Archaeology is everywhere in the early twenty-first century. It is part of the multibillion-dollar heritage industry; taught as a scholarly discipline in colleges and universities throughout the world; and firmly embedded in politics, global social movements, and popular culture. It has been defined in dozens of ways and is commonly referred to as a scholarly or intellectual endeavor, a profession, a practice, a craft, and a hobby. It is rationalized in many different ways and relies on several basic concepts. This chapter introduces archaeology by clarifying these definitions, contexts, rationalizations, and concepts.
After studying this chapter, students should be able to
- describe the variety of ways archaeology is contextualized within academic institutions.
- describe the nature and scope of the heritage industry and archaeology’s place within it.
- describe the political contexts of archaeology.
- describe how archaeology is linked with global social movements.
- outline the concerns about the depiction of archaeology in popular culture.
- outline the various ways archaeology is rationalized in the early twenty-first century.
- outline the basic concepts upon which archaeology rests.
- define all the glossary terms found in the chapter.
agriculture – A subsistence strategy characterized by the intensive cultivation of food plants, often involving the use of plows, draft animals, and irrigation. (p.25)
analogy – A form of reasoning based on the premise that if two things are alike in some respects, they may be alike in other respects as well. Many explanations in archaeology, particularly about how sites were created and the function of artifacts, are based on analogy. Analogies in archaeology are commonly drawn from existing ethnographies, ethnoarchaeology, and experimental archaeology. (p.24)
anthropology – The evolutionary, holistic, and comparative study of humans. In North America, archaeology is usually considered to be a branch of anthropology. (p.12)
archaeological record – Minimally includes all the material remains documented by archaeologists. More comprehensive definitions also include the record of culture history and everything written about the past by archaeologists. (p.19)
archaeological site – Any location where there is physical evidence of human activity. To be defined as an archaeological site, a location need not meet minimum requirements for age or contents, although some government jurisdictions may dictate minimum criteria for inventory purposes. (p.6)
archaeotourism – Tourism focusing on promoting visits to archaeological sites as well as heritage interpretation centers and museums. (p.7)
artifact – Any object that shows evidence of being manufactured, modified, or used by people. Most archaeologists also restrict the term artifact to items that are portable. (p.9)
civilization – There is no consensus definition of civilization, but most archaeologists agree a society must have most of the following: monumental architecture, at least one city, a system of writing, an agricultural base, and state-level political organization. (p.9)
collateral damage – Unintended damage. Used primarily in archaeology to describe the impact of military actions on archaeological sites. (p.18)
commercial archaeology or cultural resource management (CRM) – Archaeology undertaken within the context of the heritage industry, often because archaeological assessments are required by legislation, to be completed in advance of potential disturbance to areas where sites are known or suspected to exist. Often abbreviated as CRM. (p.14)
conceptual framework – A theoretical framework that guides research; also known as a paradigm, research strategy, research approach, grand theory, and heuristic theory. (p.22)
culture – The learned and shared things that people have, do, and think. (p.24)
deep antiquity – A phrase used to convey the long history of humankind, including the 2.5-million-year record of human culture. (p.25)
deep time – A phrase used to convey the 15-billion-year history of the universe. (p.24)
ethnoarchaeology – A subfield of archaeology that involves making observations of contemporary people to better understand the archaeological record. (p.26)
ethnographic analogy – When archaeologists make interpretations of the archaeological record based on similarities observed in ethnographically described cultures. (p.26)
ethnography – A written description of a culture, based on first-hand observation by a cultural anthropologist. (p.26)
experimental archaeology – Conducting experiments to replicate past conditions and events, and using the results to interpret archaeological remains. (p.26)
heritage industry – A growth industry involving the promotion, preservation, documentation, assessment, interpretation, and presentation of heritage. In North America, some view cultural resource management to be equivalent to the heritage industry, while others view it to be only a component of the industry. (p.5)
holistic – The recognition that all components of a culture are interrelated. (p.12)
Homininae – The biological family to which modern humans belong and which appears to have originated several million years ago. Includes multiple species within the Homo, Australopithecus, and other early human genera. (p.10)
Homo – The biological genus to which modern humans belong and which appears to have originated about 2.5 million years ago. (p.10)
Indian industry – All the work revolving around the assertions of Aboriginal rights, especially in Canada, and specifically regarding the activities of lawyers, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists involved with First Nations claims. (p.19)
Inka – A civilization that was centered in Peru but developed into an empire that dominated many other groups in western South America for about a century until the conquest by the Spanish in the early 1500s. Also known as the Inca. (p.7)
lens of archaeology – A framework for studying the human past, including a set of archaeological principles, methods, theories, ethics, and research results. (p.8)
living museums – Museums where people dress in period costume and often reenact the time being portrayed, such as acting as shopkeepers and blacksmiths. (p.15)
material culture – The physical aspect of culture, such as things that can be touched; distinct from behavior and ideology. (p.22)
material remains – The physical remains of human activities and ecofacts. (p.9)
paleodiet – A popular contemporary diet based on largely incorrect assumptions about human diets in the past and the evolution of human digestive systems. (p. 6)
paleofantasy – The belief that things were better in the past. (p. 6)
pottery – Baked clay containers, such as bowls, cups, jars, and vases. (p.11)
refuse – An umbrella term used to refer to discarded items, including trash (dry items) and garbage (wet or organic items such as food waste). (p.10)
Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA) – An international list of archaeologists who meet minimum standards of qualification and agree to abide by a strict code of ethics. (p.11)
science – A method of inquiry based on the collection of empirical data as well as the formulation, testing, and continual reevaluation of hypotheses. (p.10)
subsistence looting – The practice of looting sites, usually by local peoples, to provide the basic necessities of life. (p.18)
traditional territory – The area habitually used by a group throughout the year. Also known as site exploitation territory. (p.22)
white savior – The white savior complex includes the idea that white people impose their belief systems and power over those who have less power or privilege, often with the goal of uplifting the marginalized. Based on the assumption that Westerners have the skills needed to help or save others. Examples in archaeology include archaeologists claiming to save and protect archaeological sites and artifacts for the benefit of others. (p.5)
World Heritage Site – A site that has received designation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in recognition of its high significance. (p.18)
Archaeology in Contemporary Times
Schiffer, Michael B. 2017. Archaeology’s Footprints in the Modern World. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Archaeology and Nuclear Waste
Kaplan, M., and M. Adams. 1986. "Using the Past to Protect the Future: Marking Nuclear Waste Disposal Sites." Archaeology 39 (5): 107–12.
Joyce, Rosemary. 2020. The Future of Nuclear Waste: What Art and Archaeology Can Tell Us about Securing the World’s Most Hazardous Material. New York: Oxford University Press.
Archaeology and Popular Culture
Holtorf, Cornelius. 2005. From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira.
Holtorf, Cornelius. 2007. Archaeology Is a Brand: The Meaning of Archaeology in Popular Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Reinhard, Andrew. 2018 Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games. New York. Berghahn.
There are numerous associations of professional archaeologists in North America. Many regions, states, and provinces have associations of professional archaeologists. One international association (although mostly American) is The Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA).
Each of the following sites is on the list of World Heritage Sites maintained by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The links lead to the descriptions, which include photos and the rationale for its designations as a World Heritage Site. Where the official UNESCO designation differs from the name in the chapter, the UNESCO description is provided in parentheses.