What is Archaeology?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
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  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2019
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Archaeology is the discipline of excavating old artifacts and buildings to learn more about human history. It is often considered a type of science, though it is based more on interpretation and cross-comparisons than hypothesis-making and experimentation. Archaeology is an imperfect discipline, as excavations only recover a small percentage of the original artifacts, and different researchers may have conflicting interpretations of the evidence unearthed. Despite this, we have been able to learn a tremendous amount about human history and prehistory through archaeology.

Modern humans have been around for at least 200,000 years, but archaeology has unearthed facts about our even older ancestors, such as members of the species Homo habilis and Homo erectus. These species colonized portions of Eurasia over two million years ago, leaving behind simple stone tools along the way. Much more recently, only 50,000 years ago, modern humans spread across Eurasia, leaving much more complicated tools in their wake. Thanks to archaeology (as well as fossil excavations), we have a good handle on when these events occurred and in which regions.


Modern archaeology dates only to the early 19th century. Since then, some of the most interesting archaeological finds have been: the discovery of Ancient Egyptian, Mayan, and Chinese royal tombs, complete with tonnes of artifacts, meant to accompany kings into the afterlife; remains of settlements that indicate Vikings made it to the Americas as early as the year 1000, nearly 500 years before Columbus; remnants of prehistoric settlements under the North Sea (adjacent to the UK), from times when the world's sea levels were lower; sunken Spanish galleons in the Atlantic Ocean carrying gold, silver, and emeralds worth as much as ten billion dollars, and more.

The discipline of archaeology has been dramaticized in movies such as Indiana Jones and games like Tomb Raider. Younger archaeologists often cite these as inspiration for entering the field.


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