” Every archaeologist knows in their heart why they dig. We dig, in pity and humility, that the dead may live again, that what is past may not be forever lost, that something may be salvaged from the wreck of ages.”

-Geoffrey Bibby

What is Archaeology?

The base definition of archaeology is the scientific study of material remains of past human life, activity, and their material culture. Archaeological survey or excavations reveal past lives and materials that we then analyze and interpret to better understand the past, the present, and hopefully, the future.

But there’s a lot more to archaeology than this statement lets on.

Archeology: it’s not just digging holes!


Excavations expose architecture, artifacts, and more. There is a satisfaction looking back after a season, and seeing how much you were able to accomplish is rewarding. But the progression does not stop there. A thorough analysis of what excavations reveal progresses what we know or what we thought we knew about past peoples and cultures. The more analyses, the more information we have to make credible interpretations.

Progression also applies to our methods of excavation and analysis. As new scientific methods are discovered and refined, we can better collect the appropriate types of data to answer even more questions about the past. The large physical or fancy artifacts were exciting, and often the sole focus of early archaeologists’ attention. Now we know we can acquire just as much information from collecting a wider array of stuff left in the archaeological record. Bones, plant remains, and even soil samples provide a wealth of data that enhances our understanding of the past.


The best archaeology is done when people work together. Archaeologists need to collaborate with each other. No individual can analyze, interpret, and make this interpretation public through publishing on their own. Teams of archaeologists work together to answer questions about the past. The ultimate goal is to arrive at a holistic understanding of why what happened in the past happened.

Collaborative efforts must also include the local communities. Local communities live on and near the sites archaeologists come to work at. The people in these communities usually have a better understanding of the landscape and together archaeologists and locals and expand knowledge together. Archaeologists can support local communities by working with them and sharing their findings in an accessible manner. Communication between these two groups builds bonds between one another and to the land. No one person owns the past, but we can better understand it working together.


The first known material culture, that is stone tools, made by potential human ancestors dates back to 3.3 million years ago. The further forward in time, the more archaeological material preserves and is available for study. What were people doing 100,000 years ago? What were people doing 10,000 years ago? How about 5,000 years ago? 300 years ago? Why? What was driving those decisions? Why did they choose to do one thing over another? What were their preferences?

These are just a few of the general questions that guide archaeologists all over the world. In trying to understand these general questions about people of the past, archaeologists choose different focuses, which leads to more specific questions. How did the domestication of animals or staying in one place year-round change human interactions with the landscape? How were conflicts solved between peoples who had different cultural identities? To start to answer these questions and more, archaeologists investigate the diverse materials of the past using a wide array of methods.

Archaeological Sciences

Archaeological sciences are the analytical and methodological tools for collecting and analyzing archaeological data. Excavation is only a small fraction of the work we do to answer questions about the past. Archaeological sciences allow us to explore and better understand past materials and behaviors at the micro and macro scales and everything in between.

Archaeological Materials

Archaeological Materials could be anything used or created by people in the past. This also extends to the landscape humans occupied and are connected with the plants and animals people interact with. People themselves can be archaeological materials, including the variety of information we hold about our lives even after death. Scroll through the slide show to get a glimpse into some of the ways people used various materials in the past.

Collection Methods

During archaeological excavation, archaeologists use a variety of methods to collect past materials for analysis. Five methods depicted below are just a few of a wide array of ways archaeological collection during excavation.

Post Processing and Analysis

In University or other more traditional labs, archaeologists have more high-powered equipment to perform in-depth analysis of materials. Check out the slide show to see some of these lab analyses and lab work.

Interested in more avenues? Check out these some of these archaeological science methods and techniques.

  • Radiocarbon dating
  • Potassium-Argon dating
  • Thermoluminescence dating
  • Dendrochronology
  • Archaeobotanical analysis
  • Scanning electron microscopy
  • Stable Isotope analysis- Carbon, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Strontium, Lead
  • X-ray fluorescence
  • Ceramic Petrography
  • micromorphology
  • aDNA
  • Neutron activation analysis
  • Lithic analysis
  • Zooarchaeological analysis
  • Geomorphometrics
  • Osteoarcheological analysis
  • Magnetometry and Geophysical survey
  • Remote sensing


Archaeologists need to publish their findings and their interpretations. Sometimes this is a long process because of limited time and availability to analytical tools. Sharing results can help change the way we all think about the past. It can also spur conversations or debates about how to interpret the past that also helps push our understanding forward.

Some books to start with

Other Resources

The African American Diaspora Network

Society of Black Archaeologists

Society for American Archaeology

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