Archaeology is fundamentally the study of humanity and its past. Archaeologists study things that were created, used or changed by humans. They do this by looking at the material remains that we leave behind, such as stone tools, hut dwellings, skeletons covered with gold jewelry or pyramids that majestically rise from a desert floor.
Sometimes, archaeologists study modern societies to shed light on those that flourished in the past, a practice that is sometimes called "ethnoarchaeology."
Archaeology is practiced around the world by archaeologists who work with people from a wide variety of other disciplines to help answer questions about who we are and where we came from. In doing so, archaeologists find evidence that sheds light on what our future may bring.
For example, archaeological studies of how humans responded to previous instances of climate change can provide information on how future climate change will affect modern-day societies, a team of archaeologists wrote in a study published in 2021 in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"The archaeology of climate change offers opportunities to identify the factors that promoted human resilience in the past and apply the knowledge gained to the present, contributing a much-needed, long-term perspective to climate research," the team wrote.
Who are archaeologists?
Archaeologists are sometimes considered to be part of a broader profession called "anthropology," which is the study of humans, early hominids and primates, such as chimpanzees.
While archaeologists don't use bullwhips or revolvers like the fictional Indiana Jones, they use a multitude of technologies and techniques to help solve mysteries of the past.
The term "archaeologist" is an increasingly broad term. While professional archaeologists may all share some general fieldwork and lab skills, they may have developed expertise that enables them to specialize in the study of certain types of artifacts or sites. Underwater archaeology, textile analysis and the study of plant and animal remains are just a few examples. Some archaeologists may develop language skills that enable them to record and translate texts found at archaeological sites. These language experts may not call themselves archaeologists, but instead refer to themselves as epigraphers or another title related to the language that they study. Similarly, those who specialize in the study of human remains often call themselves "physical" or "biological" anthropologists, rather than archaeologists.
As new technologies and disciplines appear, archaeologists develop new skills. For instance, new tools include lidar (light detection and ranging) — a non-invasive way to map terrain that involves shooting millions of lasers from a machine on an aircraft flying over an area of interest — and ground-penetrating radar — a land-based device that sends radio waves beneath the ground to uncover anomalies that may be indicative of archeological remains.
Archaeologists also tend to focus their studies on a certain part of the world, or a specific culture, such as Egypt, China or the Maya civilization in Central America. They may also focus on specific timeframes. For instance, an Egyptologist may focus on the Old Kingdom period (2649 B.C. to 2150 B.C.), the time period when the pyramids at Giza were built.
Archaeology only studies animals and plants to better understand humanity. A dinosaur fossil, for instance, would not be studied by an archaeologist unless that fossil was used in the past by a human at an archaeological site (in which case the archaeologist would work with a paleontologist to study it).
Becoming a professional archaeologist
Professional archaeologists often have a master's degree or doctorate. However, this wasn't always the case: Howard Carter, the archaeologist who led the team that discovered Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, had little formal education and learned various archaeological techniques by practice.
A large number of universities offer archaeology programs. Some universities may not have an archaeology department, but instead offer archaeology courses in departments dedicated to anthropology, fine art, geography and classics.
A number of undergraduate archaeology programs offer only a small number of core archaeology courses and instead encourage students to branch out and take courses from across many other departments at a university, such as at the University of Toronto in Canada, where archaeology students take courses in a variety of departments such as history, geography and physics.
Archaeologists can work for a wide variety of employers. These include museums, art galleries, universities, research institutes, government agencies (the National Park Service, for example), cultural resource management firms (which often work with private companies and governments to survey and excavate sites before development), tourism companies (for example, acting as highly educated guides) and media companies (helping to make documentaries and aiding in the publication of books, journals and magazines).
Opportunities for amateurs
There are many opportunities for amateurs to become involved in archaeology. Local archaeology societies offer chances for volunteers to become involved in excavation and lab work.
Overseas digs will sometimes also offer the chance for people who are able to pay their own way to volunteer and help excavate an archaeological site. Sometimes those who volunteer can get course credit at a university in return.
Sometimes archaeologists work with a large number of members of the general public to help excavate a site — a practice that is sometimes called "community archaeology" or "public archaeology."
Community achaeology's "more important distinguishing characteristic is the relinquishing of at least partial control of the project to the local community," Yvonne Marshall, a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Southampton in the U.K., wrote in an article published in 2002 in the journal World Archaeology. For instance, in North America, archaeologists sometimes work with Native American communities to conduct archaeological excavations. Members of the community may help interpret finds and make decisions on what to excavate.
It is hard to give an exact salary range for an archaeologist. An archaeologist who holds a senior management position at a university, government agency, large cultural resource management firm or large museum may earn a salary that reaches into six figures. On the other hand, a junior field archaeologist (sometimes called a "technician") who works for a small cultural resource management firm may earn substantially less.
If an archaeologist publishes a book that sells well (something that is difficult to do), they can increase their income further. Few, if any, archaeologists say that they went into the discipline for the money.
What happens to archaeological artifacts?
Archaeologists today generally do not sell the artifacts they excavate. In the past, this was not always the case. Over a century ago, antiquarians (sometimes little more than looters) would excavate artifacts and sell them. In the past, museums, universities, galleries and private individuals would sometimes help pay the cost of a scientific archaeological excavation, and in return would expect a share of the artifacts.
One of the few areas of archaeology where practices like these still legally occur is in the salvage of underwater shipwrecks. Some jurisdictions that don't have the money to pay for an underwater excavation will allow a salvage company to excavate a site using professional archaeologists and scientific techniques. The salvage company in turn recoups its costs (and sometimes makes a profit) by selling some of the artifacts. This practice is deeply controversial among archaeologists and a source of debate among lawmakers.
Another notable exception occurs in part of the United Kingdom, where amateurs using metal detectors are allowed to search for artifacts, under a complicated system of laws. If a find is made of precious metal, it may have to be turned over to the government. However if the find is not made of precious metal it is possible that the metal detectorist can keep it, according to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), a non profit organization run by the British Museum and National Museum Wales that tracks finds made by metal detectorists. Again, the use of metal detectors by amateurs is controversial, with some archaeologists saying that they damage archaeological sites and impede scientific investigations.
In the past it was common for archaeologists and non-archaeologists from Europe and North America to take artifacts from the countries where they conducted work. Today, some of these countries want the artifacts back. For instance, Lord Elgin took marble sculptures from the Parthenon to Britain in the early 19th century, and Greece has been urging Britain to give them back.
Another example is a series of bronze and brass artifacts from Benin City, in Nigeria, that date back centuries and were pillaged by British soldiers during a military expedition in 1897. They are now found in a number of collections around Europe and some have been repatriated to Nigeria, according to The New York Times.
How did archaeology start?
In some ways, archaeology is an ancient discipline. It was not unusual for ancient societies to keep old material and take steps to preserve sites and monuments they deemed important. For instance, efforts to preserve the Sphinx at Giza date back 3,400 years.
In the early modern period (1500 to 1800), with the onset of the Enlightenment and subsequent scientific revolution, archaeology gradually became more "scientific" as new methods were developed to record sites in greater detail and determine the age of artifacts (for example by studying the sediment in which they were found and analyzing how the style of stone and ceramic artifacts changed over time).
Where does archaeology go from here?
As technology develops, new methods for studying the past have been incorporated into the discipline. For instance, high-resolution Google Earth imagery enables professional and amateur archaeologists to survey large tracts of land in areas that are sometimes difficult to access, such as Iraq or Afghanistan.
Where archaeology will go in the future depends on future technological advances and where humans travel to in the future. With the development of techniques that enable astronomers to detect Earth-size planets, it's even been speculated that archaeologists will increasingly work with astronomers, physicists, biologists and other scientists to search for the remains of non-human civilizations in which case archaeology will move beyond the study of humanity.
The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) has a variety of programs and services that promote archaeology. The Society for American Archaeology (SAA) also offers a range of services and programs that look at archaeology, particularly the archaeology of the Western Hemisphere. The American Society of Overseas Research (ASOR) offers programs and services geared towards archaeology in the Middle East.
Burke, et al. "The archaeology of climate change: The case for cultural diversity" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118, 30 https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2108537118
Marshall, Y. "What is Community Archaeology?" World Archaeology, 32, 2
Originally published on Live Science on March 28, 2014 and updated on July 6, 2022.
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Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.