Writing an anthropology research paper? This list of archaeology research paper topics provides some ideas for narrowing down your topic to a successful and manageable one. This page also explores the subject of archaeology. Browse other anthropology research paper topics for more inspiration.
100+ Archaeology Research Paper Topics:
Archaeology and gender studies
Archaeology of war
Fa Hien cave
Great Wall of China
History of Anthropology
History of city
Mummies and mummification
National Museum of Anthropology
Pottery and ceramics
Pu’uhonua o Honaunau
Tools and evolution
Tutankhamun and Zahi Hawass
Urbanism in ancient Egypt
Venus of Willendorf
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Archaeology is the study of human cultures through the study of material and environmental remains. The word, derived from ancient Greek, means “the study of antiquity.” Archaeology is one of the four subfields of anthropology, together with biological anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and social/cultural anthropology. Archaeological remains can take many forms, two of the basic ones being artifacts (any object altered by human hands) and faunal remains, or midden (food remnants such as bone and shell). Artifacts can be anything from simple flaked stone tools and pottery sherds to the most elaborate and priceless objects found in such treasure troves as the tomb of Tutankhamun. These finds constitute the archaeological record, which archaeologists then piece together to interpret as much as they can about the cultures they are studying.
Archaeology can be further subdivided into prehistoric archaeology and historic archaeology. Prehistoric archaeology refers to cultures that did not develop writing. Historic archaeology, or text-aided archaeology, is assisted by documentation such as the cuneiform of the ancient Near East, Egyptian hieroglyphic documents and inscriptions, and so forth. These often help immensely when it comes to dating a site or sites accurately. A site is the place in which archaeological remains exist, and different archaeologists have different definitions of what constitutes a site; this can vary from an entire human-modified landscape, to a city, a house foundation, or a buried fire pit.
Archaeologists can work in a variety of institutions, from universities and museums (which usually require the archaeologist to hold a PhD) to cultural resource management (CRM) organizations and firms, which are responsible for making sure that sites are not destroyed in the wake of modern development such as construction. Many archaeologists working is this important area do not necessarily need higher degrees, with a BA or MA often being sufficient. Although archaeology is not a “hard science,” like chemistry, biology, or physics, it usually employs hard scientific methods for greater accuracy, which will be discussed in more detail below. Archaeologists now commonly work together with palynologists (who study the pollen record to reconstruct past environments), geologists, and other specialists. As technology advances, so do the tools available to archaeology that could not even have been imagined when it was first recognized as a discipline in the late 1800s.
The Fundamentals of Archaeology
To begin with, how are archaeological finds preserved? This depends entirely on the environment. The best-preserved organic finds are in arid places such as the deserts of Egypt, frozen places such as Siberia, and waterlogged swamps and bogs where the anaerobic environment minimizes decay. Stone is virtually eternal, and metals such as copper, bronze, tin, and iron tend to oxidize and deteriorate. Gold, however, preserves intact, but, because of its intrinsic value, golden objects are often the rarest—either plundered in antiquity and melted down, or else stolen in past or modern times.
Archaeology can involve the excavation of a single site, such as a house or camp, or the survey of an entire settlement, which studies the spatial relationships between human occupation and activities. Settlement pattern archaeology works on the basis that no settlement exists in total isolation, and examines the relationship between settlements and the surrounding environment. The archaeological study of warfare examines the interrelationship between settlements, and evidence includes such things as fortifications and the remnants of palisades. Objects such as bullets, musket balls, arrowheads, and sling stones are also clues, as are skeletons that have suffered trauma.
Burials are often the richest archaeological finds in terms of preserved artifacts in the form of grave goods, which often hold great aesthetic value. Usually, archaeologists work with broken fragments of artifacts such as stone tools or pottery, which were discarded as garbage by the people who used them; intact finds outside of burials are very rare indeed. Burials also prove invaluable insights into ritual practices and the biology of the individuals, including nutrition, average mortality rates, disease, and so forth. Burial excavation, however, is an increasingly sensitive issue, and often forbidden by the modern populations whose ancestors are interred.
Underwater archaeology, of shipwrecks and structures, offers its own difficulties but can yield tremendous finds that have lain undisturbed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Special training and equipment is required for such work, and preservation measures are essential for objects that have been underwater for so long. Such conservation can often take years before the objects are ready to be exposed to air and thus avoid disintegration.
Archaeologists also try to understand the subsistence strategies of the people under question, analyzing the food remains to determine their diet. This is essential in understanding the origins of human food production, including staple crops such as wheat and barely in the Old World, and corn and potatoes in the New World, as well as the domestication of animals. In sum, archaeologists have a very wide array of choices and research questions. Now let us examine how archaeology developed as a discipline.
Archaeology: Historical Beginnings in the Western World
The first historically recorded personage to have expressed an interest in the remains of the past was the last king of the Neo-Babylonian (or Chaldean) Empire, Nabonidus, to who reigned from 556–538 BCE. He actively had people excavate and search for the inscriptions of previous kings and rebuilt the ruins of ancient Babylon. This interest in the past is, to our knowledge, the first such example of “archaeology” on record. The Greeks—and later, the Romans—relied on myths and legends (many of which could have been grounded in fact) to chronicle their countries’ prehistoric or undocumented past, of which the Trojan War is one such example. However, they never sought material proof of these events.
The willingness to accept the present as distinct from the ancient past continued throughout Europe until the Renaissance, when scholars and artists “rediscovered” their classical roots in antiquity. The first great scholar to look to the past as an inspiration was the Italian humanist and poet Francesco Petracha (known commonly as Petrarch), who lived from 1304 to 1374 CE. His use of the Italian language later influenced writers such as Dante and Boccaccio, who were largely responsible for codifying it as the standard. Petrarch studied the classical past to find perfection in his present, a pursuit that spread to other scholars throughout Italy and then beyond. For example, Boccaccio (1313–1375 CE), a friend of his, wrote essays on the classical past as a result of Petrarch’s influence. The first scholar credited with the study of the archaeological monuments of ancient Rome was the pioneering clockmaker Giovanni de’Dondi (1318–1389 CE); his father, Jacopo, was also a pioneering clockmaker, hence perhaps the interest in time.
In the 15th century, the first true proto-archaeologist emerged; he was the Italian humanist and antiquarian Ciriaco de’ Pizzicolli (or Cyriacus of Ancona [1391–1453/55]). (An antiquarian is someone who collects and studies objects for their own sake, not necessarily making an effort to understand the cultures that produced them.) Having studied Latin in Rome, Cyriacus began by translating inscriptions on monuments and then took his interests a great step further, by traveling throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and observing, describing, recording, and illustrating archaeological remains, which eventually filled a six-volume work called the Commentarii. He went as far as southern Italy, Dalmatia, Epirus, the Morea, Egypt, Chios, Rhodes, Beirut, Anatolia, and Constantinople. He documented and mapped the ancient city of Eretria, a Greek polis active in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE on the island of Euboea off of mainland Greece. He also described the remains of the Bronze Age citadel of Mycenae on mainland Greece hundreds of years before Heinrich Schliemann excavated the site for the first time (discussed in a subsequent section). Cyriacus’s fascination with inscriptions and ancient documents drove him to amass a large collection, which he eventually incorporated into his Commentarii, which was unfortunately destroyed in a fire shortly after his death sometime between 1453 and 1455, but was circulated in manuscript form.
Pompeii and Herculaneum: The Nursery of Western Archaeology
Italy was also the scene of the first subsurface archaeological discoveries proper. In 1599, the architect Domenico Fontana was digging a new course for the river Sarno when he accidentally discovered the remains of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried by the ash of Mount Vesuvius’s eruption in 79 CE. A century and a half later, workmen building foundations for the King of Naples’s (Charles of Bourbon) summer palace happened upon the ruins of Herculaneum. Charles, who later became King of Spain, used the recovered antiquities to reinforce Naples’s importance. A Spanish military engineer, Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre, then rediscovered the ruins of Pompeii in 1748.
The first true and organized excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum were undertaken under the direction of the Swiss architect Karl Jacob Weber (1712–1764) through the patronage of King Charles III of Naples. He produced finely illustrated folios, Le Antichità di Ercolano esposte (the Antiquities discovered in Herculaneum), which circulated throughout Europe and brought awareness of these great finds to intellectuals throughout the continent. The Spanish architect and military engineer Francisco La Vega took up where Weber left off in 1764 under the patronage of Ferdinand, the Bourbon King of Naples. Vega’s brother Pietro, also a military engineer and cartographer, continued the excavations, also under Ferdinand’s patronage.
From 1860 to 1875, the Neapolitan archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli (1823–1896) directed the excavations at Pompeii. Fiorelli pioneered the method of excavating and studying sites layer by layer, digging from the top down rather than the previous method of finding the streets and revealing the houses from the bottom up. As a result, he established a school to train people in these archaeological techniques. It was also Fiorelli who invented the process of casting the incinerated bodies of the city’s victims by pouring plaster into the cavities left within the hardened lava. Additionally, he mapped the city’s topography, dividing it into subsections, and his work helped preserve the city itself. In 1863, he became the director of the Naples National Archaeological Museum (founded by King Charles III of Spain in the 1750s), and then director general of Italian Antiquities and Fine Arts in 1875, a position he held for the rest of his life.
Following Fiorelli’s work, the Italian archaeologists Michele Ruggiero, Giulio De Petra, Ettore Pais, and Antonio Sogliano worked on the city, restoring many of the houses’ roofs in order to preserve the fragile mosaics and wall paintings that are so identified with the city. Another important archaeologist to work in Pompeii was August Mau, who in 1882 developed a classification for the decorative styles of the paintings. In the early 20th century, Vittorio Spinazzola carefully excavated houses in order to understand how they had been buried, and then to reconstruct their facades as they had been before the catastrophe. In sum, the work done at Pompeii set an example of archaeology for the Western world and opened up new horizons of thinking.
Egypt: Napoleon’s Intellectual Triumph
Napoleon Bonaparte launched his Egyptian Campaign in both Egypt and Syria in 1798. His goal was to protect French trade interests and undermine British access to its Indian colonies. The campaign was unsuccessful overall, and in 1801 he was forced to withdraw and surrender to the British. The campaign was, however, an intellectual triumph as it heralded the discipline of Egyptology, which is so vast that it is considered a separate field from archaeology or anthropology. Napoleon did something that no military leader had ever done before: He brought along a large group of scholars, the savants, in order to record and collect as much as possible of the Egyptian monuments and antiquities. Prior to this, illustrations of Egyptian monuments were often highly fanciful, drawn by people who had never even seen them.
The savants amassed a tremendous amount of information, and an Egyptology craze swept throughout France and England. When Napoleon’s forces eventually surrendered to the British in 1801, they were forced to turn over a number of antiquities, including the most famous of all, the Rosetta Stone, which eventually provided the key to the decipherment of the Egyptian language, being a triple inscription written in hieroglyphic, hieratic (a late cursive form of hieroglyphs), and ancient Greek (the only one which could be read). It took over 30 years to crack the code, despite constant efforts. In 1822, the French scholar and linguist Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) succeeded, opening up an entire new world of written history.
Beyond the Bible: The Western World Discovers Its True Antiquity
Despite the developments in archaeological thought that began in the Renaissance and continued into the 19th century, the West still considered the world and humanity’s origins to be grounded in the Old Testament. Nothing in the discoveries of classical antiquity challenged or refuted anything in the Bible, as the events took place centuries after the Old Testament’s accounts and then contemporaneous with those of the New Testament. The world was considered to have been only around 6,000 years old, due in great part to the meticulous calculations of the Archbishop of Amagh, James Ussher (1581–1656), who was also primate of all Ireland and vice chancellor of Dublin’s Trinity College. Using all available accounts in the Bible and other manuscripts, in 1650, he arrived at the conclusion that God created the world on Saturday, October 22, 4004 BCE. As Ussher’s theological and scholarly credentials were beyond any doubt, his calculation was accepted universally. However, beginning in the mid- 19th century, discoveries began to be made that were seemingly incongruous with the view that humanity’s origins were so recent.
One notable challenge to the belief in humanity’s recentness was made by the French geologist and naturalist Jacques Boucher de Crèvecoeur de Perthes (1788–1868), often known as Boucher de Perthes. In the 1830s he discovered Paleolithic hand axes in association with long-extinct mammals in the gravels of the Somme River valley. Being rightly convinced that the axes were made by humans, he devoted his time to the study of antediluvian man, but did not make his findings public until 1846, followed by the publication of a three-volume work, Antiquités Celtiques et Antédiluviennes (Celtic and Antediluvian Antiquities), the first such work that proposed that humanity existed far earlier than commonly supposed, a view that received little serious attention. Many believed that the tools were what today are called geofacts, or stones that have been modified by natural events. Some even considered them meteorites, or the products of supernatural creatures. It took more than another decade before additional experts confirmed that the tools were indeed made by humans and that their association with extinct mammal remains was beyond question. Similar finds were made in southern England and France, notably the hand axes at the site of the gravel pits of St. Acheul near Abbelville (from which we derive the term Acheulian, early Paleolithic, stone tools).
In the late 1850s and early 1860s, scholars finally began to accept the antiquity of humanity. In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which, although it did not directly deal with the subject of human evolution and the antiquity of humanity itself, revolutionized scientific thinking. Sir Charles Lyell (1797–1875), a lawyer and the foremost geologist of his day (and also a great influence on Charles Darwin), published The Geological Evidence for the Antiquity of Man in 1863, in which he discussed glaciers, evolution, and the age of the human race during the Quaternary Period (1.805 ± 0.005 million years ago). Researchers into humanity’s origins could at last go beyond the Bible and recorded history to delve far deeper into the past than ever thought possible.
Mythology Comes to Life: The Quest for the Trojan War
Perhaps no other archaeological endeavor has been as surrounded by mystery and controversy as the search for Troy. Heinrich Schliemann (1822–1890) was a German entrepreneur. Born into a relatively poor family, he struck off on his own as a young man and made considerable money in St. Petersburg in the 1840s. From there, he made a fortune in California during the Gold Rush. During all this time, he educated himself in the classics. He then returned to Russia where he made an additional fortune in indigo, and then, during the Crimean War, on sulfur, saltpeter, and lead, which he sold to the Russians to make ammunition.
Schliemann basically retired from active business in the 1850s and began traveling avidly. He developed a passionate interest in archaeology that, combined with a love for Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, led him on a path to disprove the skeptics of the academic world. The skeptics, for the most part, believed that these epic poems largely recounted myths and legends. In 1868 Schliemann began excavating the mound of Hissarlik in northwestern Turkey, a site that had been previously identified as the site of Troy (which had been rebuilt many times over since the Trojan War’s supposed date of around 1200 BCE). The city was a classical one in the Greco-Roman era, visited by such people as Alexander the Great. An expatriate Englishman and amateur archaeologist, Frank Calvert (1828–1908), had excavated parts of the site prior to Schliemann’s arrival. Calvert advised Schliemann to dig slowly and carefully. However, as archaeological methods were still in their infancy and the discipline was not yet a professional field, when it came to excavating tells (mounds composed of superimposed cities, rebuilt one on top of the other over thousands of years), Schliemann had little learning to go on. His impatience and limited knowledge led him to blast his way through the later cities, recording little about what was found, until he reached what he thought must have been Homer’s Troy. To his dismay, it was a small and primitive settlement without any of the riches he had expected to find. What in fact had happened is that he dug too deep, too quickly, and had actually destroyed much of what composed the city (or cities) contemporaneous with Homer’s Troy, which lay around five cities (now called Troy VIIa and VIIb) above Schliemann’s (now called Troy II).
Schliemann’s published works followed, but the academic community was still skeptical given the nonresemblance of Troy II to Homer’s great city. Schliemann’s countermeasures appear to have been less than honest, as he seemingly conjured out of nowhere a cache of golden jewelry that he dubbed “Priam’s Treasure” and had his new wife, a young Greek woman named Sophie, photographed wearing the “Jewels of Helen.” Where and when these jewels were found remains a mystery surrounded by inconsistencies in Schliemann’s own writings and those of Sophie. He also smuggled some of his finds out of Turkey, breaking the arrangement he had with the Turkish government, which then refused him further permission to dig; the objects still remain the subject of controversy. However, Schliemann learned from his mistakes and went on to excavate Mycenae (the kingdom of Agamemnon) in the Peloponnesian peninsula, the nearby Mycenaean-era (ca. 1200 BCE) city of Tiryns, and then Orchomenos on the Greek mainland. His methods had advanced considerably by the 1870s and his finds were spectacular, although the golden treasures he found, especially the so-called Mask of Agamemnon at Mycenae, proved to be hundreds of years earlier than the accepted date of the Trojan War and perhaps even proto-Greek. He returned to Troy in the late 1870s and early 1880s, dismayed by the knowledge that he had in fact destroyed much of what he set out to find, and died before he was able to continue work there. Despite his much-criticized methods, Schliemann remains a pioneer in archaeology, perhaps the most famous and controversial of them all. Since his time, excavations have rarely ceased at Troy, and show little sign of ever losing the interest of the world.
Egyptology Resurrected: The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun
The image that most people have when the word archaeologist or archaeology is mentioned is that of a man opening up an Egyptian tomb full of golden treasures and containing the mummy of a king. In fact, this event has only really occurred once in Egyptian archaeology, but it captured the world’s imagination more than any other find in the discipline’s history. The man responsible for this was Howard Carter (1874–1939), an English Egyptologist who began his training in Egypt at the age of 17. He studied Egyptian art and inscriptions and later became a student of the renowned archaeologist William Flinders Petrie (1853–1942), who excavated sites in Britain and all over the Near East. Carter assisted in excavating the grave site of Beni Hassan that contained the tombs of the royalty of the Middle Kingdom, and later went on to discover the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut (looted and without her mummy) in Deir el-Bahri. In 1899 he was engaged by the Egyptian Antiquities Service, a post from which he resigned 6 years later because of a quarrel that spiraled of out control between a group of French tourists and local Egyptian site guards.
In 1907, Carter had the fortune to gain the patronage of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon (1866–1923), an English aristocrat with an avid interest in antiquities. Carnarvon funded Carter’s quest for the undiscovered tomb of King Tutankhamun, a short-lived king of the New Kingdom, and son of the “heretic” King Akhenaten. Carter hoped that this would prove the one most intact tomb left in Egypt that had escaped the tomb robbers who had been active ever since the reigns of the kings themselves. Carter spent years searching for it in vain in the Valley of the Kings, and Carnarvon was about to pull his funding by 1922, when Carter convinced him to finance one more season. Their gamble paid off, and on November 4, 1922, the steps leading down to the tomb were found. Carter held off (supposedly) looking inside the tomb until Carnarvon came to Egypt for the revelation.
Amid great fanfare Carter made a small hole in the doorway of the tomb, and when Carnarvon asked if he saw anything, Carter uttered the most famous phrase in archaeological history: “Yes, wonderful things.” Part of the tomb had been disturbed in antiquity, but the contents were intact. Priceless objects of gold, ebony, and alabaster filled the chambers, and the king’s mummy was there within its sarcophagus. Tutankhamun’s golden mask is perhaps the most famous Egyptian piece of art in the world, which could only be removed by severing the king’s head because it was stuck to his face by the resin used for preservation in the mummification process.
Carter spent years removing and cataloguing the objects, which are housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The world was gripped by the story, and became even more so when the “Curse of Tutankhamun’s Tomb” weaved its way into popular culture because of the death of Lord Carnarvon shortly after the tomb was discovered. Carnarvon, in poor health at the time, nicked a mosquito bite while shaving and died shortly thereafter of blood poisoning in 1923. The “Mummy’s Curse” has ever since, and forever will be, a part of archaeology’s—and especially Egypt’s—mystique, although wholly unfounded since Carter himself died of lymphoma 17 years after opening the tomb. The living mummy, a concept completely absent in ancient Egypt, became a horror movie icon beginning in the early 1930s, which it remains to this day and will no doubt continue to do for as long as movies and literature exist.
The Development of Archaeological Theory in the 20th Century
Let us now turn to the internal growth of archaeology as a discipline in the 20th century. During the past 100 years, archaeology evolved from what could be broadly termed in many cases a methodological antiquarian approach, to a refined social science. Essential to understanding how archaeology is practiced today is its history as a branch of anthropology. While various universities differ from country to country in having separate anthropology and archaeology departments, few archaeologists would deny that the discipline is inextricably linked with anthropology as a whole, that is, the study of humanity.
We may refer to this as anthropological archaeology, which had its roots in early 20th-century America. While European archaeologists were primarily studying their own roots in their own countries, or the cultural roots of the Western world in countries such as Greece, Italy, and those of the Near East, American archaeologists had to contend with a different situation. The origins of the Native American Indian populations were, in the 19th century and even into the 20th, largely unknown. Furthermore, the evolution of such complex civilizations as the Aztecs and Maya in Mexico and Central America, and the Inca in Peru, was a puzzle. In North America, archaeologists began to see the connection between modern populations of Native Americans and the archaeological remnants of their past. They reasoned that by studying what was left of Native American culture, that is, its ethnography, the ancient past might become illuminated. It is important to keep in mind that the American archaeologists studying American archaeology were dealing with cultures and civilizations completely alien to their own European ancestry. This latter point has never ceased to be a subject of controversy between the Native American populations and the American archaeologists who study their ancestors.
In the early to mid-20th century, archaeologists practiced what today we call culture history. Its goal was not necessarily to reconstruct the society under study, because not enough excavation had yet occurred to provide sufficient bodies of material evidence to examine the anthropology of the cultures themselves. Culture history was concerned with documenting the development of material culture within and between cultures to understand changes and the diffusion of ideas between them. Culture history was, and still is, essential in certain cases in which sufficient material data does not exist. It is the foundation onto which more subtle hypotheses and broader theories can be superimposed.
Culture history came under its first major attack when Walter Taylor (1913–1997) published A Study of Archaeology in 1948. He mercilessly criticized his senior colleagues in archaeology professing they were practicing anthropology; to Taylor, they were doing no such thing. One of his main accusations was that his colleagues were simply collecting artifacts and documenting spectacular ruins, such as those of the Maya, without getting to the heart of the cultures themselves. Taylor called the classification and description of one artifact after another and the development of timelines an exercise without a greater purpose. Understanding chronology and changes in material culture was essential, but archaeologists, Taylor maintained, had to probe deeper to get at how the people actually lived. He advocated less extensive excavations in favor of more intense ones aimed at completely understanding each individual site. Instead of simply documenting only the more spectacular finds, archaeologists should also do the less glamorous work of studying faunal remains, and so forth. However, it was some years before his revolutionary views were embraced and put into practice, even by Taylor himself.
Taylor’s mantle was not really picked up until the 1960s and 1970s, when the archaeologist Lewis Binford spearheaded what was later termed new archaeology and then redubbed processual archaeology. Binford and his students advocated using scientific methods to test hypotheses about the cultures they were studying and, as Taylor had advised almost two decades prior, not to rely upon the artifacts themselves to tell the story. They argued that one must study the environment of the region under question to explain how humans adapted to their external conditions, which might be called cultural evolutionism. The name processual archaeology derives from the idea that cultures change according to evolutionary processes.
At the root of processual archaeology is the paradigm of cultural materialism, which is based on the importance of tangible, material factors, such as environment, population density, subsistence strategies, and technology, to explain the processes by which cultures adapt and evolve. As such, processual archaeology concentrates on broader evolutionary implications rather than simple historical ones, ultimately to formulate generalized “laws” to explain human society as a whole. (As such, the role of the individual is downplayed.) Ideally, such processes should be scientifically predictable so that hypotheses can be tested. Ethnohistorical research, which was far closer to true anthropology than how archaeology was practiced up until the advent of processual archaeology, was seen as critical to gain perspectives on the past. Processual archaeology, which associated itself with the other social sciences such as political economy and sociology, tried to be as scientifically objective as possible when observing and reporting data.
In the 1980s, some archaeologists, especially in Great Britain, decided that processual archaeology had serious drawbacks and developed what was called postprocessual archaeology. Postprocessual archaeology emphasized the political ramifications of research, examining itself from a detached, third-person point of view to demonstrate that how archaeological research was presented was just as critical as the research itself. The postmodern viewpoint rejected the processual idea that universal laws could apply to humanity. Furthermore, the roles of the individual, families, social classes, and the like were brought back to the forefront in opposition to the generalist universal viewpoint of processual archaeology. Postprocessual archaeology also claimed that strictly empirical and scientific observation was not possible and, in attempting to practice processual archaeology, archaeologists trapped themselves into a single closed-minded perspective. There are of course many other archaeological paradigms, but these major trends serve to demonstrate the complex evolution that the discipline has undergone in the past century. Now, in the late 20th and early 21st century, processualism and postprocessualism have backed off from their former extremist viewpoints, leaving archaeologists more freedom than to adhere dogmatically to one school of thought or another.
The Basics and Growth of Archaeological Methods
Archaeological methods have evolved alongside modern technology. From the picks, shovels, and blasting materials of the 19th century, far subtler and less destructive approaches have been increasingly refined. Archaeological excavation is a destructive process; once a site is dug, it no longer exists, and we must essentially rely on the archaeologists’ word as to what was found, where, when, and how. Therefore, taking notes is essential so that any given site should theoretically be able to be “re-excavated” by future archaeologists seeking data that was perhaps not originally published, or to offer reinterpretations of said data. Consequently, archaeologists make the effort to preserve and conserve as much of the excavated material as possible, placing it in a repository such as a museum for safekeeping.
The technology the archaeologist uses depends entirely on his research questions. These research questions, or hypotheses, which processual archaeology advocated, still lie at the heart of archaeological research. Archaeologists no longer dig a site simply to collect as many artifacts as possible, but choose and dig a site to answer specific questions. Ground-penetrating radar can prove useful in locating significant anomalies underground, but it will be many years before subsurface “photographs” can be taken. It is unlikely that such technology will ever replace excavation. Excavation itself, however, remains almost as basic as it has always been, utilizing picks, shovels, and sometime bulldozers and backhoes to get at deep cultural layers. The simple handheld trowel, commonly used for cementing and plastering, is the primary tool of excavation, used in order to damage as few finds as possible and to find as many as possible in situ so that their exact location within the site can be recorded before they are removed. Brushes and finer tools such as dental picks are also used.
The archaeologist seeking a site that is not visible on the surface is taking a chance. He must either dig a series of test pits or trenches to locate cultural deposits, or else rely on local knowledge or the chance that someone before located the site either accidentally or intentionally. The metric system is used universally now, and a typical unit is a 1 × 1 meter square, which can then be expanded and the site eventually mapped onto an easily readable grid. Tape measures and line levels are standard tools, and many sites can be excavated without any electronic technology. On the other hand, an archaeologist seeking to understand the settlement pattern of a past society might concentrate less on subsurface excavation and more on mapping as many structures as possible in relation to the surrounding environment, such as the proximity of food resources and relations to other settlements in the vicinity. Modern conveniences such as aerial survey, satellite imagery, and the Global Positioning System (GPS) provide improved accuracy for this kind of work. Transits and theodolites are still used, but total stations, which use laser technology, can pinpoint positions in three-dimensional space far more accurately and the data are fed into computers. Technology such as portable three-dimensional scanners can virtually record anything from an artifact to a monumental structure, thus preserving these in computerized form. For archaeologists concerned with human remains, CT scans offer unparalleled insight into the biology of populations. Egyptian mummies that had to be unwrapped in the past can now be left intact and seen in full through this method. Archaeologists must, however, beware of the overuse of these modern marvels and not let their research be led astray by flashy technical displays.
Another important development in methodology is the increasing multidisciplinary approach to research. Archaeologists now collaborate more than ever before with other disciplines. This could be with palynologists to learn about ancient vegetation; with geologists to learn, for example, where the stone or clay used for toolmaking and pottery originated, thus permitting the documentation of patterns of exchange between regions; and with geomorphologists to aid in the interpretation of sediment formation. Archaeologists may also work closely with experts in various branches of zoology and marine biology, and increasingly with geneticists. These are but a few examples of how archaeology has expanded to acquire as much information as possible about a given site and to address very specific research questions.
Dating Archaeological Finds
Once scholars had rejected the biblical timeline in the 19th century, other means of dating archaeological sites were needed. The observation of stratigraphy, which simply means that lower strata are older than the successive higher strata, was an early form of relative dating. The concept of the Three Ages also took hold. Scientists subdivided advances in technology into the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age—terms that are still used today. The Stone Age was then divided into the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, which dated from human ancestors’ earliest flaked stone tool use around 2.5 million years ago, to the advent of agriculture, pottery, and ground as well as flaked stone tools representing the Neolithic, or New Stone Age.
The simplest method of dating a site is by historical records, or evidence of writing. An Egyptian monument that contains the date that such-and-such a king constructed it can be correlated with reasonable accuracy to our modern calendar, though becoming increasingly open to a margin of error the further back in time we go. Similarly, we can date a site if a simple object such as a coin with the portrait of, say, a Roman emperor is found within; if the stratigraphy is intact in which the coin is found, the layer cannot predate the production of the coin, thus providing a baseline date.
In the 20th century, significant advances in dating were made. Dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, analyzes the patterns of annually produced tree rings of long-lived species. These growth rings vary in thickness depending on climate fluctuations. By looking at the patterns of living species of a given tree, scientists can gradually overlap extant patterns to older ones until a match to the piece of wood under question is found. In such a way the exact year the tree was felled can be determined, and thus the year in which a wooden tool or wooden structure was made. These rings can be preserved for many hundreds of years given the right arid conditions such as in the American Southwest. Thermoluminescence (TL) dating is used for ceramic objects of fired clay. Clay contains low levels of radioactivity, which traps the electrons within until the clay is fired, when the electrons are then released as light. The analysis process involves reheating the object to measure the amount of electron light that it emits, thus revealing how long it has been since the object was originally fired. Radiocarbon, or 14C (Carbon-14) dating, is a technique that was developed in 1949 and is indispensable to archaeologists who excavate sites without pottery or wooden artifacts. Radiocarbon dating can only be used on organic matter, that is, something which has once been alive. Bone, shell, plant matter, wood, and charcoal (burned wood) can now be dated with a standard deviation of around ±30 to 50 years. The technique has been, and still is, becoming increasingly refined since its inception, when the fluctuation in cosmic rays was not used to calibrate dates.
Radiocarbon dating works as follows: every living thing absorbs Carbon-14, a carbon isotope that is generated by cosmic rays. When the organism dies it stops absorbing the isotope. The isotope disintegrates at a known rate, having a half-life of 5,730 years. By measuring the amount of Carbon-14 left in the sample, it is possible to estimate when it died. Thus, we can obtain an approximation of when a tree was felled (and thus killed) to be used as firewood, or when an animal was killed to be eaten. This technique has, in certain areas of the world where dendrochronology is possible, been refined even further and the dates more accurately calibrated. The only drawback to radiocarbon dating is that the Carbon-14, present in a very limited quantity, is impossible to detect beyond around 40,000 years.
Accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating, a technique developed in 1983, has the advantage of needing a much smaller sample (around 1,000 times smaller) than previously required. Small objects such as seeds can therefore now be dated, which is especially useful for the study of early human food production. AMS dating works by counting the number of Carbon-14 atoms left over in the sample, rather than measuring the decay events themselves. This technique also cannot be used for objects more than around 40,000 years old. For sites older than around 100,000 years to volcanic rocks 2 billion years old (beyond the purview of archaeologists, naturally), a technique called Potassium-Argon (K-Ar) dating is used, which was developed in the 1950s.
Early fossilized hominid remains are often found in association with roughly contemporary volcanic stone formations. The element potassium (K) is found throughout the earth’s crust and has a long half-life (1,250 million years), thus allowing the dating of such material. Potassium contains a small amount of radioactive potassium- 40 (40K) atoms, which decay at a given rate. For every 100 potassium-40 atoms, 11% become the inert gas argon-40. Argon-40 is only able to escape from molten rock. When solidified, the argon-40 can no longer escape. Mass spectrometry is used to count the number of argon- 40 atoms in ratio to the potassium-40 atoms. By determining how much of the original potassium-40 has decayed, this allows an estimate of how much time elapsed since the lava solidified. Aside from historical records and stratigraphy, archaeologists have to turn samples for dating over to specialized laboratories. This can prove very costly, especially when a large number of dates are needed. The scientific methods used for dating these materials are a good example of how archaeology, which is not a hard science, works in collaboration with hard scientific methods to provide the most empirical and accurate data possible.
Future Directions of Archaeology
As we move forward into the 21st century, archaeology has lost none of its significance and wonder since its inception as a formal academic discipline in the late 19th century. There are still unexcavated cities and settlements all over the world, from the jungles of Mesoamerica to the sands of Egypt. Future archaeologists, therefore, have nothing to worry about in terms of finding new discoveries. It is just as difficult to imagine the tools that will become available to future generations as it was for the earliest archaeologists to envision those of today. Cultural resource management (CRM) increases in importance, and its practitioners are more than ever before becoming recognized as authorities equal to their colleagues in academia. With the never-ending expansion of the human population and the necessity of building more and more houses and buildings, and of finding farms and pastureland to grow more food, archaeological sites all over the world are in peril, and some would say that archaeologists are racing against time in some areas to salvage what they can for posterity. A site, once lost, can never be recovered.
In addition to development and urban expansion, the problem of illegal excavations and looting continues as it has done for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Today’s antiquities’ markets are always selling or auctioning off pieces of the past whose provenance is unknown, most likely looted from a grave. Without provenance the artifact itself can tell us only a fraction of what it could have if found in a proper archaeological excavation. Most such objects acquired by museums in the great age of collecting during the 18th and 19th centuries are the results of such activities, and nowadays the countries of origin are increasingly demanding the repatriation of many such artifacts. This is a very thorny issue, and is unlikely to be universally resolved, as many of the objects were acquired before there were any laws governing the exportation of antiquities from countries such as Egypt. Modern collectors fuel the illegal trade in artifacts, but we must remember that the looters themselves have far different motives from the wealthy collectors to whom their finds are ultimately sold. A poor Peruvian farmer, for example, who finds a series of graves with goods such as pottery and other valuables, may sell them to a middleman and make enough money to feed his family for years. They are, after all, dealing with the graves of their own ancestors, and, in some ways, are more entitled to these objects than foreign archaeologists.
This is not to advocate looting or pot hunting, but merely to remind us that cultural sensitivity is a key requirement of archaeologists, who must increasingly work in conjunction with the local governments and landowners in whose countries they are guests. Cooperation is essential, and archaeologists should always keep in mind that their findings must not only be published, but also relayed to the very people that hosted them; not only the government, but even the towns and villages that supported their efforts. After all, it is their past, and it belongs to them. The archaeologists’ responsibility is to reveal and interpret their findings to the world.
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