexivity and history.[31]

Archaeological theory now borrows from a wide range of influences, including neo-Darwinian evolutionary thought, phenomenology, postmodernism, agency theory, cognitive science, Functionalism, gender-based and Feminist archaeology, and Systems theory.



Main article: Archaeological survey


Monte Alban archaeological site

A modern archaeological project often begins with a survey. Regional survey is the attempt to systematically locate previously unknown sites in a region. Site survey is the attempt to systematically locate features of interest, such as houses and middens, within a site. Each of these two goals may be accomplished with largely the same methods.

Survey was not widely practiced in the early days of archaeology. Cultural historians and prior researchers were usually content with discovering the locations of monumental sites from the local populace, and excavating only the plainly visible features there. Gordon Willey pioneered the technique of regional settlement pattern survey in 1949 in the Viru Valley of coastal Peru,[32][33] and survey of all levels became prominent with the rise of processual archaeology some years later.[34]

Survey work has many benefits if performed as a preliminary exercise to, or even in place of, excavation. It requires relatively little time and expense, because it does not require processing large volumes of soil to search out artifacts. (Nevertheless, surveying a large region or site can be expensive, so archaeologists often employ sampling methods.)[35] As with other forms of non-destructive archaeology, survey avoids ethical issues (of particular concern to descendant peoples) associated with destroying a site through excavation. It is the only way to gather some forms of information, such as settlement patterns and settlement structure. Survey data are commonly assembled into maps, which may show surface features and/or artifact distribution.

The simplest survey technique is surface survey. It involves combing an area, usually on foot but sometimes with the use of mechanized transport, to search for features or artifacts visible on the surface. Surface survey cannot detect sites or features that are completely buried under earth, or overgrown with vegetation. Surface survey may also include mini-excavation techniques such as augers, corers, and shovel test pits.

Aerial archaeological photography - Solt, Hungary
Aerial archaeological photography – Solt, Hungary

Aerial survey is conducted using cameras attached to airplanes, balloons, or even kites. A bird’s-eye view is useful for quick mapping of large or complex sites. Aerial photographs are used to document the status of the archaeological dig. Aerial imaging can also detect many things not visible from the surface. Plants growing above a buried man made structure, such as a stone wall, will develop more slowly, while those above other types of features (such as middens) may develop more rapidly. Photographs of ripening grain, which changes colour rapidly at maturation, have revealed buried structures with great precision. Aerial photographs taken at different times of day will help show the outlines of structures by changes in shadows. Aerial survey also employs infrared, ground-penetrating radar wavelengths, and thermography.

Archaeological geophysics can be the most effective way to see beneath the ground. Magnetometers detect minute deviations in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by iron artifacts, kilns, some types of stone structures, and even ditches and middens. Devices that measure the electrical resistivity of the soil are also widely used. Archaeological Features whose electrical resistivity contrasts with that of surrounding soils can be detected and mapped. Some archaeological features (such as those composed of stone or brick) have higher resistivity than typical soils , while others (such as organic deposits or unfired clay) tend to have lower resistivity.

Although some archaeologists consider the use of metal detectors to be tantamount to treasure hunting, others deem them an effective tool in archaeological surveying. Examples of formal archaeological use of metal detectors include musketball distribution analysis on English Civil War battlefields, metal distribution analysis prior to excavation of a nineteenth century ship wreck, and service cable location during evaluation. Metal detectorists have also contributed to the archaeological record where they have made detailed records of their results and refrained from raising artifacts from their archaeological context. In the UK, metal detectorists have been solicited for involvement in the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Regional survey in underwater archaeology uses geophysical or remote sensing devices such as marine magnetometer, side-scan sonar, or sub-bottom sonar.


Main article: Excavation


Archaeological excavation which discovered prehistoric caves in Vill, Austria


An archaeologist sifting for POW remains on Wake Island.

Archaeological excavation existed even when the field was still the domain of amateurs, and it remains the source of the majority of data recovered in most field projects. It can reveal several types of information usually not accessible to survey, such as stratigraphy, three-dimensional structure, and verifiably primary context.

Modern excavation techniques require that the precise locations of objects and features, known as their provenance or provenience, be recorded. This always involves determining their horizontal locations, and sometimes vertical position as well (also see Primary Laws of Archaeology). Similarly, their association, or relationship with nearby objects and features, needs to be recorded for later analysis. This allows the archaeologist to deduce what artifacts and features were likely used together and which may be from different phases of activity. For example, excavation of a site reveals its stratigraphy; if a site was occupied by a succession of distinct cultures, artifacts from more recent cultures will lie above those from more ancient cultures.

Excavation is the most expensive phase of archaeological research,in relative terms. Also, as a destructive process, it carries ethical concerns. As a result, very few sites are excavated in their entirety. Again the percentage of a site excavated depends greatly on the country and “method statement” issued. In places 90% excavation is common. Sampling is even more important in excavation than in survey. It is common for large mechanical equipment, such as backhoes (JCBs), to be used in excavation, especially to remove the topsoil (overburden), though this method is increasingly used with great caution. Following this rather dramatic step, the exposed area is usually hand-cleaned with trowels or hoes to ensure that all features are apparent.

The next task is to form a site plan and then use it to help decide the method of excavation. Features dug into the natural subsoil are normally excavated in portions in order to produce a visible archaeological section for recording. A feature, for example a pit or a ditch, consists of two parts: the cut and the fill. The cut describes the edge of the feature, where the feature meets the natural soil. It is the feature’s boundary. The fill is, understandably, what the feature is filled with, and will often appear quite distinct from the natural soil. The cut and fill are given consecutive numbers for recording purposes. Scaled plans and sections of individual features are all drawn on site, black and white and colour photographs of them are taken, and recording sheets are filled in describing the context of each. All this information serves as a permanent record of the now-destroyed archaeology and is used in describing and interpreting the site.


Main article: Post excavation

Once artifacts and structures have been excavated, or collected from surface surveys, it is necessary to properly study them, to gain as much data as possible. This process is known as post-excavation analysis, and is normally the most time-consuming part of the archaeological investigation. It is not uncommon for the final excavation reports on major sites to take years to be published.

At its most basic, the artifacts found are cleaned, catalogued and compared to published collections, in order to classify them typologically and to identify other sites with similar artifact assemblages. However, a much more comprehensive range of analytical techniques are available through archaeological science, meaning that artifacts can be dated and their compositions examined. The bones, plants and pollen collected from a site can all be analyzed (using the techniques of zooarchaeology, paleoethnobotany, and palynology), while any texts can usually be deciphered.

These techniques frequently provide information that would not otherwise be known and therefore contribute greatly to the understanding of a site.

Academic sub-disciplines

Main article: Archaeological sub-disciplines

As with most academic disciplines, there are a very large number of archaeological sub-disciplines characterised by a specific method or type of material (e.g. lithic analysis, music, archaeobotany), geographical or chronological focus (e.g. Near Eastern archaeology, Medieval archaeology), other thematic concern (e.g. maritime archaeology, landscape archaeology, battlefield archaeology), or a specific archaeological culture or civilisation (e.g. Egyptology, Indology, Sinology).

Historical archaeology

Historical archaeology is the study of cultures with some form of writing.

In England, archaeologists have uncovered the long-lost layouts of medieval villages abandoned after the crises of the 14th century and the equally lost layouts of 17th century parterre gardens swept away by a change in fashion.[citation needed] In downtown New York City archaeologists have exhumed the 18th century remains of the African burial ground.[citation needed]


Ethnoarchaeology is the archaeological study of living people.[36][37][38][39][40][41] The approach gained notoriety during the emphasis on middle range theory that was a feature of the processual movement of the 1960s. Early ethnoarchaeological research focused on hunting and gathering or foraging societies. Ethnoarchaeology continues to be a vibrant component of post-processual and other current archaeological approaches.[42][43][44][45]

Experimental archaeology

Experimental archaeology represents the application of the experimental method to develop more highly controlled observations of processes that create and impact the archaeological record.[46][47][48][49][50] In the context of the context of the logical positivism of processualism with its goals of improving the scientific rigor of archaeological epistemologies the experimental method gained importance. Experimental techniques remain a crucial component to improving the inferential frameworks for interpreting the archaeological record.


Archaeometry is a field of study that aims to systematize archaeological measurement. It emphasizes the application of analytical techniques from physics, chemistry, and engineering. It is a lively field of research that frequently focuses on the definition of the chemical composition of archaeological remains for source analysis.[51]

Cultural resources management

While archaeology can be done as a pure science, it can also be an applied science, namely the study of archaeological sites that are threatened by development. In such cases, archaeology is a subsidiary activity within Cultural resources management (CRM), also called heritage management in the United Kingdom.[52] Today, CRM accounts for most of the archaeological research done in the United States and much of that in western Europe as well. In the US, CRM archaeology has been a growing concern since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966, and most taxpayers, scholars, and politicians believe that CRM has helped preserve much of that nation’s history and prehistory that would have otherwise been lost in the expansion of cities, dams, and highways. Along with other statutes, the NHPA mandates that projects on federal land or involving federal funds or permits consider the effects of the project on each archaeological site.

The application of CRM in the United Kingdom is not limited to government-funded projects. Since 1990 PPG 16[53] has required planners to consider archaeology as a material consideration in determining applications for new development. As a result, numerous archaeological organisations undertake mitigation work in advance of (or during) construction work in archaeologically sensitive areas, at the developer’s expense.

In England, ultimate responsibility of care for the historic environment rests with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport[54] in association with English Heritage[55]. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the same responsibilities lie with Historic Scotland[56], Cadw[57] and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency[58] respectively.

Among the goals of CRM are the identification, preservation, and maintenance of cultural sites on public and private lands, and the removal of culturally valuable materials from areas where they would otherwise be destroyed by human activity, such as proposed construction. This study involves at least a cursory examination to determine whether or not any significant archaeological sites are present in the area affected by the proposed construction. If these do exist, time and money must be allotted for their excavation. If initial survey and/or test excavation indicates the presence of an extraordinarily valuable site, the construction may be prohibited entirely. CRM is a thriving entity, especially in the United States and Europe where archaeologists from private companies and all levels of government engage in the practice of their discipline.

Cultural resources management has, however, been criticized. CRM is conducted by private companies that bid for projects by submitting proposals outlining the work to be done and an expected budget. It is not unheard-of for the agency responsible for the construction to simply choose the proposal that asks for the least funding. CRM archaeologists face considerable time pressure, often being forced to complete their work in a fraction of the time that might be allotted for a purely scholarly endeavour. Compounding the time pressure is the vetting process of site reports which are required (in the US) to be submitted by CRM firms to the appropriate State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). From the SHPO’s perspective there is to be no difference between a report submitted by a CRM firm operating under a deadline, and a multi-year academic project. The end result is that for a Cultural Resource Management archaeologist to be successful, they must be able to produce academic quality documents at a corporate world pace.

The annual ratio of open academic archaeology positions (inclusive of Post-Doc, temporary, and non tenure track appointments) to the annual number of archaeology MA/MSc and PhD students is grossly disproportionate. This dearth of academic positions causes a predictable excess of well educated individuals who join the ranks of the following year’s crop of non-academically employed archaeologists. Cultural Resource Management, once considered an intellectual backwater for individuals with “strong backs and weak minds”[59] has reaped the benefit of this massive pool of well educated professionals. This results in CRM offices increasingly staffed by advance degreed individuals with a track record of producing scholarly articles but who have the notches on their trowels to show they have been in the trenches as a shovelbum.

Popular views of archaeology


Largest archaeology site in the Middle East. Bet She’an, Israel

Early archaeology was largely an attempt to uncover spectacular artifacts and features, or to explore vast and mysterious abandoned cities. Such pursuits continue to fascinate the public. Books, films, and video games, such as The City of Brass,King Solomon’s Mines, Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, The Mummy and Relic Hunter all testify to the public’s interest in the discovery aspect of archaeology.

Much thorough and productive research has indeed been conducted in dramatic locales such as Copán and the Valley of the Kings, but the bulk of activities and finds of modern archaeology are not so sensational. Archaeological adventure stories tend to ignore the painstaking work involved in carrying out modern survey, excavation, and data processing. Some archaeologists refer to such portrayals as “pseudoarchaeology”.

Archaeology has been portrayed in the mainstream media in sensational ways. This has its advantages and disadvantages. Many practitioners point to the childhood excitement of Indiana Jones films and Tomb Raider video games as the inspiration for them to enter the field[citation needed]. Archaeologists are also very much reliant on public support, the question of exactly who they are doing their work for is often discussed [60]. Without a strong public interest in the subject, often sparked by significant finds and celebrity archaeologists, it would be a great deal harder for archaeologists to gain the political and financial support they require.

Public archaeology

Motivated by a desire to halt looting, curb pseudoarchaeology, and to help preserve archaeological sites through education and fostering public appreciation for the importance of archaeological heritage, archaeologists are mounting public-outreach campaigns.[61] They seek to stop looting by combatting people who illegally take artifacts from protected sites, and by alerting people who live near archaeological sites of the threat of looting. Common methods of public outreach include press releases, and the encouragement of school field trips to sites under excavation by professional archaeologists[citation needed]. Public appreciation of the significance of archaeology and archaeological sites often leads to improved protection from encroaching development or other threats.

One audience for archaeologists’ work is the public. They increasingly realize that their work can benefit non-academic and non-archaeological audiences, and that they have a responsibility educate and inform the public about archaeology. Local heritage awareness is aimed at increasing civic and individual pride through projects such as community excavation projects, and better public presentations of archaeological sites and knowledge[citation needed].

In the UK, popular archaeology programs such as Time Team and Meet the Ancestors have resulted in a huge upsurge in public interest[citation needed]. Where possible, archaeologists now make more provisions for public involvement and outreach in larger projects than they once did, and many local archaeological organizations operate within the Community archaeology framework to expand public involvement in smaller-scale, more local projects. Archaeological excavation, however, is best undertaken by well-trained staff that can work quickly and accurately. Often this requires observing the necessary health and safety and indemnity insurance issues involved in working on a modern building site with tight deadlines. Certain charities and local government bodies sometimes offer places on research projects either as part of academic work or as a defined community project[citation needed]. There is also a flourishing industry selling places on commercial training excavations and archaeological holiday tours[citation needed].

Archaeologists prize local knowledge and often liaise with local historical and archaeological societies, which is one reason why Community archaeology projects are starting to become more common. Often archaeologists are assisted by the public in the locating of archaeological sites, which professional archaeologists have neither the funding, nor the time to do. Anyone looking to participate in archaeological opportunities should contact one of these local societies or organizations.


Main article: Pseudoarchaeology

Pseudoarchaeology is an umbrella term for all activities that claim to be archaeological but in fact violate commonly accepted archaeological practices. It includes much fictional archaeological work (discussed above), as well as some actual activity. Many non-fiction authors have ignored the scientific methods of processual archaeology, or the specific critiques of it contained in post-processualism.

An example of this type is the writing of Erich von Däniken. His 1968 book, Chariots of the Gods?, together with many subsequent lesser-known works, expounds a theory of ancient contacts between human civilisation on Earth and more technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilisations. This theory, known as palaeocontact theory, or Ancient astronaut theory, is not exclusively Däniken’s, nor did the idea originate with him. Works of this nature are usually marked by the renunciation of well-established theories on the basis of limited evidence and the interpretation of evidence with a preconceived theory in mind.

Xenoarchaeology is the hypothetical future examination of the archaeology of extraterrestrials. It is theoretical and based in science fiction work, and is not a recognised sub-discipline of archaeology.

Cryptoarchaeology claims to be a valid form of archaeology, in that it may follow commonly accepted best practices and the scientific method of processual archaeology, though it focuses on anomalous discoveries and other such remains that do not adhere to orthodox theory and thought.



A looter’s pit on the morning following its excavation, taken at Rontoy, Huaura Valley, Peru in June 2007. Several small holes left by looters’ prospecting probes can be seen, as well as their footprints.


Stela of a king named Adad-Nirari. Object stolen from the Iraq National Museum in the looting in connection with the Iraq war of 2003.

Looting of archaeological sites by people – amateurs as well as professional archaeologists – in search of hoards of buried treasure or simply ancient cultural artifacts is an ancient problem. For instance, many of the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs were looted in antiquity. [62] Many Native American Indians today, such as Vine Deloria, Jr., consider any removal of cultural artifacts from a Native American Indian site to be theft, and much of professional archaeology as academic looting.

Archaeology stimulates interest in ancient objects, but it can also attract unwelcome attention by looters to these places[citation needed], and the removal of material culture by archaeologists. The commercial and academic demand for artifacts encourages looting and the illicit antiquities trade, which smuggles items abroad to private collectors. Looters, construction and archaeology damage or destroy archaeological sites, deny archaeologists valuable information that would be recovered from excavation, deny indigenous people access and control over their ‘cultural resources’, and ultimately rob people of the opportunity to know their past.[63]

Popular consciousness often associates looting with poor Third World countries[citation needed], but this is a false assumption.[63] A lack of financial resources and political will are chronic worldwide problems inhibiting more effective protection of archaeological sites.

In 1937 W. F. Hodge the Director of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles CA, released a statement that the museum would no longer purchase or accept collections from looted contexts.[64] The first conviction of the transport of artifacts illegally removed from private property under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA; Public Law 96-95; 93 Statute 721; 16 U.S.C. 470aamm) was in 1992 in the State of Indiana.[65]

Descendant peoples

In the United States, examples such as the case of Kennewick Man have illustrated the tensions between Native Americans and archaeologists which can be summarized as a conflict between a need to remain respectful towards burials sacred sites and the academic benefit from studying them. For years, American archaeologists dug on Indian burial grounds and other places considered sacred, removing artifacts and human remains to storage facilities for further study. In some cases human remains were not even thoroughly studied but instead archived rather than reburied. Furthermore, Western archaeologists’ views of the past often differ from those of tribal peoples. The West views time as linear; for many natives, it is cyclic. From a Western perspective, the past is long-gone; from a native perspective, disturbing the past can have dire consequences in the present.

As a consequence of this, American Indians attempted to prevent archaeological excavation of sites inhabited by their ancestors, while American archaeologists believed that the advancement of scientific knowledge was a valid reason to continue their studies. This contradictory situation was addressed by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA, 1990), which sought to reach a compromise by limiting the right of research institutions to possess human remains. Due in part to the spirit of postprocessualism, some archaeologists have begun to actively enlist the assistance of indigenous peoples likely to be descended from those under study.

Archaeologists have also been obliged to re-examine what constitutes an archaeological site in view of what native peoples believe to constitute sacred space. To many native peoples, natural features such as lakes, mountains or even individual trees have cultural significance. Australian archaeologists especially have explored this issue and attempted to survey these sites in order to give them some protection from being developed. Such work requires close links and trust between archaeologists and the people they are trying to help and at the same time study.

While this cooperation presents a new set of challenges and hurdles to fieldwork, it has benefits for all parties involved. Tribal elders cooperating with archaeologists can prevent the excavation of areas of sites that they consider sacred, while the archaeologists gain the elders’ aid in interpreting their finds. There have also been active efforts to recruit aboriginal peoples directly into the archaeological profession.


A new trend in the heated controversy between First Nations groups and scientists is the repatriation of native artifacts to the original descendants. An example of this occurred June 21, 2005, when community members and elders from a number of the 10 Algonquian nations in the Ottawa area convened on the Kitigan Zibi reservation near Maniwaki, Quebec, to inter ancestral human remains and burial goods — some dating back 6,000 years.

The ceremony marked the end of a journey spanning thousands of years and many miles. The remains and artifacts, including beads, tools and weapons, were originally excavated from various sites in the Ottawa Valley, including Morrison and the Allumette Islands. They had been part of the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s research collection for decades, some since the late 1800s. Elders from various Algonquin communities conferred on an appropriate reburial, eventually deciding on traditional redcedar and birchbark boxes lined with redcedar chips, muskrat and beaver pelts.

Now, an inconspicuous rock mound marks the reburial site where close to 90 boxes of various sizes are buried. Although negotiations were at times tense between the Kitigan Zibi community and museum, they were able to reach agreement.[66]

Kennewick Man is another repatriation candidate that has been the source of heated debate.


From Antiquarianism to Archaeology

I n histories of European archaeology, the term ‘antiquarianism’ usually refers to the discovery, collection and description of antiquities, to the amateur study of artefacts or monuments. In such study, artefacts and monuments are treated as ends in themselves. In early-nineteenth-century India, however, the word ‘antiquarianism’ had broader and more scholarly connotations. It was a time when strict disciplinary boundaries had not yet been drawn, allowing ‘antiquarian’ and ‘antiquary’ to be used as umbrella terms sheltering scholars who ranged over diverse areas—such as the study of ancient texts, languages, inscriptions, coins, antiquities, monuments, chronologies, and history. It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the term ‘archaeology’ came to the fore and began to assume a distinct identity within Orientalist discourse, denoting a branch of study concerned with the material remains of the past, with artefacts, sites, and monuments.

The formative phase in the history of antiquarian and archaeological research in India more or less coincided with the century of ‘Company raj’, the hundred years which stretched from the conquest of Bengal in the 1 750s and 1 760s to the Revolt of 1857. Changes in the nature and structure of colonial rule over this time, and the impact and responses these generated, had their ideological counterpart: there were visible shifts in the ideology of empire, in the many, complex intellectual strands that sought to justify and legitimize British rule in India. This process of legitimization rested as much on interpretations of India’s past as of its present.

The Discovery of Ancient India

The Surveyors

The expansion of the East India Company’s Indian empire was accompanied by steadily intensifying initiatives and attempts to build up a body of knowledge about the country. The primary agents of these endeavours were the Company’s civil and military officers. One of the important early contributors to the construction of geographical knowledge was James Rennell. Rennell’s survey of Bengal (1765—71) was the first regional cartography of the subcontinent. His maps of India and their accompanying memoirs were published in the 1780s and 1 790s. Other landmarks in this mapping enterprise were William Lambton’s triangulation survey south of the Krishna rivet, funded by the Madras government. In 1817, the Calcutta government took over responsibility for the triangulation, and this came to be known as the Great Trigonometrical Survey. The separate trigonometrical surveys which assumed this grand collective name were meant to provide the grid for the various topographical, cadastral, and revenue surveys that were also launched in this period.

The surveys really took off in the second half of the nineteenth century, especially after 1857, when the rule of the East India Company made way for that of the British crown. Geological surveys were put on an organized footing in 1856; the first archaeological survey was launched in 1861, with the Archaeological Survey of India being established in 1871; the Indian Meteorological Department was set up in 1875; and by 1876 the basic triangulatory measurements of the Trigonometrical Survey of India were complete. By this time, a basic topographical survey of the country had also been almost accomplished. Geodetic observations began in the 1870s, and 1877 saw the beginnings of a systematic recording of tidal observations. Between 1875 and 1882 the Marine Surveys Department conducted the first phase of its surveys. The second phase followed in 1882—90, when the headquarters of the department moved from Calcutta to Bombay. The first general census was launched in 1871—2 and a second, more systematic and extensive one, was conducted in 1881. The establishment

2 The East India Company’s cartographic projects are discussed in detail by Edney (1999).

Black (1891).

From Antiquarianism to Archaeology    3

of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1871 was thus part of a wide range of surveys launched by the colonial government.

Early survey activities, of both the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries, were not as smooth and orderly as is sometimes thought. One reason was the initial lack of centralized coordination. The coordinating body, the Survey of India, which unified the trigonometrical, topographical, and revenue surveys, was established only in 1878, over a century after the earliest surveys had been launched. Uncoordinated statistical surveys of the eighteenth century were, similarly, placed on a systematic footing fairly late in the day—with W.W. Hunter, who was appointed director general of statistics in 1871. The nine volumes of the Imperial Gazetteer of India, published in 1881, were a consequence of this measure.

The idea of somewhat haphazard and amateur activity is reinforced if we look at the profiles of the men involved in survey work of various kinds during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Even among those who eventually applied themselves to fairly technical work, m had no special prior training in the area. They simply acquired their skill while on the job. This was the case, for instance, with the surveyor Reuben Burrow, who taught himself mathematics, astronomy, and surveying. Colonel Co Mackenzie, the better-known surveyor (and collector) of the period, was also a self-taught and self- made man. A third name of significance is Francis Buchanan. The statistical surveys of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were especially significant from the archaeological point of view.

Cohn Mackenzie was a Scotsman who started his Indian career with the Madras infantry; shortly after, he was transferred to the Madras Engineers.5 Between 1800 and 1810 Mackenzie was involved in a survey of Mysore and other parts of South India. In 1810, he became the first surveyor general of Madras. Between 1811 and 1814 he was sent off to serve in java Soon after this return to India, he was appointed the

Cohn (1997: 80—1) points out that in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries) the term ‘statistical’ did not have the connotations of collection, aggregation and presentation of numerical data. It simply implied the collection of information considered necessary and useful to the state.


first surveyor general of India (in 1815), and continued in this post till his death in 1821.

Mackenzie had come to India out of an interest in Indian mathematics. After his arrival, this interest broadened and came to embrace ancient manuscripts, antiquities, and history. In these spheres, Mackenzie is known primarily as a collector. Over the many years of his travels as surveyor, principally in South India, he collected an enormous historical archive—the largest ever amassed by an individual before or since his time. Over his early career, military and engineering duties frequently tore him away from survey work; in the second phase of his career the demands of official survey work in some ways helped and in others hindered the parallel survey’ or collection work he was con ducting at his own initiative and expense. In spite of the constraints under which he operated, by the time he died Mackenzie’s collection had swelled to include hundreds of manuscripts, drawings, copies of inscriptions, coins, transcripts of traditional histories, and antiquities. While Mackenzie was himself the dynamic force behind this mammoth venture, he was assisted by a number of Indian assistants (including Brahmin pundits and a maulavi), principal among whom were C.V. Boria and Cavelly Venkata Lachmia.

Mackenzie did not systematize his collection nor use it in any large measure to construct a men-text on India’s history. No report or journal of his surveys ever appeared in print. His collection was catalogued several years after his death by H.H. Wilson, in 1828, but no part of it was ever actually published. Today, almost two centuries later, the ‘Mackenzie Collection’) preserved in the British Library, has assumed a different sort of significance—as a graphic, if not entirely typical, representation of the encounter between early colonial rule and India’s past and traditions.

Francis Buchanan, like Cohn Mackenzie, was a Scot. Trained as a surgeon in Edinburgh, he joined the Bengal medical service (he assumed the name Hamilton some years after his retirement from India). In 1800, Buchanan was commissioned by Governor General Wellesley

After Mackenzie’s death, most of his oriental manuscripts eventually found their way to the Government Oriental Library in Madras, while the largest collection of the Mackenzie drawings currently forms part of the Oriental and India Office Library Collection of the British Library.

See Dirks (1994) and Cohn (1997): Chap. 4.

to conduct a survey of Mysore. The area was not under the East India Company’s direct rule, the survey set its sights on benefits that might accrue in the long run. The results of Buchanan’s investigations were published in 1807, in three volumes.

In the same year, the Court of Directors appointed Buchanan to undertake another statistical survey, this time of the Bengal Presidency. Buchanan did a variety of things in the course of this survey:

he compiled details of the occupational background of the inhabitants of various places, measured the temperatures of hot springs, collected botanical and geological specimens, measured distances and made detailed maps of the areas he traversed, and described the antiquities he saw and the sites he visited. The survey lasted seven years, and Buchanan submitted his report in 1816. A heavily edited and abridged version of the report, which left out a good deal of the information Buchanan had collected on antiquities and sites, was published in three volumes many years later, in 1838, by one Montgomery Martin. The detailed maps that Buchanan had compiled were never published, and the late publication of his report meant that his notices of important sites were left to others to announce. In fact, while Montgomery Martin’s name was prominently displayed on the title page of the published version of the report, Francis Buchanan’s was conspicuous by its absence.

The material collected and presented by Mackenzie and Buchanan is significant from several perspectives. It is part of the colonial enterprise and tells us about strategies of control. Neither Mackenzie norBuchanan can be described as archaeologists; nevertheless, statistical surveys of this period generally contained a good deal of undigested historical and archaeological material, some of which was collected by surveyors at their own initiative (although they were given a very wide brief), and in Mackenzie’s case at his own expense. Of particular importance, in such work, is the description of sites as they existed at the time of the surveys, often long before they were visited and described by archaeologists by which time they often presented a very different appearances Buchanan’s reports are, in this respect, even more significant than Mackenzie’s. Buchanan was one of the first to recognize the Importance of detailed plans and measurements of monuments