What Is Archaeology?
Archaeology is the study of people in the past through the materials they have left behind.
The human past extends far earlier than is covered in written records. For most of humanity’s time on earth, the only record of who we were, where and how we lived, and where we came from is buried. Even for more recent history, many aspects of people’s lives are never recorded. By examining sites and artifacts, archaeologists discover our hidden history and tell the story of the human experience. Archaeology is a bridge between the past, the present and the future. Items lost or left behind by the past occupants of sites give archaeologists clues to the past and often help them to understand and interpret the present and the future. The objects we leave behind today may tell future archaeologists about the cultures, values and lifestyles of the early 21st century.
What do archaeologists hope to accomplish by excavating the remains of old settlements? What possible questions can the smallest pieces of stone, pottery, and bone, and stains in the soil answer?
By excavating, archaeologists hope to accomplish one or all of four goals: to reconstruct the history of past societies, to determine how people in these societies lived, to understand why societies changed through time and to advocate the preservation of cultural resources.
To reconstruct the history of past societies, archaeologists assume that sites with similar types of artifacts were probably inhabited by people who were members of the same society – if not by the same people during different seasons of the year. By comparing artifacts from different sites, archaeologists study spacial and temporal relationships between groups of people.
The second goal of archaeology is to reconstruct the lifestyles of people who lived in the past. The goal is to determine what people ate, what kinds of clothing, tools and structures they made and how and when they moved across the landscape in pursuit of food.
We are all interested in how and why cultures change over time because it gives us insight into our own cultural changes. Archaeology is unique among the humanities and social sciences in that the objects it studies span great periods of time. It has allowed archaeologists to study how and why cultures change in all periods of time and in all parts of the world.
Finally, the protection of cultural resources is of utmost importance. Excavating sites not only allows for information to be collected and shared, it is also a unique opportunity to keep portions of a known archaeological site intact; to leave it for future archaeologists. Because technology advances so quickly, and new methods of dating and examining artifacts are being discovered every year, it is important to leave some cultural resources in situ or undisturbed. When the new methods are ready for testing, there will be areas and sites which remain untouched for archaeologists to study. Educating the public and promoting awareness of archaeological sites is one of the best ways to protect cultural resources.
The past does not have a single owner, it is ours to discover, document, cherish and protect. We all have a stake in protecting our heritage.