What is Archaeology?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

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.

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

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.

Archaeologists who are concerned with the prehistoric period study the tools left behind by Neanderthals and other extinct populations.
Archaeologists who are concerned with the prehistoric period study the tools left behind by Neanderthals and other extinct populations.

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.

Archaeologists use cultural artifacts, like the cave paintings at Lascaux, France, to reconstruct the behavior of past populations.
Archaeologists use cultural artifacts, like the cave paintings at Lascaux, France, to reconstruct the behavior of past populations.

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.

Archaeologists study burial practices, such as those of ancient Egypt, for clues about the development of human belief systems.
Archaeologists study burial practices, such as those of ancient Egypt, for clues about the development of human belief systems.
Archaeologists study the Aztec calendar to understand Mesoamerican concepts of time.
Archaeologists study the Aztec calendar to understand Mesoamerican concepts of time.
Archaeologists have determined that Stonehenge, a prehistoric megalithic site in Great Britain, was built in three broad phrases.
Archaeologists have determined that Stonehenge, a prehistoric megalithic site in Great Britain, was built in three broad phrases.
Archaeologists try to explain the motives behind the actions of past societies, such as why the Inca built Machu Picchu in the 15th Century.
Archaeologists try to explain the motives behind the actions of past societies, such as why the Inca built Machu Picchu in the 15th Century.
Archaeologists study prehistoric burial sites, such as the megalithic dolmens that can be found throughout Ireland, for clues as to how people once lived.
Archaeologists study prehistoric burial sites, such as the megalithic dolmens that can be found throughout Ireland, for clues as to how people once lived.
Stone tools discovered by archaeologists can be used to date human settlements.
Stone tools discovered by archaeologists can be used to date human settlements.
Though the Egyptian pyramids have been the subject of several excavations, they still contain several unexplored chambers.
Though the Egyptian pyramids have been the subject of several excavations, they still contain several unexplored chambers.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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