Archaeology | National Geographic Society (2022)

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

Portable remains are usually called artifacts. Artifacts include tools, clothing, and decorations. Non-portable remains, such as pyramids or post-holes, are called features.

Archaeologists use artifacts and features 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, how they interacted with each other, 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, so we cannot read about them.

Understanding why ancient cultures built the giant stone circles at Stonehenge, England, for instance, remains a challenge 5,000 years after the first monoliths were erected. Archaeologists studying Stonehenge do not have ancient manuscripts to tell them how cultures used the feature. They rely on the enormous stones themselves—how they are arranged and the way the site developed over time.

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. Latin, the language of ancient Rome, helps archaeologists understand artifacts and features discovered in parts of the Roman Empire. The use of Latin shows how far the empire’s influence extended, and the records themselves can tell archaeologists what foods were available in an area, how much they cost, and what buildings belonged to families or businesses.

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 North America, and their Central American temples and manuscripts are inscribed with a collection of squared glyphs, or symbols. A series of circles and lines represents numbers.

By deciphering the Mayan script, archaeologists were able to trace the ancestry of Mayan kings and chart the development of their calendar and agricultural seasons. Understanding the basics of the Mayan writing system helps archaeologists discover how Mayan culture functioned—how they were governed, how they traded with some neighbors and went to war with others, what they ate, and what gods they worshipped.

As archaeologists become more fluent in Mayan writing, they are making new discoveries about the culture every day. Today, some archaeologists work with linguists and poets to preserve the once-lost Mayan language.

History of Archaeology

The word “archaeology” comes from the Greek word “arkhaios,” which means “ancient.” Although some archaeologists study living cultures, most archaeologists concern themselves with the distant past.

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 magnificent tombs of Egypt since the time the Pyramids were built. Grave robbing was such a common crime in ancient Egypt that many tombs have hidden chambers where the family of the deceased would place treasures.

In Egypt in the mid-1800s, an Egyptian man searching for a lost goat stumbled across the tomb of Pharaoh Ramses I. (Many archaeologists doubt this story and say grave robbers, working as an organized group, routinely scouted and plundered many tombs in the area.) Ramses I ruled for a short time in the 1290s BCE. Besides the body of the pharaoh, the tomb held artifacts such as pottery, paintings, and sculpture. The man sold the mummies and artifacts from the tomb to anyone who would pay.

The mummy of Ramses I wound up in a museum in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, where it remained until the museum closed in 1999. The Canadian museum sold the Egyptian collection to the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, United States, which confirmed the mummy’s royal status through the use of CT scanners, X-rays, radiocarbon dating, computer imaging, and other techniques. Ramses I was returned to Egypt in 2003.

One of the most well-known archaeological finds is 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 mummies of Tutankhamun and his family, the tomb contained some 5,000 artifacts.

Many early archaeologists worked in the service of invading armies. When Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte of France successfully invaded Egypt in 1798, he brought artists, archaeologists, and historians to document the conquest. Napoleon’s troops took home hundreds of tons of Egyptian artifacts: columns, coffins, stone tablets, monumental statues. Today, these Egyptian antiquities take up entire floors of the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.

Some archaeologists of this time were wealthy adventurers, explorers, and merchants. Often, they were from Western European colonial powers from places different from where they excavated. These amateur archaeologists often had a sincere interest in the culture and artifacts they studied. However, their work is also tied to colonialism and cultural exploitation. They profited off cultures that was not their own, and took sacred objects and remains away from their historical and traditional sites.The so-called Elgin Marbles are an example of this controversy.

In 1801, Greece had been taken over by the Ottoman Empire. The British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, received permission to remove half of the sculptures from the famous Acropolis of Athens, Greece. These marble sculptures were a part of buildings such as the Parthenon. Lord Elgin claimed he wanted to protect the valuable sculptures from damage caused by conflict between the Greeks and the Ottomans.

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. Greece has cut off diplomatic relations to the United Kingdom several times, demanding the return of the sculptures, which remain in the British Museum in London.

Eventually, archaeology evolved into a more systematic discipline. Scientists started using standard weights and measures and other formalized methods for recording and removing artifacts. They required detailed drawings and drafts of the entire dig site, as well as individual pieces. Archaeologists began to work with classicists, historians, and linguists to develop a unified picture of the past.

In the 20th century, archaeologists began to re-assess 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, regardless of who finds them. Egypt, for example, is scattered with archaeological sites sponsored by American universities. These teams must obtain permission from the Egyptian government to dig at the sites, and all artifacts become the property of Egypt.

Disciplines of Archaeology

Archaeology is based on the scientific method. Archaeologists ask questions and develop hypotheses. They use evidence to choose a dig site, then use scientific sampling techniques to select where on the site to dig. They observe, record, categorize, and interpret what they find. Then they share their results with other scientists and the public.

Underwater archaeologists study materials at the bottom of lakes, rivers, and oceans. Underwater archaeology encompasses any prehistoric and historic periods, and almost all sub-disciplines as archaeology. Artifacts and features are simply submerged.

Artifacts studied by underwater archaeologists could be the remains of a shipwreck. In 1985, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Robert Ballard helped locate the wreck of RMS Titanic, which sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912, killing about 1,500 people. Ballard and other scientists used sonar to locate the wreck, which had been lost since the ocean liner sank. By exploring Titanic using remote-controlled cameras, Ballard and his crew discovered facts about the shipwreck (such as the fact the ship broke in two large pieces as it sank) as well as hundreds of artifacts, such as furniture, lighting fixtures, and children’s toys.

Underwater archaeology includes more than just shipwrecks, however. Sites include hunt camps on the continental shelf of the Gulf of Mexico, and portions of the ancient city of Alexandria, Egypt, submerged due to earthquakes and sea level rise.

This basic framework carries across many different disciplines, or areas of study, within archaeology.

Prehistoric and Historic Archaeology
There are two major

disciplines

of

archaeology

: prehistoric archaeology and

historic

archaeology

. Within these groups are subdisciplines, based on the time period studied, the

civilization

studied, or the types of

artifacts

and

features

studied.

Pre

historic

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 only arrowheads—called projectile points— and stone tools as

artifacts

. The unique

projectile points

were first discovered in Clovis, New Mexico, in the United States, and the culture was named after the town. So-called Clovis points establish the

Clovis people

as one of the first inhabitants of North America.

Archaeologists

have dated

Clovis points

to about 13,000 years ago.

A

sub

discipline

of

pre

historic

archaeology

is paleopathology.

Paleopathology

is the study of disease in

ancient

cultures. (

Paleopathology

is also a

sub

discipline

of historical

archaeology

.) Paleopathologists may investigate the presence of

specific

diseases

, what areas lacked certain

diseases

, and how different communities reacted to

disease

. By studying the history of a

disease

, paleopathologists may contribute to an understanding of the way modern

diseases

progress. Paleopathologists can also find clues about people’s overall health. By studying the teeth of

ancient

people, for example, paleopathologists 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 discovery and

decipherment

of the Rosetta Stone. The

Rosetta Stone

is a large slab of

marble

discovered near Rashid, Egypt, by French

archaeologists

in 1799. It became an important tool of

historic

archaeology

.

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The stone is

inscribed

with a decree made on behalf of

Pharaoh

Ptolemy V. The

decree

was written and carved into the stone in three different languages: hiero

glyphic

, demotic, and Greek. Hieroglyphics are the picture-symbols used for

formal

documents in

ancient

Egypt.

Demotic

is the in

formal

script

of

ancient

Egypt. Before the discovery of the

Rosetta Stone

, Egyptologists did not understand

hiero

glyphics

or

demotic

. They could, however, understand Greek. Using the Greek portion of the

Rosetta Stone

,

archaeologists

and

linguists

were able to translate the text and

decipher

hiero

glyphs

. This knowledge has contributed vastly to our understanding of Egyptian history.

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, West Bank, 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 BCE to the first century CE. 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.

A

sub

discipline

of

historic

archaeology

is industrial archaeology. Industrial

archaeologists

study materials that were created or used after the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s and 1800s. The

In

dustrial

Revolution

was strongest in Western Europe and North America, so most in

dustrial

archaeologists

study

artifacts

found there.

One of the most important sites for in

dustrial

archaeologists

is the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire, England. The River Severn runs through the

gorge

, and during the

In

dustrial

Revolution

, it allowed for the transport of raw materials such as coal, limestone, and

iron

. In fact, the world’s first

iron

bridge spans the Severn there. By studying

artifacts

and

features

(such as the

iron

bridge), in

dustrial

archaeologists

are able to trace the area’s economic development as it moved from agriculture to manufacturing and

trade

.

Other Disciplines
Ethnoarchaeologists study how people use and organize objects today. They use this knowledge to understand how people used tools in the past.

Archaeologists

researching the

ancient

San

culture of southern Africa, for instance, study the way modern

San

culture functions. Until the mid-20th century, the

San

, maintained a somewhat nomadic lifestyle based on hunting and gathering. Although the

San

culture had evolved significantly,

archaeologists

studying the tools of the modern

San

could still study the way

ancient

San

tracked and hunted animals and gathered native plants.

Environmental archaeologists help us understand the env

ironmental

conditions that

influenced

people in the past. Sometimes, env

ironmental

archaeology

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is called human paleoecology.

Env

ironmental

archaeologists

discovered that the expansion of the Taquara/Itararé people of the Brazilian highlands is closely linked with the expansion of the evergreen forest there. The forest grew as the climate became wetter. As the forest provided more resources to the Taquara/Itararé people (timber, as well as plants and animals that depended on the

evergreen

trees), they were able to expand their territory.

Experimental archaeologists replicate the techniques and processes people used to create or use objects in the past. Often, re-creating an

ancient

workshop or home helps

experimental

archaeologists

understand the process or method used by

ancient

people to create

features

or

artifacts

. One of the most famous examples of experimental

archaeology

is the Kon-Tiki, a large raft built by Norwegian

explorer

Thor Heyerdahl. In 1947, Heyerdahl sailed the Kon-Tiki from South America to Polynesia to show that

ancient

mariners, with the same tools and technology, could have navigated the

vast

Pacific Ocean.

Forensic archaeologists sometimes work with geneticists to support or question DNA evidence. More often, they excavate the remains of victims of murder or genocide in areas of

conflict

. Forensic

archaeology

is important to the understanding of the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia, for instance. The

Killing Fields

are the sites of mass graves of thou

sands

of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. After the fall of the

Khmer Rouge

,

forensic

archaeologists

studied the remains of the bodies in the

Killing Fields

, discovering how and when they died. The

forensic

archaeologists

helped establish that the

Khmer Rouge

used starvation and overwork, as well as direct killing, to silence opponents of the

regime

.

Archaeologists

working in the field of cultural resource management help

assess

and preserve remains on sites where construction is scheduled to occur.

Archaeologists

working as cultural resource managers often col

laborate

with local

governments

to balance the infrastructure and commercial needs of a

community

with historic and cultural interests represented by

artifacts

and

features

found 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 over time, burying the remains. Sometimes catastrophes, like volcanic eruptions, speed up this burial process. In places where earth has been carved away—like in the Grand Canyon in the U.S. state of Arizona—you can actually see the layers of

soil

that have built up over the centuries, like layers of a cake.

Cities and communities also tend to be built in layers. Rome, Italy, has been an urban center for thou

sands

of years. The streets of downtown Rome today are several meters higher than they were during the time of Julius Caesar. Centuries of Romans have built it up—medieval home on top of

ancient

home, modern home on top of

medieval

home.

Establishing a dig site in an

inhabited

area can be a very difficult process. Not only are the

inhabitants

of the area inconvenienced,

archaeologists

don’t know what they may find.

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. The

ancient

city of Troy, written about by Greek poet Homer as early as 1190 BCE, was thought to be a work of fiction.

Homer

’s epic poem the Iliad was named after Troy, which the Greeks knew as Ilion. Using the Iliad as a guide, German

amateur

archaeologist

Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ruins of the city near the town of Hisarlik, Turkey, in 1870. Schliemann’s find helped provide evidence that the Trojan War may have actually taken place, and that

ancient

manu

scripts

may be based on fact.

Sometimes,

archaeologists

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use historical maps to find

ancient

artifacts

. In 1973, for instance,

archaeologists

used

historical maps

and modern

technology

to locate the wreck of the USS Monitor, 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. After

archaeologists

identified the

ironclad

, the United States designated the area as the nation’s first marine sanctuary.

Before securing a site, an archaeological team surveys the area, looking for signs of remains. These might include

artifacts

on the ground or unusual mounds in the earth. New

technology

has greatly increased their ability to

survey

an area. For example, aerial and satellite imagery can show patterns that might not be visible from the ground.

Other technologies give clues about what lies under the surface. These techniques involve radar and

sonar

.

Radar

and

sonar

technologies often use radio waves, electrical currents, and lasers.

Archaeologists

send these signals into the earth. As the signals hit something solid, they bounce back up to the surface. Scientists study the time and paths the signals take to familiarize themselves with the underground landscape.

Accidental finds can also lead

archaeologists

to dig sites. For instance, farmers plowing their fields might come across sherds of

pottery

. A construction crew might discover ruins beneath a building site.

Another

monumental

discovery was made by accident. In 1974, agricultural workers in Xian, China, were digging a well. They discovered the remains of what turned out to be an

enormous

mausoleum for Qin Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor. The

complex

includes 8,000 life-sized clay soldiers, horses, chariots, and artillery, popularly known as the Terra Cotta Warriors. The archaeological research surrounding the

Terra Cotta Warriors

has provided insight on the organization and leadership style of

Qin Shi Huangdi

and the development of Chinese culture.

Once a site is chosen,

archaeologists

must get permission to dig from the landowner. If it is public land, they must

obtain

the proper permits from the local, state, or federal

government

.

Before moving a single grain of dirt,

archaeologists

make maps of the area and take detailed photographs. Once they begin digging, they will des

troy

the original

landscape

, so it is important to record how things looked beforehand.

The last step before digging is to divide the site into a grid to keep track of the location of each find. Then

archaeologists

choose sample squares from the

grid

to dig. This allows the archaeological team to form a complete study of the area. They also leave some plots on the

grid

untouched.

Archaeologists

like to preserve portions of their dig sites for future scientists to study—scientists who may have better tools and techniques than are avai

lable

today.

For example, during the Great Depression in the 1930s, programs to create jobs led to many archaeological digs around the United States. Some scientists on these digs removed

artifacts

, such as

pottery

, but threw away charcoal and animal bones. These items were considered junk. Today, scientists are able to carbon-date the

char

coal

and analyze the bones to see what kinds of animals people were domesticating and eating at the time. It is important that

archaeologists

today keep some parts of each site pristine.

Not all

archaeology

involves digging in the earth.

Archaeologists

and engineers work with sophisticated

technology

to probe the earth below without disturbing the ground. National Geographic Emerging Explorer Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin leads an innovative archaeological project centered in Mongolia. The Valley of the Khans project is using digital imaging, aerial photography,

radar

, and digital

surveying

to locate the

tomb

of Genghis Khan. Using satellite

technology

, Lin and his team can access information about the project without disturbing the land or even going to Mongolia.

The Big Dig

The process of researching and securing a dig site can take years. Digging is the field work of

archaeology

. On occasion,

archaeologists

might need to move earth with bulldozers and backhoes. Usually, however,

archaeologists

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

trowel

is 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

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might also dig with dental picks, spoons, or very fine blades. Often, they will sift dirt through a fine mesh screen. Tiny remains, such as beads, can often be found this way.

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 of various

features

with a high level of precision.

When

archaeologists

find remains, they are often broken or damaged after hundreds or even thou

sands

of years underground. Sunlight, rain,

soil

, animals, bacteria, and other natural processes can cause

artifacts

to erode, rust,

rot

, break, and warp.

Sometimes, however, natural processes can help preserve materials. For example, sediments from

floods

or

volcanic eruptions

can encase materials and preserve them. In one case, the chill of an Alpine glacier preserved the body of a man for more than 5,300 years! The discoverer of the so-called “Iceman,” found in the Alps between Switzerland and Italy, thought he was a recent victim of

murder

, or one of the glacier’s crevasses.

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.

Conservators

have special training in preserving and restoring

artifacts

so they are not des

troyed

when exposed to air and light. Textiles, including clothing and bedding, are especially threatened by exposure.

Textile

conservators

must be familiar with

climate

, as well as the chemical composition of the cloth and dyes, in order to preserve the

artifacts

.

In 1961, Swedish

archaeologists

recovered the ship Vasa, which sank in 1628. Conservators protected the delicate oak structure of Vasa by spraying it with polyethylene glycol (PEG). The ship was sprayed with PEG for 17 years, and allowed to dry for nine. Today, Vasa sits in its own

enormous

museum

, a hallmark of Swedish heritage.

Then the

artifacts

are sent to a

lab

for analysis. This is usually the most time-consuming part of

archaeology

. For every day spent digging,

archaeologists

spend several weeks processing their finds in the

lab

.

All of this

analysis

—counting, weighing, categorizing—is necessary.

Archaeologists

use the information they find and combine it with what other scientists have discovered. They use the combined

data

to add to the story of humanity’s past. When did people develop tools, and how did they use them? What did they use to make clothing? Did their clothing styles indicate their social ranks and roles? 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 debate the interpretations, helping us get the most accurate story. Publication also lets the public know what scientists are learning about our history.

Fast Fact

The ABCs of Dating
Sometimes dates are listed as BC or AD. Other times they show up as BCE or CE. 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 BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (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.

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National Geographic Society, American scientific society founded (1888) in Washington, D.C., by a small group of eminent explorers and scientists “for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.” The nonprofit organization, which is among the world's largest scientific and educational societies, is especially ...

What is Archaeology National Geographic? ›

Archaeology is the study of the human past using material remains. These remains can be any objects that people created, modified, or used. 3 - 12+ Arts and Music, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, World History.

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