What Is an Historical Archaeologist?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

An historical archaeologist is a professional anthropologist who researches the relationship between historical accounts and archaeological evidence. Generally focused on human cultures in which some form of writing or record keeping existed, an historical archaeologist tries to build a clear picture of an earlier time based on both physical findings and existing documents. Training for this profession usually takes several years of formal education; many historical archaeologists possess a master's or doctoral degree in the subject. A professional in this field may work in many different capacities, including as a professor, field researcher, museum curator, or historian.

Jaffa, Israel, an ancient city that has been studied by many archaeologists.
Jaffa, Israel, an ancient city that has been studied by many archaeologists.

The primary factor that distinguishes an historical archaeologist from similar professionals is the marriage of archaeology with history. Historical documents, while extremely useful, are often told from one person's perspective, and can show considerable bias with regards to class, race, gender, or socioeconomic status. For instance, many of the documented accounts of African American slavery are written by slave owners or white abolitionists, rather than the slaves themselves. Since studying the documents alone might give a highly biased view, an historical archaeologist will work to broaden the framework of understanding by also examining the artifacts gathered at former slave plantations, as well as any surviving written materials created by slaves. Widening the search to include both written accounts and artifacts helps to create a more factual, less biased account of the times.

Archaeologists who study mesoamerican cultures still debate why the Inca built Machu Picchu in the 15th Century.
Archaeologists who study mesoamerican cultures still debate why the Inca built Machu Picchu in the 15th Century.

In order to find work in the profession, an historical archaeologist will typically undergo several years of training. At the undergraduate level, applicable majors may include history, archaeology, and both physical and cultural anthropology. At the graduate and doctoral level, students may focus their studies on the specific discipline of historical archaeology by creating a course plan that includes the study and handling of ancient documents, field research, and the study of a particular culture or time period of interest. While some jobs are available for archaeologists with a bachelor's degree in the field, advanced positions are generally reserved for those with post-graduate degrees.

An historical archaeologist can be suitable for many different types of jobs. Some become university professors, balancing private research with the education of a new generation. Others may seek grants to pursue archaeological research topics, and may spend a lot of time excavating and analyzing newly discovered artifacts. The broad discipline of historical archaeology makes professionals in the field uniquely suitable for museum curation, since they are capable of providing the historical context and significance of displayed artifacts. Some historical archaeologists may also choose to focus more heavily on historical explanation and interpretation, and may write books or provide articles to academic journals and popular magazines.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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