English: Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1788-186...

English: Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1788-1865), Danish archaeologist and museum founder (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Archaeology, or archeology (from Greek ἀρχαιολογία, archaiologia – ἀρχαῖος, arkhaios, “ancient”; and -λογία, -logia, “-logy”), is the study of human activity in the past, primarily through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind, which includes artifacts, architecture, biofacts and cultural landscapes (the archaeological record). Because archaeology employs a wide range of different procedures, it can be considered to be both a science and a humanity, and in the United States it is thought of as a branch of anthropology, although in Europe it is viewed as a separate discipline.

Archaeology studies human history from the development of the first stone tools in eastern Africa 3.4 million years ago up until recent decades. (Archaeology does not include the discipline of paleontology.) It is of most importance for learning about prehistoric societies, when there are no written records for historians to study, making up over 99% of total human history, from the Palaeolithic until the advent of literacy in any given society. Archaeology has various goals, which range from studying human evolution to cultural evolution and understanding culture history.

The discipline involves surveyance, excavation and eventually analysis of data collected to learn more about the past. In broad scope, archaeology relies on cross-disciplinary research. It draws upon anthropology, history, art history, classics, ethnology, geography, geology, linguistics, semiology, physics, information sciences, chemistry, statistics, paleoecology, paleontology, paleozoology, paleoethnobotany, and paleobotany.

Archaeology developed out of antiquarianism in Europe during the 19th century, and has since become a discipline practiced across the world. Since its early development, various specific sub-disciplines of archaeology have developed, including maritime archaeology, feminist archaeology and archaeoastronomy, and numerous different scientific techniques have been developed to aid archaeological investigation. Nonetheless, today, archaeologists face many problems, ranging from dealing with pseudoarchaeology to the looting of artifacts and opposition to the excavation of human remains.

The purpose of archaeology is to learn more about past societies and the development of the human race. Over 99% of the history of humanity has occurred within prehistoric cultures, who did not make use of writing, thereby not leaving written records about themselves that we can study today. Without such written sources, the only way to learn about prehistoric societies is to use archaeology. Many important developments in human history occurred during prehistory, including the evolution of humanity during the Palaeolithic period, when the hominins developed from the australopithecines through to the early homos in Africa and finally into modern Homo sapiens. Archaeology also sheds light on many of humanity’s technological advances, for instance the ability to use fire, the development of stone tools, the discovery of metallurgy, the beginnings of religion and the creation of agriculture. Without archaeology, we would know little or nothing about the use of material culture by humanity that pre-dates writing.

However, it is not only prehistoric, pre-literate cultures that can be studied using archaeology but historic, literate cultures as well, through the sub-discipline of historical archaeology. For many literate cultures, such as Ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, their surviving records are often incomplete and biased to some extent. In many societies, literacy was restricted to the elite classes, such as the clergy or the bureaucracy of court or temple. The literacy even of aristocrats has sometimes been restricted to deeds and contracts. The interests and world-view of elites are often quite different from the lives and interests of the populace. Writings that were produced by people more representative of the general population were unlikely to find their way into libraries and be preserved there for posterity. Thus, written records tend to reflect the biases, assumptions, cultural values and possibly deceptions of a limited range of individuals, usually a small fraction of the larger population. Hence, written records cannot be trusted as a sole source. The material record may be closer to a fair representation of society, though it is subject to its own biases, such as sampling bias and differential preservation.

There is no one singular approach to archaeological theory that has been adhered to by all archaeologists. When archaeology developed in the late 19th century, the first approach to archaeological theory to be practiced was that of cultural-history archaeology, which held the goal of explaining why cultures changed and adapted rather than just highlighting the fact that they did, therefore emphasizing historical particularism. In the early 20th century, many archaeologists who studied past societies with direct continuing links to existing ones (such as those of Native Americans, Siberians, Mesoamericans etc.) followed the direct historical approach, compared the continuity between the past and contemporary ethnic and cultural groups. In the 1960s, an archaeological movement largely led by American archaeologists like Lewis Binford and Kent Flannery arose that rebelled against the established cultural-history archaeology. They proposed a “New Archaeology”, which would be more “scientific” and “anthropological”, with hypothesis testing and the scientific method very important parts of what became known as processual archaeology.

In the 1980s, a new postmodern movement arose led by the British archaeologists Michael Shanks, Christopher Tilley, Daniel Miller, and Ian Hodder, which has become known as post-processual archaeology. It questioned processualism’s appeals to scientific positivism and impartiality, and emphasised the importance of a more self-critical theoretical reflexivity. However, this approach has been criticized by processualists as lacking scientific rigor, and the validity of both processualism and post-processualism is still under debate. Meanwhile, another theory, known as historical processualism has emerged seeking to incorporate a focus on process and post-processual archaeology’s emphasis of reflexivity and history.

Archaeological theory now borrows from a wide range of influences, including neo-Darwinian evolutionary thought, phenomenology, postmodernism, agency theory, cognitive science, Structural functionalism, gender-based and Feminist archaeology, and Systems theory.

Flavio Biondo, an Italian Renaissance humanist historian, created a systematic and documented guide to the ruins and topography of ancient Rome in the early 15th century for which he has been called an early founder of archaeology. Ciriaco de’ Pizzicolli or Cyriacus of Ancona (31 July 1391 — 1453/55) was a restlessly itinerant Italian humanist who came from a prominent family of merchants in Ancona. Ciriaco travelled all around the Eastern Mediterranean, noting down his archaeological discoveries in his day-book, Commentaria, that eventually filled six volumes. He has been called father of archaeology.

After that, modern archaeology has its origins in the antiquarianism of Europe in the mid-19th century, where it developed soon after the scientific advancement of geology, which had shown that the Earth was billions rather than thousands of years old, as was then commonly believed. Soon after this, in 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, outlining his theory of evolution, eventually leading scientists to believe that humanity was in fact millions of years old, thereby providing a time limit within which the burgeoning archaeological movement could study. Meanwhile, in 1836 the Danish historian Christian Jürgensen Thomsen published A Ledetraad til Nordisk Oldkyndighed (Guideline to Scandinavian Antiquity) translated into English in 1848, in which he proposed the idea that collections of European artifacts from prehistory could be divided up into a three age system: the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.Thomsen was not the first scholar to propose the three age system (that idea dated back to Greek and Roman thinkers), but he was the first to apply these categories to material culture, and with that innovation came significant advances in the concept of seriation, or stylistic changes through time.

It was these three concepts of human antiquity, evolution and the Three-Age system that are often thought of as the building blocks for modern archaeology.

Soon the early archaeologists began to investigate various areas around the world, with the study of ancient Aegean civilization being stimulated by the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy, and of Arthur Evans at Crete, whilst John Lloyd Stephens was a pivotal figure in the rediscovery of Maya civilization throughout Central America. However, the methodologies employed by these archaeologists were highly flawed by today’s standards, often having a eurocentric bias, and many early European archaeologists often relied on anthropological and ethnographic accounts provided by the likes of Edward Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan, thereby comparing contemporary “savage” peoples like the Native Americans with the historical peoples of Europe who lived in similar societies. Soon the new discipline of archaeology spread to North America, where it was taken up by figures like Samuel Haven and William Henry Holmes, who excavated ancient Native American monuments.

Further advancements in archaeological field methodology arose in the late 19th century. One of the pioneering figures in this was Augustus Pitt Rivers, who meticulously excavated on Cranborne Chase in southern England, emphasising that it was not only items of beauty or value that should be recorded but mundane items as well; he therefore helped to differentiate archaeology from antiquarianism. Other important archaeologists who further refined the discipline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were Flinders Petrie (who excavated in Egypt and Palestine), Sir Mortimer Wheeler (India), Dorothy Garrod (the Middle East), Roald Smeets (Peru) and Alfred Kidder (Mexico). Further adaptation and innovation in archaeology continued throughout the 20th century, in particular in the 1960s, when maritime archaeology was popularised by George Bass, urban archaeology became more prevalent with redevelopment in many European cities, and rescue archaeology was developed as a result of increasing commercial development.