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 objects to learn about the past. 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 smaller family units? Did they trade with people from other regions? Were they warlike or peaceful? Archaeologists ask all of these questions and more. History Of Archaeology The word "archaeology" comes from the Greek word "arkhaios," which means "ancient." People have dug up monuments and collected artifacts for thousands of years. Artifacts are things like tools, pottery, and jewelry. Often, these people were looters and grave robbers looking to make money or build up their personal collections. In the mid-1800s, an Egyptian man found the tomb of Pharaoh Ramses I. Ramses I ruled for a short time about 3,300 years ago. The tomb also held pottery, paintings, and sculpture. Looters sold everything they could sell, including the pharaoh's mummy. Ramses I wound up in a museum in Georgia and was returned to Egypt in 2003. Some archaeologists of this time were rich explorers. Many of them were genuinely interested in the culture they studied. However, now their work is seen differently. They took advantage of local people and stole their cultural heritage. The Elgin Marbles is an example. In 1801, Lord Elgin was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Greece belonged to the Ottomans, who were from Turkey. Elgin took ancient marble sculptures from Athens, Greece, and brought them home. The government of Greece has been trying to get them back ever since. Today, in most countries, archaeologists must get permission to dig. 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 and where on the site to dig. They observe, record, and categorize what they find. They decide what it means. Then they share their results with other scientists and the public. Archaeologists specialize in many different kinds of things. Underwater archaeologists study materials at the bottom of lakes, rivers, and oceans. Shipwrecks are one kind of artifact studied by underwater archaeologists. In 1985, Robert Ballard helped locate the wreck of RMS Titanic, which sank in the Atlantic in 1912. About 1,500 people lost their lives. By using remote-controlled cameras, Ballard found artifacts like furniture, lights and children's toys. Prehistoric And Historic Archaeology There are two major areas of archaeology. The first is prehistoric archaeology, and the second is historic archaeology. Prehistoric civilizations did not leave behind written records. Their artifacts and features are the only information we have about their lives. Features are things like buildings and roads. The builders of Stonehenge in Great Britain, for instance, did not leave records. They did not tell us why it was built and how it was used. Archaeologists must rely on the enormous stones for clues. Another area of archaeology is paleopathology. Paleopathologists study disease in ancient cultures. They might examine teeth to see what people ate thousands of years ago. Historic archaeology uses written records. One of the most famous examples is the Rosetta Stone. It is a large slab of marble discovered in Egypt in 1799. The stone was written and carved in three different languages — hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek. Hieroglyphics are the picture-symbols in ancient Egypt, and demotic was the everyday writing system in ancient Egypt. Before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, Egyptologists did not understand either one. They could, however, understand Greek. Using the Greek part, they were able to translate the hieroglyphs. Other Disciplines Ethnoarchaeologists study how people use objects today. It helps them understand how tools were used in the past. Some archaeologists are interested in the modern San culture of southern Africa, for instance. They study their tools to understand how the ancient San tracked and hunted animals. Environmental archaeologists study environmental conditions in the past. For instance, about 1400 years ago, the climate in the Brazilian highlands became wetter. The forest grew, providing more timber, plants, and animals for the Taquara/Itararé people. These resources let them move to other areas. Experimental archaeologists made copies of old artifacts. One of the most famous examples is the Kon-Tiki. It was a large raft built by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. In 1947, Heyerdahl sailed the Kon-Tiki from South America to Polynesia. He wanted to show that ancient mariners could have crossed the Pacific Ocean. Cultural resource management (CRM) architects are usually hired by towns or construction companies. They look and preserve remains on construction sites. Where To Dig? Most archaeology involves digging. Winds and floods carry sand, dust, and soil. They build up on top of features and artifacts and bury them. Cities and communities also are built in layers. Rome, Italy, has been a city for thousands of years. Archaeologists, for example, 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 choose sites based on old stories. Before digging, an archaeological team looks for artifacts on the ground. Sometimes features can't be seen from the ground. Images from airplanes and satellites can show patterns. Other technologies give clues about what lies under the surface. Sometimes, sites are found by accident. In 1974, workers were digging a well in Xian, China. They discovered the remains of an enormous grave for Qin Shi Huangdi, China's first emperor. It included 7,000 life-sized clay soldiers, horses, chariots, and artillery. They are known as the Terra Cotta Warriors. Before moving any dirt, archaeologists must map the area and take detailed photographs. The last step is to divide the site into a grid. These squares help archaeologists keep track of where each artifact is found Today, scientists use technology to determine the age of an artifact. They are able to analyze bones to see what kinds of animals people used and ate. Archaeologists use technology to probe the earth below without disturbing the ground. The Big Dig Digging is the field work of archaeology. Occasionally, archaeologists might need to move earth with bulldozers and backhoes. Usually, they use tools such as brushes, hand shovels, and even toothbrushes to scrape away the earth. Often, they will sift dirt through a screen to catch the tiniest artifacts. Archaeologists take lots of notes and photographs along each step of the process. Global positioning system (GPS) units help them map the location. When archaeologists find artifacts, they are often broken or damaged. Sunlight, rain, soil, animals, and bacteria can cause them to wear away, rust, rot, break, and warp. Uncovered Artifacts The archaeological team makes a record of the artifacts. They use photos, drawings, and notes. After the artifacts are out of the ground, they are cleaned, labeled, and classified. The scientists write up their findings and publish them in scientific journals. The public also learns what scientists discover about our history.

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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