Contextualizing archaeology

Download 16.46 Kb.
Date conversion18.11.2016
Size16.46 Kb.

Dr. John Olsen, UA Anthropology Department

Archaeology: the study of past human behavior through material remains.

Archaeology emphasizes material remains as opposed to documentary sources. Focus is on CULTURE as humanity’s primary adaptive mechanism – explaining the dynamics of culture change is the goal.

Archaeology has a diachronic or time-transgressive (as opposed to a synchronic or static) perspective.


Archaeology as Anthropology: Anthropology is the holistic study of humankind – its biological diversity and adaptations and its unique non-biological adaptive mechanism called culture.

Anthropology is a broad-spectrum approach to humanity, including biological anthropology (human paleontology and variation), linguistic anthropology, social or cultural (sociocultural) anthropology, and archaeology. (Archaeology is sometimes thought of as the “past tense” of cultural or social anthropology). Applied (or engaged) anthropology is a theme that runs throughout the discipline.

Various additional combinations of these traditionally defined subdisciplines are possible, e.g., biocultural anthropology, bioarchaeology, applied linguistics, etc.

Subsets of archaeology include: prehistory, historical archaeology (including industrial archaeology), classical archaeology, ethnoarchaeology, public archaeology (including heritage studies and cultural resource management)…

Archaeology as History: Archaeology does seek to understand the “history” of the human experience, but it does so largely without the benefit of a documentary record.

99% of the human experience has taken place before the development of writing and, therefore, “history” in its usual sense.
Earliest artifacts (= earliest evidence of Culture):

2.8 million years ago (East Africa)

Earliest written records: ca. 3000 BCE (Mesopotamia, Iraq; earliest true history much later).
Earliest history in Australia, 1788 CE (only)!
Archaeology is the only
means available to get at the 99% of the human story that took place before the invention of written documents.


  • BP = Before Present (by convention AD 1950)

  • BCE = Before the Common Era, preferred over BC (Before Christ) or ACN (ante Christum natum)

  • CE = Common Era; now preferred over AD (Anno Domini, “In the year of the Lord,” a contraction of Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, “in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ”)

  • KYBP = Kilo Years Before Present (also KA, Kiloyears Ago and KYA or KYR, Kilo Years Ago)

  • MYA = Mega (or Millions of) Years Ago (also MA, Megayears Ago; MYBP and MYR, Megayears Before Present)


  • BP, BC, BCE, and CE are always written after the date (e.g., 2500 BC).

  • AD is always written before the date (e.g., AD 2004).
  • RCYBP refers to “radiocarbon years before present.” Since radiocarbon years  calendar years, a calibration curve is used to establish the relationship between the two scales

  • Some authors consider some of these abbreviations case sensitive (e.g., “bp” indicates an uncalibrated date while “BP” represents a calibrated date)

  • Archaeological dates are often reported in the Islamic world as BH (Before the Hejira) or AH (After the Hejira), referencing the Prophet Muhammad’s departure from Mecca in September, 622 CE.

Archaeology as Science: Since the aim of archaeology is the understanding of humankind, archaeology is properly classified as a humanistic discipline, and since it deals with the human past it is a historical discipline. However, many of the analytical and interpretive techniques employed by archaeologists derive from the physical sciences.

The Variety and Scope of Archaeology: Today, archaeology is a very broad discipline, encompassing a number of different “archaeologies” which are nonetheless united by the methods, theories, and practices.

There are also other ways of configuring the integrated science referred to collectively as Archaeology: geographically (Egyptology, Mesoamerican, Southwestern U.S.), chronologically (Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age), by specialization (environmental archaeology, underwater archaeology, ethnoarchaeology).

AIMS AND QUESTIONS: Reconstructing a static picture of the past is not enough!

The goal of archaeology is to interpret the past; in short, to explain change.

Thus, the ultimate goal of archaeology is EXPLANATION

Useful URLs:


(and the principal means by which archaeologists address them…)

  1. What is left?

(formation processes and the variety of the evidence)

  1. Where?

(spatial concerns dealt with through survey and excavation)

  1. When?

(“absolute” and relative time; chronology and dating methods)

  1. How were societies organized?

(social archaeology)

  1. What was the environment? (environmental archaeology)

  1. What did they eat?

(reconstructions of subsistence and diet)

  1. How did they make and use tools?

(technology and typology)

  1. What contacts did they have?

(reconstructions of trade and exchange)

  1. What did they think?

(cognitive archaeology)

  1. Who were they and what were they like?

(recognizing the individual in prehistory)

  1. Why did things change?

(explanation in archaeology)

  1. Whose past is it?

(archaeology and the public)
Archaeology rests at the nexus of three important realms in the Western intellectual tradition: the social sciences, the physical and natural sciences (especially the biological and geological sciences), and the humanities.

The database is protected by copyright © 2017
send message

    Main page