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A typical archaeological "dig"
Poetry of reality
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We must know.
We will know.
A view from the
shoulders of giants.
Tomorrow is a mystery,
but yesterday is

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Secrets of times gone by
Not to be confused with the pseudoscience known as pseudoarcheology.

Archaeology, or archeology, is the science of digging through other people's abandoned crap in hopes of finding some food or useful object (no, that's probably homelessness, or freeganism), or garbologyWikipedia in order to figure out how and (if possible) when they lived. In all seriousness, though, the scientific establishment classifies archaeology as a subdiscipline of anthropology[citation NOT needed] which studies the human past through its material remains. Archaeology is very much an interdisciplinary field — it merges geology and biology with cultural anthropology for the highly scientific venture of digging through dead people's garbage and homes.


In contrast with sensible construction workers, archaeologists use the smallest possible tools to move the largest possible amount of dirt. The crap that archaeology studies is usually buried under craploads of dirt. As a result, archaeology takes a crapload of time. Not only does it take a crapload of time, if you fail to find anything, then you are effectively an extremely overeducated ditch-digger. And if you do find something, it's always a series of small walls.[note 1]

This extends even to the microscopic, as archaeologists routinely sample and analyze materials of the smallest possible resolutions to reveal clues that traditional archaeological methods have missed. At ÇatalhöyükWikipedia in Turkey, for instance, microscopic analysis of floor and wall content has revealed that, among other things, the Neolithic people of Çatalhöyük were obsessed with cleanliness, with archaeologists being able to tell that both sweeping was a daily chore and that the people of Çatalhöyük replastered their houses on a monthly basis.[1]

Archaeologists excavate sites of previous human habitation, and sometimes piss off the locals by digging up their forebears' graves and shipping the cool stuff that was buried with them to a museum in Europe. This latter habit has lessened of late, and slightly more honor and respect are now paid to the neato bones and stuff that they find. In some cases, they move the museum to the dig site to make things easier.[note 2]

Provenience and provenance[edit]

One of the most important parts of archaeology is documentation. If documentation is questionable (or worse, nonexistent), then an artifact loses much of its vital information.

Provenience ('in situ') is the three-dimensional location or find spot of an artifact or feature within an archaeological site,[2] while provenance is an object's complete documented history. Provenience is especially crucial, as not only does the actual location need to be noted but any evidence of possible changes to the stratigraphy. This is followed up with the actual history of the object from the point of its excavation to the present day.

Dating methods[edit]

In addition to provenience, archaeology has other methods of dating objects and events. For the periods prior to recorded history, radiocarbon dating is an option, though certain limitations to this method are apparent.

In actuality, radiocarbon dates signify a range — known as a "standard deviation" — which, at 1σ (1-sigma), only has a 68% chance of being right. On the plus side, radiocarbon dates follow the 68–95–99.7 ruleWikipedia, so doubling the range to two standard deviations (2σ) has a 95% chance of being right, and tripling the range to three standard deviations (3σ) has a whopping 99.7% chance of being right. Crucially, however, nearly all dates must be calibrated, as the ratio of Carbon-14 to Carbon-12 in the atmosphere has not always been constant — a basic fact of chemistry, also relevant to why scientists know global warming is occurring.

The closer a finding is to the present, the more important this range becomes — thus, any C14 date within the last 3,000 years without its range (a common occurrence) is not overly helpful, and provides us with little in terms of actual precision.

Ultimately, recorded history remains (by necessity) the primary resource by which archaeologists catalogue their findings, resulting in the subprofession of historical anthropology — which tries to form a theory of how the people of a particular time and place saw the world (e.g. via interpretation of their written records).


The trowel is the archaeologist's most indispensable tool (besides his beard[note 3]). Without him, his trowel is useless. Without his trowel, he is useless. Common uses for the trowel include:

  • Paperweight
  • Trowel dueling
  • Salad fork
  • Back scratcher
  • Cake knife
  • Spatula
  • Self-defense
  • Swatting flies
  • Digging for artifacts

When the trowel is too blunt of an instrument, used dental tools, preferably those that are no longer usable by a dentist, can be applied to the dirt.


Archaeologists carefully scrape through layers of accumulated dirt and other debris, sifting carefully through the material to find their precious artifacts. They carefully measure exact locations and depths, and carefully note varying layers as they dig down, in order to produce voluminous carefully written reports on what they have found. Then they carefully compare notes to form hypotheses about all manner of aspects of the lives and times of the people they are carefully investigating. The use of fire through the ages for cooking food and whatnot has left layers of charcoal that can be used to carefully date the remains with which they are carefully associated.

Yes, archaeologists work very carefully.


Time Team at work.

In the UK, a popular TV programme Time Team has greatly increased the exposure of archaeotainment archaeology. The team of about five regular members and sundry assistants/labourers is interpreted by Baldrick from the Blackadder series Tony Robinson. They have three days to trash examine a site (Why three? — who knows?) and pretty pictures are used extensively throughout the performance show to wow the viewers help the audience visualise the site as it once was.

The Indiana Jones series of movies have also aided in the popularity of archaeology, although real archaeology, sadly, involves fewer fights, chases, supernatural forces, or death-defying escapes. The 2008 TV series Bonekickers attempted to reach a happy medium between Indiana Jones style unrealistic action and realistic Time Team style "science". No, it didn't work.

There are some examples of real life archaeological bad-assery that helped popularize the field as well. Mortimer Wheeler is probably the most famous. He was a World War I veteran turned archaeologist, best known for his work on Roman Bronze and Iron Age sites, his appearances on "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?" and for being a playboy. He also invented the Wheeler grid, which is still standard in the field today. (That's fancy-talk for digging squares along a line. Pretty bad-ass, huh?)

Archaeological theory[edit]

There are various different theoretical approaches through which archaeologists interpret the past. The various schools of thought within mainstream archaeology (as opposed to pseudoarchaeology) include:


The culture-history approach essentially formed the basis for modern archaeology. It is defined by the grouping of various site and artefact types into different 'cultures'. While the approach acts as a fairly decent 'rule of thumb', the fact that such artefacts were often traded extensively means that this method of analysis risks oversimplification. The Marxist archaeologist, V. Gordon Childe, is generally associated with this approach. Culture-history has generally been superseded in the west by processual and post-processual archaeology. However, it remains influential in areas comprising the former Soviet Union.

Processual archaeology[edit]

Processual archaeology, sometimes referred to as 'the new archaeology' is generally considered a reductionist methodology. The movement grew out of the United States, and is strongly associated with Lewis Binford and his students. Processualists wished to adopt a more scientific approach to archaeology and the aims of the movement were outlined by Binford in a paper entitled 'Archaeology as anthropology'. Processualism borrows the ideas of hypothesis and the scientific method from the natural sciences.

Post-processual archaeology[edit]

Post-processual archaeology is the more interpretative approach to archaeological theory. It grew out of post-modernism in the 1980s. Post-processualism criticises the detached approach of processual archaeology, claiming that each individual interprets the past in his or her own way and that an exact scientific approach to archaeology is virtually impossible. Ian Hodder, one of the foremost advocates of the post-processualism is known for encouraging his students and staff to formulate their own interpretations of archaeological finds. Post-processualism is currently the dominant approach in western archaeology, though processualism retains many staunch adherents.

Archaeology is a very fragmented profession with some areas still using theories (such as as Imperial synthesis[3] and historical particularism) which have been abandoned as obsolete in other regions. Another problem is due to social-economic factors the proper methodology is not always being used. For example, the quality of field work around the world ranges from reasonable to effectively bordering on pseudoarchaeology.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. Apologies to Eddie Izzard (Video blocked in the US and perhaps elsewhere by copyright).
  2. Such as with the Jorvik Viking Centre.Wikipedia
  3. Yes, they're mandatory.


  1. "Turkey: Neolithic life at Çatalhöyük" - World Archaeology Magazine
  2. Selected Archeological Terms, National Park Service (Internet archive)
  3. Trigger 1989, 110-147.
  4. Åsa Berggren "The relevance of stratigraphy" American Antiquity, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Jul., 2003), pp. 421-434

Further reading[edit]

  • Trigger, Bruce (1989). A History of Archaeological Thought 1st edition. Cambridge University Press. ISBN B01181NREK. 
  • Trigger, Bruce (2006). A History of Archaeological Thought 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521600491.