Archaeology is a branch of science that studies the pre-history of human culture. Generally, this is done by recovering and studying artifacts, architecture, and even environmental data. Usually, archaeologists study ancient civilizations; however, they also study modern cultures.

In the early days of archaeology, archaeologists were little more than tomb raiders. They eagerly sought out gold, treasures, statuary, and more from ancient sites. Many objects were lost forever, removed from their homeland and sold into private collections. Over the years, this has become very unpopular.

Modern archaeologists take great care to fully understand the context of each artifact they find. Artifacts are often left in their home country now, placed in museums and studied by international teams of scientists. Often, anthropologists are involved in the cultural study. As archaeology is a very complex subject, many professionals get involved – geologists, paleobotanists, paleozoologists, and even art historians.

In modern archaeology, there are three basic steps to be followed when studying a site: survey, excavation, and analysis.

In this survey phase, researchers look over a site. They look for interesting features, like houses, and other areas of interest. This nondestructive technique often involves simply walking over an area, seeking clues to features that have been buried. Aerial surveys are used to examine some areas, often using infrared, radar, and thermography. Magnetometers and metal detectors are also common tools in the search for clues.

In modern excavations, researchers carefully record the provenance, or precise location, of each object and feature. This is a three dimensional exercise, with more recent finds being near the surface, while older artifacts lie deeper down. The excavation phase is the most expensive, and can also be very destructive. Archaeologists now use more gentle methods than dynamite and back hoes. A site plan is developed before excavation begins in order to protect as many of the artifacts as possible.

In the analysis phase, researchers study artifacts and structures which were excavated. Often, this study can take many years. Each artifact must be carefully cleaned to remove years of debris. After cleaning, the artifacts are catalogued, then compared to other similar artifacts.

Of course, it’s not just the man-made artifacts that are interesting. The plants and pollen collected during the excavation phase provide valuable insight to the climate and plant life of each site. Bones are studied, leading to revelations on diet, disease, and more. All these pieces of the puzzle are studied in an attempt to better understand the history of humankind.

In popular culture, archaeology has been sensationalized. Movies like The Mummy and Indiana Jones portray the life of the archaeologist as one of never ending excitement. In truth, archaeologists will sometimes work for weeks, even months, searching for clues to ancient cultures.

Archaeology has come far from its primitive roots. Archaeologists are now at the forefront in the battle to stop looting. Through their efforts, we have a better understanding of the history and culture of mankind throughout the ages.file close