Archaeology is the study of the human past using material remains. These remains can be any objects that people created, modified, or used.


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Arts and Music, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, World History

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Archaeologists study ancient objects. They use these objects to learn about the past. Archaeologists ask many questions and discover information from objects. When did people develop tools, and how did they use them? What did they use to make clothing and what did they eat? Did they live in large groups or in smaller families? Did they trade with people from other regions? Were they warlike or peaceful? History Of Archaeology The word "archaeology" comes from the Greek word "arkhaios." It means "ancient." People have dug up the past for thousands of years. Often, these people were grave robbers. They were looking to make money or find objects for their collections. In the 1800s, the tomb of Pharaoh Ramses I was found. Ramses I ruled Egypt about 3,300 years ago. His tomb also held pottery, paintings, and jewelry. Looters stole everything they could sell. They also took the mummy of the pharaoh. Ramses I wound up in a museum in the United States. He was returned to Egypt in 2003. Some archaeologists of this time were rich explorers. Now their work is seen differently. They took advantage of local people and stole their history. The Elgin Marbles are an example. In 1801, Lord Elgin was a British official. He took ancient marble sculptures from Athens, Greece. Then he brought them to England. The government of Greece is still trying to get them back. Today, in most countries, archaeologists must get permission. Anything they find is owned by that country. Disciplines Of Archaeology Archaeology is based on the scientific method. Archaeologists ask questions and develop hypotheses. They use evidence to choose a dig site. They observe and record what they find. They decide what it means and how it fits in with other pieces of information. Then they share their results. Archaeologists specialize in many different kinds of things. Underwater archaeologists study shipwrecks and buried cities. Prehistoric And Historic Archaeology There are two major areas of archaeology. The first is prehistoric archaeology. The second is historic archaeology. Prehistoric civilizations did not leave behind written records. Their artifacts and buildings are the only information we have about them. Stonehenge is in Great Britain. It is a ring of giant stones and was built about 5,000 years ago. Its builders did not leave records. Archaeologists do not know for sure why it was built and used. They must rely on the enormous stones for clues. Another area of archaeology is paleopathology. Paleopathologists study ancient diseases. They might examine teeth to see what people ate thousands of years ago. Historic archaeology uses written records. The Rosetta Stone is a large slab of marble. It was discovered in Egypt in 1799. The stone was carved in three different languages. Two were ancient Egyptian languages and the third was Greek. Experts only knew Greek. Using the Greek part, they figured out the other two languages. Other Disciplines Ethnoarchaeologists study how people use objects today. It helps them understand how older groups of people used them. Some archaeologists are interested in modern San people. They live in southern Africa. The archaeologists study their tools. The tools show them how the ancient San hunted animals. Environmental archaeologists study weather conditions in the past. Sometimes, the weather can have a big effect on culture. About 1400 years ago, the climate in the Brazilian highlands became wetter. The forest grew. It provided more timber, plants, and animals for the local people, called Taquara/Itararé. Experimental archaeology is another field. Experimental archaeologists make copies of old artifacts. One of the most famous examples is the Kon-Tiki. It was a large raft built by a Norwegian explorer. In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl sailed the Kon-Tiki from South America to Polynesia in the South Pacific. He wanted to show that ancient people crossed the Pacific Ocean. Where To Dig? Most archaeology involves digging. Winds and floods carry sand, dust, and soil. They bury objects and buildings. Cities and communities also are built in layers. Rome, Italy, has been a city for thousands of years. For example, archaeologists may be looking for an ancient Roman fortress. First, they may have to dig up a bakery from the 1500s. Often it's hard to figure out where to dig. Sometimes they decide based on old stories. Before digging, an archaeological team looks for artifacts on the ground. Some technologies will show them what is underground. Sometimes, sites are found by accident. In 1974, workers were digging a well in Xian, China. They discovered an enormous grave for Qin Shi Huangdi. He was China's first emperor. It included 7,000 life-sized clay soldiers, horses, and chariots. The soldiers are called the Terra Cotta Warriors. Before moving any dirt, archaeologists must map the area. They also take photographs. Then they divide the site into a grid. These squares help archaeologists keep track of where things are found. Today, scientists use technology to find how old an artifact is. Bones can tell them what kinds of animals people ate. The Big Dig Digging is the work of archaeology. Sometimes, archaeologists move earth with bulldozers. Usually, they use small tools to scrape away the earth. To catch the tiniest artifacts, they sift dirt through a screen. Archaeologists take lots of notes and photographs. They use Global positioning systems (GPS) to help them make maps. GPS devices use satellites to pinpoint a place. Uncovered Artifacts The archaeological team makes a record of the artifacts. They use photos, drawings, and notes. The artifacts are often broken or damaged. After they come out of the ground, they are cleaned and labeled. The scientists write up their findings. They publish them in scientific magazines.

Fast Fact

The ABCs of Dating
Sometimes dates are listed as BC or AD. Other times they show up as B.C.E. or C.E. What is the difference?

BC stands for Before Christ, and it is used to date events that happened before the birth of Jesus, whom Christians consider the son of God. AD refers to Anno Domini, Latin for year of our Lord, and refers to all the years from Jesus birth onward. In the late 20th century, scientists realized they were basing the entire history of the world around the birth of one religious figure.

Many archeologists now prefer the terms B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era). The dates are still the same, only the letters have changed.

Fast Fact

Ancient Cannibals
Some ancient humans may have indulged in cannibalism on a regular basis. Archaeologists discovered 800,000-year-old remains from an early human species, Homo antecessor, in a Spanish cave. Among the remains were human bones with marks on them that appear to come from stone tools used to prepare meals.

Fast Fact

Sherds and Shards
Many archaeologists study broken bits of pottery. These fragments are called potsherds, and sometimes just sherds. Sherds can be anything from bits of a broken water jug to a piece of a clay tablet to the components of China's "Terra Cotta Warriors."

Shards are broken bits of glass, which are also important to archaeology. Shards include fragments of ancient windows, wine bottles, and jewelry.

Fast Fact

Trashy Science
Most archaeologists study the past, but some study people who are still alive. For example, Dr. William Rathje uses his archaeological skills to dig through present-day garbage bins and landfills to learn about what Americans consume, discard, and waste.

Media Credits

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Diane Boudreau
Melissa McDaniel
Erin Sprout
Andrew Turgeon
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther, Illustrator
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
Expert Reviewer
Daniel McClarnon
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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