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I got a request to define the most fundamental terms used on this blog, and it made an excellent point. Within any specialty, one usually talks to other specialists— the most basic terms can be taken for granted, and the pursuit of complex concepts can conveniently overshadow more elemental ones. In answer, the Glossary Feature will bravely take on archaeology itself, and try to tackle not only its definition, but its meaning.


Archaeology/archeology n. The systematic study of past human life and culture by the recovery and examination of remaining material evidence, such as graves, buildings, tools, and pottery.

Anthropology n. The scientific study of the origins, the behaviour, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans.

Basically, archaeology is the study of human civilisation: its origins, its triumphs, its failures, and above all, its evolution. It is usually considered a subset of anthropology, which can be as vast as the word implies— the study of man. Anthropology can range from the evolution of Neanderthal skull shapes, to the comparative musicology of indigenous South Sea island cultures, to the relationship between emerging vocabulary and zeitgeist in X century of Y country. It can be ancient, it can be modern, according to some it can include psychology; it is huge. Archaeology is only one aspect, and the divisions are not always clear.

Archaeology does have a few distinct characteristics, though, and can be recognised by two of its most important: it is systematic, and it is material-based. Every phase of archaeological exploration is documented, recorded, mapped, and verifiable, or it is not archaeology, but treasure hunting. Archaeology is also focussed on the evidence of material remains, and never relies solely on myths, written accounts, or speculation, though all these can be used to interpret material evidence.

IS not

Archaeology doesn’t have anything to do with dinosaurs— they are the province of paleontology. (Paleontology is a fascinating field, covers far more than just dinosaurs, and deserves more expertise than I could provide on it here!). If your knowledge of early man is limited to The Flintstones, this may be a bitter disappointment! Archaeology usually does not include human evolution; how we came from hominids to homo sapiens is a highly specialised study of its own, and is more typically called paleoanthropology. (The terms become messy, though, when early humans and relatives started making things and leaving traces of their lives behind. That can be studied by archaeology.) Above all, archaeology has nothing to do with aliens. For those of you who are wondering how anyone could seriously think it did, so did I. For those of you who have seriously considered it, please allow me to state: aliens did not build the pyramids, Stonehenge, or the statues on Easter Island, nor did they introduce technology, writing, or agriculture, no matter what the History Channel says. Ancient civilisations around the world did extraordinary things that are the more fascinating, the more impressive, because they are human, and ancient people deserve credit for their achievements. If you happen to meet an archaeologist, please do not ask about alien-development theories, yours or anyone else’s; it depresses us.

and more

Scores of excellent books have been written on what archaeology is, and do more justice than I can in even a lengthy post, so I will leave it here for now. Whenever I can, I will tie in discussions like this with examples; the next Glossary endeavour will be the perplexing task of sorting art, antiques, and antiquities. Then A Year in Provenance will take on the intersection of art and antiquity— how much is defined by time? By beauty? By value? And as always, visit the Glossary for succinct term definitions, and links to the posts with deeper descriptions.