Login Join | Donate | Annual Meeting | Career Center | SAA News | Marketplace | Contact   Search
 table of contents Minimize

 Chapter 1: Adventure in the Depths of Time Minimize

Archaeology. The very mention of the word evokes images of buried treasure, ancient curses, or the sexist stereotype of the pith-helmeted scholar poking around in the jungle with his handsome assistant and beautiful daughter.

Too often the most sensational aspects of the profession, whether the fact of Pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb or the fiction of the Indiana Jones movies, have become the sole elements of most people's concept of archaeology. That image simply isn't realistic. Spectacular discoveries are quite rare in the real-life pursuit—normally a mixture of demanding physical labor and careful scholarship. And it would be as difficult to pick an archaeologist out of a crowd as to distinguish a disc jockey from a real estate agent passing on a busy street.

Archaeology is perhaps best thought of as the study of past ways of life. To pursue this study, archaeologists focus on the relationship between the material objects made by past peoples, on the one hand, and the makers' behavior, on the other. Sometimes written records help; often no such records exist.

In previous centuries archaeologists were content simply to find objects. Today, armed with computers, laboratory analysis, theories about society and culture, and a wide range of questions about human behavior, they may try to reach into the minds of those who made and used the artifacts. Thus their analysis acts as a bridge between the two sets of things: one an invisible realm that includes human ways of survival, religious beliefs, family structure, and social organization; the other a visible, tangible accumulation of material remains such as trash, tools, ornaments, and buildings. The latter group provides the raw material for understanding the former through logical reasoning. In making this all-important link, archaeologists have at least three main goals:

To obtain a chronology of the past, a sequence of events and dates that, in a sense, is a backward extension of history. For example, an archaeologist may wish to determine when agriculture developed in a particular society or when a certain kind of pottery was made. Such basic information not only contributes to charting the individual sequences of culture change but also allows comparisons among culture histories in different parts of the world.
To begin at least to reconstruct the many ways of life that no longer exist. For example, excavations at the huge Cahokia site in western Illinois give us an intriguing glimpse of the area as it was around A.D. 1200 by providing numerous clues to the nature of everyday life, the richness of ceremonial activity, and the workings of economic systems in the Mississippi Valley at that time.
To give us some understanding of why human culture has changed through time. Given the delicate and complicated interplay between environment and people—either different segments of past societies or peoples of different cultures—archaeologists can often isolate the occurrence of small changes in the past, such as shifts in gathering methods, changes in art motifs, or new sets of social relationships. These, in turn, may allow investigators to track changes through time and to understand the reasons for them.

The quest for cause-and-effect explanations of human behavior over the centuries is perhaps the most important ingredient of the discipline, for it has the potential to help us understand the present. This is but one of many reasons why archaeology plays such a vital part in the overall study of humanity.

In striving to accomplish each of these three aims, archaeologists make a contribution to our understanding of all peoples by opening up to our investigations hundreds and thousands of years of human activity that are otherwise unrecorded or poorly recorded. Thus, archaeology, in conjunction with other social and natural sciences, enables us to better understand ourselves and how we got to be the way we are. In short, archaeology is not merely the recovery and description of arrowheads or even the reconstruction of the lifeways of prehistoric peoples; it is, ultimately, a problem-solving science that recovers and analyzes data that reflect the vast diversity of human societies and human beings—data that also allow all of us an appreciation for how we are different, how we are alike, and the reasons for cultural change, stability, and transformation.

The science of archaeology has both the purpose and the capacity to satisfy our curiosity about the past, and its methods—akin to those of a detective seeking clues—possess a fascination all their own. As a result, more and more people are interested in learning about the past through archaeology and in participating in archaeological investigations. The appendix at the end of this publication includes information about how to become more involved in scientific archaeology.

Scientific archaeological research includes much more than the excavation of ancient sites. Modern archaeology, in fact, frequently requires no excavation but depends upon the study of existing collections and information reported in scientific publications. Instead of digging, archaeologists bring new technologies and methods to bear upon materials excavated earlier in order to reinterpret them.

Excavation, when required, is only an early step in a long, difficult, and expensive process leading to the publication of reports describing and interpreting the excavated site and materials recovered from it. Excavation irrevocably disturbs, even destroys, the original context—the way artifacts and other material lay in relation to one another. Thus, for the archaeologists involved, the very act of digging carries with it a built-in ethical and professional obligation to scientifically document that which was disturbed. This guarantees that the sites themselves and the recovered objects continue to be available for study by future scholars.

This booklet is about archaeology and you. It is designed to provide you with basic information about the science of archaeology, along with advice on how you can learn more and, if you wish, actually take part in it. A selection of specialized books, magazines, and films appears in the appendix, which also identifies sites and museums you can visit. In addition, there are suggestions for those who might like to volunteer for excavation or other archaeological work. Finally, this booklet suggests some steps and guidelines for those of you interested in dedicating yourselves to any of many different professional careers in archaeology or to an avocation in this uniquely rewarding field.

To learn more about topics covered in Chapter 1 visit these National Park Service Features:

Public Archeology in the U.S. A Timeline: Take a journey through time and see the development of public archeology in the United States. See how public archeology developed and changed through the years and discover key events that shaped the discipline.

Federal Archeology Program: Based on a National Strategy for Federal Archeology, the program includes a wide range of efforts to interpret the past for the public, care for collections, conduct scientific investigations, and protect archeological sites. The Secretary of the Interior reports to Congress each year on these activities through this program.



Archaeologists excavate a former Chinese community in Paradise Valley, Nevada.

Monks Mound as it appeared in the late 1930's to early 1940's.

Monks Mound as it appeared in the mid 1970's.

Monks Mound, located in Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site as it appeared in the early 1990's.

Underwater archaeologists employ techniques to record data underwater

Archaeologists look over artifacts in the lab.

Archaeologist Michael Wilkens shows some artifacts to visitors on the Petersburg National Battlefield.

Not all archaeology involves digging.