Architools 1 What is Archaeology?

So what is archaeology?

Ok, let’s just get one thing out of the way with first. Archaeology is not Palaeontology, WE DO NOT DO DINSOSAURS!

So what is archaeology all about? Archaeology can be rather hard to define, so  let’s look at some definitions:

Oxford English Dictionary Online: 

A person who studies human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artefacts and other physical remains.”

Cambridge English Dictionary Online:

“the study of the buildings, graves, tools, and other objects that belonged to people who lived in the past, in order to learn about their culture and society”


“the scientific study of historic or prehistoric peoples and their cultures by analysis of their artifacts, inscriptions, monuments, and other such remains, especially those that have been excavated”

Archaeological Institute of America:

“The scientific excavation and study of ancient human material remains.”


“Archaeology, also spelled archeology, the scientific study of the material remains of past human life and activities. These include human artifacts from the very earliest stone tools to the man-made objects that are buried or thrown away in the present day: everything made by human beings—from simple tools to complex machines, from the earliest houses and temples and tombs to palaces, cathedrals, and pyramids. Archaeological investigations are a principal source of knowledge of prehistoric, ancient, and extinct culture. The word comes from the Greek archaia (“ancient things”) and logos (“theory” or “science”).”


“Archaeology, or archeology, is the study of human activity through the recovery and analysis of material culture. The archaeological record consists of artifacts, architecture, biofacts or ecofacts and cultural landscapes.”

Urban Dictionary: 

“The science of travelling around the world with a bullwhip and a fedora hat, occasionally beating the (insert appropriate language here) out of some nazis!”


Out of those definitions I think that the Wikipedia definition and the Britannica definition probably come the closest to how I view archaeology, but they are still not quite there. I also think a lot of archaeologists of my may sort of age and older, thought our careers may be more like the Urban Dictionary definition.

The American anthropologist and archaeologist Walter Taylor described archaeology as “Neither history nor history. As an autonomous discipline, it consists of a method and a set of specialised techniques for gathering or “production” of cultural information”. I think this is probably the closest to how I would define archaeology, and whenever I am asked or called upon to define archaeology, I always seem to struggle to provide what I think is a suitable answer. This particular definition I thinks speaks to me the most as it does mention the words ‘Past’ or ‘Ancient’, or anything similar. Which often definitions do not also deal with.

Archaeology is an ever expanding field of study, and is fact several fields of study which are all brought together to give us a better understanding of us a species, where we came from, where we are going and the impact we have had.

Here are some of the ‘sub fields’ of archaeology: 

Archaeo-astronomy – The study of ancient astronomy through archaeological remains.

Archaeo-botany (Palaeobotany) – The study of ancient plant remains, mainly using charred, water-logged, or desiccated seeds, plant fibred, wood, fruit etc…

Archaeozoology: The recovery and analysis of animal remains in order to examine their physiology and ecology in relation to cultural and to provide an understanding of them within society. Themes often include: Domestication, Exploitation, Dietary Contributions, and butchery practices.

Environmental Archaeology: The documenting and understanding of past environments. Reconstructing past environments to show change overtime and to better understand the environments in which different cultures develop.  These can be done on a small scale or large scales.

Ethno-Archaeology: Using ethnographical data to inform the examination and interpretation of archaeological data. This can be seen as extremely controversial, and has wide ethical issue and implications.

Marine Archaeology/Maritime Archaeology: The study and retrieval of information about sunken/lost ships and vessels, study of seafaring.

Osteoarchaeology: The study and analysis of human and animal anatomy, especially skeletal remains within archaeological contexts and deposits.

Palaeopathology: The study of disease, nutrition, dental state and traumatic injuries, in ancient, prehistoric and historic populations, through the study of preserved biology materials (Skeletons, complete and fragmentary, body waste such as coprolites, historical and artefactual remains can also be useful.

These are just some of the sub-fields of archaeology, more or less randomly chosen, there are many more. Many of which go beyond some of the rather simplistic definitions that are mentioned above. Some of these may well be features of future Architools articles in the future.

So to finish off, I thought I would give summary of what I think Archaeology is and is not:

what is archaeology

I would like to finish with a poem by John Drexel:


Archaeologist by John Drexel

Those who have the patience to learn his patience

as he digs into the past with patient hands

will learn to accept his patience and his reticence,

the artefacts retrieved from shifting sands:

which is to say , the feel of history 

in its alien, unaltered state,

the unworn emblems of memory

that lie beneath the trust of what we write,

rough and untutored.

See: our lives have not been wholly severed

from all that matters

and has mattered:

piece by blessed piece he’ll gather,

piece each piecemeal part together. 

In time we’ll learn to recognize the patterns. 


So thanks for reading my general ramblings on archaeology. Hope it was interesting, or funny or something like that,,, It was a little longer than I anticipated for an Architools article. Just a little reminder, because it was ages ago that I proposed the idea, these are not necessarily suppose to be in-depth articles, but just short and interesting (hopefully funny too), but also useful on different aspects of archaeology, I actually started with one that I have difficulty with, which is defining it. The next article is likely to be on History and Theory (I can feel all the archaeologies out their groaning, remembering that module from university), so is also going to be rather rambling. But then I aim to tackle more technical aspects.

SO thank you for reading as always, and if you enjoy then please share it with your friends, families, arch enemies etc… Take care 🙂

PS If you have not watched archaeosoup’s videos called “We don’t Do Dinosaurs’ and “We don’t do Aliens” then go and check them out, links below.

We don’t do dinosaurs:

We don’t do aliens:

All credit to archaesoup productions, do not check out the channel.







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