Archaeology- What is it?

Archaeology. Indiana Jones. Time Team. Travel. Adventure.

As any Archaeologist knows, archaeology is rarely any of the above.  Ok maybe two of the above- but not those two!

So what, indeed, is archaeology?

From my perspective as a Professional Archaeologist, archaeology (lower case ‘a’) is:

  • the methodical and objective study of the past: encompassing fieldwork, analysis of artefacts, human remains, settlements and landscapes in order to learn about how people lived, defined themselves (individually and in groups) and interacted with each other.

BUT reductively defining the practice of archaeology as the study of the past overlooks its ability to mirror what we value in society today.

Because how we see the past, and how we interpret how people lived, reflects our own social mores and values.

What archaeologists study, how we interpret it, and even what we decide to to preserve or protect, boils down to what is identified as ‘valuable’ or ‘essential’ to our society- or even to humanity as a whole.

So while archaeology may be defined as an objective social science it is heavily influenced by assumptions about what has societal ‘worth’ or ‘value.’

Therefore, Archaeology (capital ‘A’) goes to the heart of how we define ourselves as individuals, as societies and as human beings.

In a society that often interprets value as money, archaeological worth is sometimes assessed via the market value of an artefact, or even by a find or a site’s ability to attract public attention and/or tourism.

While in academia, value or worth is most often decided by the ability to garner funding.

Archaeology as a discipline rooted in western, post-enlightenment academe has quite a lot of unfortunate baggage.  Not the least of which is its relationship to nationalism, imperialism and colonialism.

Archaeologists have been working to unpack this baggage, analysing and outlining various theoretical underpinnings of how it has or should be done- Questioning and testing our assumptions about the past.

So what is Archaeology?

The answer is there is no single Archaeology.  Just as there is no single set of ‘right’ human values or traits, we now have Multiple Archaeologies, with their own sets of questions, that further delineate, divide and decipher the past – each within their own specialist remits.

What is Archaeology?

Well, its complicated….

So while Archaeologists can agree that there is no single version or narrative of past events-‘THE PAST’- we cannot agree on how to resolve these different versions with one another.

But should these different versions be forced into co-existence? Into a single unified version?

Or would this bring us back again to picking and choosing what is of supposedly ‘universal’ value?

What is Archaeology?

That is a very good question.

At the very least we can say that Archaeology isn’t always what we see on TV.


2 responses to “Archaeology- What is it?

  1. Pingback: It was the best of posts, it was the worst of posts | Field of Work·

  2. Pingback: The 5 (Or So) Things I Discovered While Learning about Archaeology On-Line | Field of Work·

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