About Archaeology

"It's Not What You Find, It's What You Find Out."

Finding artifacts is exciting, but what motivates archaeologists is the information they get from artifacts. Artifacts, the objects past people left behind, help archaeologists answer questions or explain problems. Sometimes they do this without digging at all! Archaeologists can use technologies such as satellite imagery or ground-penetrating radar to learn about what is under the ground without digging. Other times they may be able to infer what is under the ground based on objects found on the ground's surface. Archaeologists may also analyze previously excavated collections that are stored in museums and laboratories. Whenever archaeologists do need to dig, they follow strict legal and ethical guidelines. They are responsible for analyzing and storing the artifacts they recover, as well as sharing their discoveries with colleagues and the public.

Learn more about the scientific, ethical, and legal aspects of archaeology. In the words of archaeologist David Hurst Thomas: "it's not what you find, it's what you find out."

Why Study the Past?

To be human is to be curious, questioning, and inquisitive. We know that our ancient ancestors looked to nature with wonder. They experienced fear as the sun disappeared during solar eclipses and joy at its return. They saw cycles of births and deaths, seasons and years, and for all these events they sought explanation and meaning. The search for and discovery of explanations and meaning contributed to the development of human culture. Culture is the shared body of acquired knowledge that humans live by and pass on to each generation. Human curiosity and ingenuity have allowed cultures to evolve and flourish almost everywhere on the earth.

People today understand much more than our ancestors did about natural phenomena. But some old questions remain unanswered while discoveries yield new questions. As long as humans exist, we will seek knowledge and understanding to meet our needs and solve our problems.

This thirst for knowledge reaches into the past, even when looking to solve problems today. The search for solutions often requires an understanding of how problems developed or how we approached similar problems in the past. We study our collective pasts to gain a better understanding of who we are and where we are going in the future. Lessons learned from the past can influence and improve the social, political, and environmental actions we take today.

By studying the past, we learn how and why people lived as they did throughout the world. We learn about changes over time and causes of those changes. We study the past to get a broader and richer understanding of our world today and our place in it.

Learning about the Past

We learn about the past in many ways. Astronomy now allows us to peer back in time to the birth of our universe 8 billion years ago. Geologists look at the origin and structure of our planet earth 4.5 billion years in the past. Paleontology studies the origin of life on our planet through the fossilized remains of plants and animals. History and archaeology are also fields that study the past. Archaeologists, study the human past—about the last 1-2 million years. Each of these fields has developed its own methods for studying the past.

Understanding History and Culture

Archaeology offers a unique perspective on human history and culture. Archaeology helps us understand not only where and when people lived on the earth, but also how they have lived. Archaeologists examine change over time, seeking patterns and explanations. They ask questions about how and when humans first came to inhabit the Americas or the origins of agriculture and complex societies. Unlike history, which relies on written records and documents to interpret great lives and events, archaeology delves far back into the time before written languages existed. Through the analysis of things they made and left behind, we can glimpse the lives of everyday people.

Archaeology is the only field of study that covers all times periods and all geographic regions inhabited by humans. It has helped us understand big topics like ancient religions, early trade routes, and the lives of enslaved people. Archaeology informs us about individuals, families, and communities that might otherwise remain invisible in the historical record.