The Archaeology Family Tree
Deciphering the Disciplines
Archaeology, along with 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. Contrary to popular belief, archaeologists do not excavate dinosaurs—paleontologists do that.
It’s A Dirty Job, But Somebody Has to Do it
In general, there are two types of archaeological careers: Academic and Cultural Resources Management (CRM). An academic archaeologist is usually affiliated with a university or research institution, and a CRM archaeologist works with agencies and private companies that hire archaeological consultants to help with development projects. The distinction is largely due to funding (i.e., who is paying for the research), and many archaeologists do a little of both.
Academic archaeologists are often professors who spend their career pursuing specific research interests. 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.
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. Archaeologists working elsewhere can 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 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 specialize in Native American sites, while historical archaeologist 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 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.
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. New scientific techniques are allowing researchers to get a more comprehensive look into ancient landscapes, which allows archaeologists to place their data within a more specific context. By understanding how environments varied and changed over time, researchers can better understand how humans affected, or were affected by these transitions.
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.