While the beloved Indiana Jones franchise served to inspire a whole generation of future archaeologists, it also created enduring and inaccurate myths about who archaeologist are and what they do. Archaeologists are not treasure hunters, they are rarely chased by bad guys, and contrary to popular belief, they do not dig up dinosaur bones (paleontologists do that).
Archaeology, like its cousins cultural and physical anthropology and linguistics, is a sub-discipline of anthropology, the study of humans. Archaeologists study the human past through the scientific investigation of material remains such as artifacts, buildings or landscapes.
Types of Archaeology
In general, there are two types of archaeology: Academic and Cultural Resources Management (CRM).
Academic archaeology, which tends to be more traditional and research-oriented, is primarily done through Universities, museums or other institutions. Research is guided by scientific interest or specific research questions. While most archaeologists operate on some sort of budget, academic archaeology is more flexible and researchers commonly work on the same site for several years.
CRM archaeology records and preserves archaeological sites under threat of development or destruction. Most CRM is done in response to Federal and state laws which require archaeological work prior to major road or development projects funded with state or Federal money. CRM archaeologists try to mitigate damage to archaeological sites in construction areas and recover any archaeological data that is impacted during the construction process. As a result, CRM archaeology operates under project deadlines, focuses on sites that are under threat and is guided by the need to protect or salvage archaeological data, rather than pure research. The time crunch or project goals do not mean that CRM is inferior archaeology. The methodology is the same but the process is expedited. Backhoes can be used to remove top soil or fill, geophysics can be used to identify target areas and extra large crews can be brought on board to keep things rolling.
Deciphering the Disciplines
Although it is always helpful to have a wide range of experience, most archaeologists end up specializing in a certain time period, subject or region. Archaeologists working in the United States tend to identify themselves as either prehistoric or historical archaeologists. Others working outside the U.S. may focus on specific cultures or regions such as Egyptology, classical, biblical or MesoAmerican archaeology. Some specialists concentrate on specific types of excavation, such as underwater archaeology. Others focus on types of archaeological finds. For example, there are zooarchaeologists that specialize in the study of animal remains found on archaeological sites or, like we saw at Range Creek, archeobotonists who specialize in the study of plant remains found during excavation.
While there is some flexibility in the division between prehistoric and historical archaeology, for the most part, prehistorians like Joe and Adrian specialize in Native American sites, while Eric and Julie work with sites dating after the arrival of Europeans. Although the prehistoric/historical terminology is widely used, most would agree that it is somewhat problematic. Prehistoric archaeology certainly does not refer to a time before history, but rather, is largely used to define the archaeology focusing on cultures prior to the proliferation of written records. In America, the term basically refers to American Indian sites that pre-date European colonization. For that reason, some archaeologists find the term pre-contact more appropriate than pre-historic.
Historical archaeology covers everything from early colonial sites to the gold rush to World War II bunkers. Anything older than 50 years can be considered archaeologically significant. Historical archaeology differs from prehistoric archaeology not only in subject matter, but also in methodology. Historical archaeologists often work closely with historians or spend hours in the archives themselves, digging up written records pertinent to an archaeological site.
Historical archaeology not only investigates the people living in the historical era, but it can also help to fill the gaps in recorded history by studying physical evidence alongside written records. A very small part of human history was actually written down and most accounts contain various degrees of bias that must be deciphered and interpreted. Historical archaeology gives voice to the people who were under- or mis-represented by the historical record. It can also enhance, contradict, or verify written history. For example, at the Fort James site, letters, official documents, maps, and oral history were used in conjunction with the archaeology to bring the true story of the long-abandoned Fort back to life.
Most prehistoric sites do not have any contemporary documentation to guide the archaeologist, but other methods ranging from oral history, statistical modeling, or experimental archaeology can be used to aid the research. At the Topper site, experimental archaeologist Scott Jones recreated Clovis era tools, which helped archaeologists interpret what they were finding in the quarry site. Different flakes can indicate different tools or manufacturing techniques, information that can only be gained through recreating the tool-making process.
While prehistoric and historical archaeologists may have specialized knowledge, the fundamentals of archaeology are the same across the board. Most archaeologists have worked on a wide range of sites throughout their career and every excavation is a learning experience. That's what keeps it interesting.