As it stands, archaeology is most likely the most immediately recognizable subfield to come out of anthropology. Reasons behind this immediate recognition might include the underlying impact media has had in overly romanticized films such as the Mummy, Indiana Jones, and even Timeline, all of which areset in an archaeological setting of one sort or another. Along the same topic of mistaken identity, anthropology is commonly mistaken for archaeology by many members of the public. So what exactly is archaeology? Archaeology is the study of the human past through its material remains, the emphasis on “past” ranging from as early as yesterday to thousands, and even millions of years ago (Ashmore 15).
As a field that uses the recovery of past remains to order and describe ancient events, archaeology is relatively new as a scientific profession. Only a few hundred years ago, archaeology might have been considered exclusively a “rich man’s” hobby. This evolution from hobby to hard science eventually earned archaeology a significant place in both theory and method, both of which are concerned with the specific goals of archaeology. These goals are further broken down into four separate subdivisions that work together in created a detailed account of past events and civilizations (Ashmore 16). The first goal of archaeologists is to reveal the form of the past through description and classification of physical evidence. They then use this evidence to account for the distribution of the remains of ancient societies over time and space.
Their second goal is to then discover function in order to determining the physical behavior represented by the physical remains after which draws archaeologists to examine the third goal, understanding the cultural process. In doing so, archaeologists use physical remains to explain how and why a culture might have changed over time. Finally, these three are put together in order to derive meaning from the archaeological record.
To better understand archaeology and where it is going, however, it is important to know how the study of archaeology came about. Overall, the origins of archaeology began with amateur collectors (Ashmore 43). Those collectors were in turn responsible for the first attempts to organize their expansive collections into different classifications. These classifications initially started with collectors placing items into categories by form associated with the most obvious traits. As collections progressed however, and thanks to individuals such as Darwin, collectors became less interested with form and more concerned with function and explanation for those differences. The most significant impact on the field of archaeology came with the emergence of modern archaeology. This form of archaeological practice required the use of models using hypotheses tested in accordant to the scientific method in order to explain archaeological evidence (Ashmore 60).
Furthermore, beyond models, in order for an archaeologist to assess the meaning of the archaeological record accurately, they have instilled various bodies of theory which work to guide their research; the first of which is “general theory”. General theory refers to the broader meaning of interpretation of physical remains. Its main purpose is to use those interpretations in order to offer explanations for cultural change and evolution suggested within the archaeological record (Ashmore 26). Secondly comes the middle-range theory, whose purpose is to make connections between ancient cultures and their material remains. In doing so, the middle-range theory is used to observe how the record was formed as the result of human behavior and other influences and connect those artifacts suck as potsherd and bone fragments to explain ancient behavior. Then there is constructs, which is more simply the observation of events within the archaeological record (Ashmore 25).
It is within these three abstract theories of archaeology that all methods are contained. It is the goal of the archaeologist to discover, recover, preserve, describe, and analyze the archaeological record, and this is done so through very specific methods of research, the most common of which is the scientific method. By the twentieth century however, archaeology had developed a series of complex and unique approaches (Ashmore 35).
The earliest of these methods in referred to as the Cultural History Approach. The emphasis of this approach is to define both the spatial and sequential distribution of events by studying the patterns of human remains. Then there is the Cultural Process Approach. Through using the cultural process approach archaeologists study how the component parts of a culture function as a system (Ashmore 41). More specifically, it addresses how that cultural system functioned at a specific point within the archaeological record compared to how it changed over time. What is does, is seek to discover the process of culture by observing the change at both of these points (Ashmore 33). The Postprocessual approach on the other hand emerged from the shortcomings of processual anthropology. Here its goals are to observe the change in behavior in the context of each culture’s distinct set of values, beliefs and other practices that would give the world meaning to them (Ashmore 47).
None of this however would be possible without the direct methods in which these valuable pieces of data are recovered and processed. Most of archaeology takes place in the form of field work which can be broken down into three different processes (Ashmore 79). Surface survey allows archaeologists to acquire data from site by observing features located above the surface; from there excavation can be done to retrieve data located beneath the surface of these sites.
While the process under which archaeology is conducted can appear mildly tedious at times, the issues surround the topics of archaeological evidence are not. Because archaeology is left so much up to the interpretation of data, several conflicts have arisen between scholars within the field. For example, the issue of cannibalism in Southwestern archaeology. But-mark human bone assemblages have been reported around this particular area for hundreds of years, yet archaeologists still argue whether or not these events were mere acts of violence or if they were in fact cannibalism. Most evidence of cannibalism is expressed to be located at Mesa Verde. At this site, the human remains uncovered suggest they were processed in a way that suggests cannibalistic behavior. However, scholars still argue as to whether or not this is speculation based on assumption as their findings reveal no conclusive evidence of this sort of behavior suggesting that cannibalism in fact occurred.
Another hotly debated topic revolves around a less violent topic. For years archaeologists have argued over when the first humans came to the American continents and where they had arrived from. It was previous accepted that humans arrived to the Americas from the land bridge linking Asia to North America. Evidence of human migration can be found at Clovis sites suggesting that these bands followed the herds in and down into the new regions. However, arguments have arisen with the discovery of Monte-Verde, whose site yielded artifacts which dated pre-Clovis. This created new theories within the archaeological community as to whether the humans migrated from the land bridge as initially thought or if they in fact arrived by different means.
As far as academic institutions are concerned with offering its students classes in the discipline of archaeology, most universities tend to focus their programs on local and nearby archaeological interests. The University of South Florida is no exception, offering its students with a thorough introductory course as well as opportunities to focus in specific areas of local and regional archaeology. These courses include North American Archaeology, South American Archaeology and Florida Archaeology, all of which are consistent to the location of the department. They also offer students the opportunity to attend field schools in order to achieve hands on techniques which would later become useful in the field.
If one were to study archaeology outside of the university, aside from basic textbooks who focus is mainly on technique and theory, there are field studies available through institutions like Earthwatch. Otherwise, a lot of information on other journals and research topics can be found on site like the American Anthropological Association and their local archeological association.
Ashmore, Wendy and Robert J. Sharer. Archaeology: Discovering Our Past. 3rd Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
Ashmore, Wendy and Robert J. Sharer. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. 3rd Edition. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000.
Endicott, Kirk M. and Robert L. Welsch. Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Anthropology. 3rd Edition. Dubuque: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, 2005.