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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Archaeology is the study of the human past using objects that people created, changed, or used. Archaeologists use artifacts and features, like buildings and roads, to learn how people lived in specific times and places. They want to know what these people's daily lives were like, how they were governed and interacted, and what they believed and valued. Sometimes, artifacts and features provide the only clues about an ancient community or civilization. Prehistoric civilizations did not leave behind written records. Archaeologists studying Stonehenge in Great Britain, for instance, do not have ancient manuscripts to tell them why it was built or how it was used. Archaeologists must rely on the enormous stones themselves for clues. Most cultures with writing systems leave written records that archaeologists consult and study. Some of the most valuable written records are everyday items, such as shopping lists and tax forms. Many ancient civilizations had complex writing systems that archaeologists and linguists are still working to decipher. The written system of the Mayan language, for instance, remained a mystery to scholars until the 20th century. The Maya were one of the most powerful pre-Columbian civilizations in Mesoamerica. Understanding the basics of the Mayan writing system helped archaeologists discover how Mayan culture functioned. They learned how they were governed, what they ate, and what gods they worshipped. As archaeologists become more fluent in Mayan writing, they are making new discoveries about the culture. Today, some archaeologists work with linguists to preserve the once-lost Mayan language. 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. Often, these people were not scholars, but looters and grave robbers looking to make money or build up their personal collections. For instance, grave robbers have been plundering the tombs of Egypt since the pyramids were built.
Grave robbing was such a common crime in ancient Egypt that many tombs have hidden chambers. The family of the deceased would place treasures there to keep them safe. In the mid-1800s, an Egyptian man who said he was searching for a lost goat stumbled across the tomb of Pharaoh Ramses I. Ramses I ruled for a short time in the 1290s B.C.E. Besides the body of the pharaoh, the tomb held artifacts such as pottery, paintings, and sculpture. Looters would sell anything from the tomb that could make a profit. The mummy of Ramses I wound up in a museum in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, where it remained until 1999. The Canadian museum sold the Egyptian collection to the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, which returned Ramses I to Egypt in 2003. One of the most well-known archaeological finds was the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, also known as King Tut. Unlike many other Egyptian tombs, grave robbers had never discovered King Tut. His resting place lay undisturbed for thousands of years until it was discovered in 1922. In addition to the mummy of Tutankhamun, the tomb contained some 5,000 artifacts, including gold and jewels. Many early archaeologists worked for invading armies. When General Napoleon Bonaparte of France invaded Egypt in 1798, he brought scholars and scientists to document his conquest. Napoleon's troops took home tons of Egyptian antiquities. Some archaeologists of this time were wealthy adventurers, explorers, and merchants. These amateur archaeologists often had a sincere interest in the culture and artifacts they studied. However, now their work is seen as exploiting local people. The Elgin Marbles are an example. In 1801, Greece was still a part of the Ottoman Empire. At the time, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, claimed he received permission to remove half of the sculptures from the famous Acropolis of Athens, Greece. Lord Elgin claimed he wanted to protect the marbles from damage. He brought them to England, where they are now on display at the British Museum in London. The government of Greece has been lobbying for the return of the Elgin Marbles ever since. Most Greeks view the sculptures as part of their cultural heritage. Eventually, archaeology evolved from treasure hunting into a more scientific field. Scientists started using standard weights and measures for recording and removing artifacts. They required detailed drawings and drafts of the entire dig site, as well as individual pieces. In the 20th century, archaeologists began to reassess their impact on the cultures and environments where they dig. Today, in most countries, archaeological remains become the property of the country where they were found. In Egypt, for example, archaeological teams must obtain permission from the Egyptian government to excavate. All artifacts become the property of Egypt. Disciplines Of Archaeology Archaeology is based on the scientific method. Archaeologists ask questions and develop hypotheses, and use evidence to choose a dig site and where on the site to dig. They observe, record, categorize, and interpret what they find and then share their results with other scientists and the public. 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 the RMS Titanic, which sank in the Atlantic in 1912. About 1,500 people lost their lives. By exploring the Titanic using remote-controlled cameras, Ballard and his crew discovered that the ship broke into two large pieces as it sank. They also found hundreds of artifacts, such as furniture, lighting fixtures, and children's toys. Prehistoric And Historic Archaeology There are two major areas of archaeologyprehistoric archaeology and historic archaeology. Prehistoric archaeology deals with civilizations that did not develop writing. Artifacts from these societies may provide the only clues we have about their lives. Archaeologists studying the Clovis people, for instance, have found only arrowheads — called projectile points — and stone tools. The arrowheads were first discovered in Clovis, New Mexico. Archaeologists have dated these Clovis points to 13,000 years ago. This places the Clovis people among the earliest inhabitants of North America. A subdiscipline of archaeology is paleopathology, the study of disease in ancient cultures. Paleopathologists investigate disease in a community and how different communities reacted to disease. Studying the history of a disease helps scientists now understand modern diseases. Paleopathologists can also find clues about people's overall health. By studying the teeth of ancient people, for example, they can deduce what kinds of food they ate, how often they ate, and what nutrients the foods contained. Historic archaeology incorporates written records into archaeological research. One of the most famous examples of historic archaeology is the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone is a large slab of marble discovered near Rashid, Egypt, by French archaeologists in 1799. The stone is inscribed with a decree by Pharaoh Ptolemy V. The decree was written and carved into the stone in three different languages — hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek. Hieroglyphics are the picture-symbols used for formal documents in ancient Egypt, and demotic was the informal script of ancient Egypt. Before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, Egyptologists did not understand either one. They could, however, understand Greek. Using the Greek portion of the Rosetta Stone, archaeologists and linguists were able to translate the text and decipher hieroglyphs. Historic archaeology contributes to many disciplines, including religious studies. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, are a collection of about 900 documents. The tightly rolled parchment and other writing sheets were found between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves near Qumran near the Dead Sea. Among the scrolls are texts from the Hebrew Bible, written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest versions of biblical texts ever found, dating from between the third century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. The scrolls also contain texts, psalms, and prophecies that are not part of today's Bible. Discovery of the scrolls has increased our knowledge of the development of Judaism and Christianity. Another subdiscipline, industrial archaeology, is the study materials from the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s and 1800s. One of the most important sites for industrial archaeologists is the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire, England. During the Industrial Revolution, the gorge was used to transport raw materials such as coal, limestone, and iron. By studying artifacts and features, such as the iron bridge, industrial archaeologists trace how the area developed. Other Disciplines
Ethnoarchaeologists study how people use objects today to understand how people used tools in the past. Archaeologists researching the ancient San culture of southern Africa, for instance, study the modern San culture. Archaeologists study the tools of the modern San to understand how the ancient San tracked and hunted animals and gathered native plants. Environmental archaeologists help us understand the environmental conditions that influenced people in the past. They discovered that the expansion of the Taquara/Itararé people of the Brazilian highlands is closely linked with the expansion of the Araucaria forest there. As the climate became wetter, the forest grew and provided more resources, like timber, plants, and animals. Experimental archaeologists replicate how people created or use objects in the past. One of the most famous examples is the Kon-Tiki, a large raft built by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. In 1947, Heyerdahl sailed the Kon-Tiki from South Aerica to Polynesia. He wanted to show that ancient mariners, with the same tools and technology, could have navigated the Pacific Ocean. Forensic archaeologists excavate the remains of victims of murder or genocide in areas of conflict. The Killing Fields are the sites of mass graves in Cambodia of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, forensic archaeologists studied the remains of the bodies, discovering how and when they died. Cultural resource management (CRM) architects help assess and preserve remains on construction sites. Where To Dig? Most archaeology involves digging. Winds and floods carry sand, dust, and soil, depositing them on top of abandoned features and artifacts. These deposits build up, burying the remains. In places where earth has been carved away — like in the Grand Canyon in Arizona — you can actually see the layers of soil that have built up over time. Cities and communities also tend to be built in layers, such as Rome, Italy, which has been a city for thousands of years. The streets of downtown Rome are several meters higher than they were during the time of Julius Caesar 2,000 years ago. Modern homes sit on top of medieval homes, which were built on the ruins of ancient homes. Archaeologists looking for an ancient Roman fortress, for instance, may have to first excavate a Renaissance bakery and medieval hospital. Because most artifacts lie underground, scientists have developed methods to help them figure out where they should dig. Sometimes they choose sites based on old myths and stories about where people lived or where events occurred. For many years, historians thought the ancient city of Troy was a work of fiction. In 1870, German amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ruins of the city near the town of Hisarlik, Turkey. He used Homer as his guide. Schliemann helped provide evidence that the Trojan War may have actually taken place, and that the Iliad and the Odyssey may be based on fact. In 1973, archaeologists used historical maps and modern technology to locate the wreck of the USS Monitor. It was an ironclad ship used by the Union during the Civil War. The Monitor sunk in a storm off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in 1862. Before digging, an archaeological team looks for artifacts on the ground or unusual mounds in the earth. For example, aerial and satellite images can show patterns that might not be visible from the ground. Other technologies, like radar and sonar, give clues about what lies under the surface. Accidental finds can also lead archaeologists to dig sites. A monumental example of an accidental discovery happened in 1974. In Xian, China, agricultural workers were digging a well and discovered the remains an enormous grave for Qin Shi Huangdi, China's first emperor. The complex includes 7,000 life-sized clay soldiers, horses, chariots, and artillery and are known as the Terra Cotta Warriors. Before moving a single grain of dirt, archaeologists must map the area and take detailed photographs. The last step before digging is to divide the site into a grid to keep track of the location of each find. They always leave some areas untouched. Archaeologists like to preserve portions of their dig sites for future scientists to study — scientists who may have better tools and techniques than today. Today, scientists use methods like carbon-dating to determine the age of an artifact. They are able to analyze bone to see what kinds of animals people were domesticating and eating at various times. Archaeologists use technology to probe the earth below without disturbing the ground. The Valley of the Khans project uses advanced visualization and satellite technology to locate the tomb of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol empire. The Big Dig Digging is the field work of archaeology. Occasionally, archaeologists might need to move earth with bulldozers and backhoes. Usually, however, they use tools such as brushes, hand shovels, and even toothbrushes to scrape away the earth around artifacts. The most common tool that archaeologists use to dig is a flat trowel, a hand-held shovel used for smoothing as well as digging. Archaeologists use trowels to slowly scrape away soil. For very small or delicate remains, archaeologists might also dig with dental picks, spoons, or very fine blades. Often, they will sift dirt through a fine mesh screen, and find tiny objects like beads. Archaeologists take lots of notes and photographs along each step of the process. Sometimes they include audio and video recordings. Global positioning system (GPS) units and data from geographic information systems (GIS) help them map the location. When archaeologists find remains, they are often broken or damaged after hundreds or even thousands of years underground. Sunlight, rain, soil, animals, bacteria, and other natural processes can cause artifacts to erode, rust, rot, break and warp. Sometimes, however, they can help preserve materials. For example, sediments from floods or volcanic eruptions can encase materials and preserve them. An glacier">Alpine glacier preserved the body of a man for more than 5,300 years. The person who discovered the "Iceman" in the Alps thought he was a recent murder victim. Forensic archaeologists studying his body were surprised to learn that he was a murder victim — the crime just took place more than 5,000 years ago. Uncovered Artifacts As artifacts are uncovered, the archaeological team records every step of the process through photos, drawings, and notes. Once the artifacts have been completely removed, they are cleaned, labeled and classified. Particularly fragile or damaged artifacts are sent to a conservator, who have special training in preserving and restoring artifacts. Then the artifacts are sent to a lab for analysis, usually the most time-consuming part of archaeology. When did people develop tools, and how did they use them? What did they use to make clothing and what did their clothing styles mean? 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? What were their religious practices? Archaeologists ask all of these questions and more. The scientists write up their findings and publish them in scientific journals. Other scientists can look at the data and argue over the interpretations, which helps us get the most accurate story. The public also learns what scientists are discovering 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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