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Archeology is an academic discipline and a science that attempts to discern the "truth" of the past by studying the remnants and remains of former human lives.  Archeologists have at their disposal increasingly improved technologies to use in interpreting the past, as they can use carbon dating, DNA and chemical analysis, and computer modeling--both to reconstruct skeletons and to hypothesize about where to dig for more. Throughout much of history, archeology has been used --and indeed evolved as a science to--validate or prove cultural myths.  For instance, the 1800s saw a rise in Christianity in the Western tradition and western peoples became more interested in the archeological study of the Middle East because they were trying to prove--in an increasingly scientific and skeptical world--that Christ was a real historical person, as opposed to a mythological compilation or invention.  Evidence that supported the claim was exploited, evidence that questioned the claim was suppressed--not always intentionally, either; sometimes, if data indicated something that was "known" to be "not true," it was just discarded as an anomaly. 

Archeology, in this former sense, was not as scientific as one would hope: the archeologists were selectively excavating to prove their hypotheses and did not take any steps to mitigate their biases.  As can be seen by this religious example, people's biases can affect how they look for and interpret data. Likewise, as many archeologists have been men (and men complacent with the Victorian era's acceptance of distinct and separate gender roles), the interpretations they have had of the available data--and indeed, the data they have privileged over other data--has been biased from a gender perspective (as well as from cultural, racial, and religious perspectives). 

Consider the following excerpt from Britannica Online at http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article?query=archeology&ct=&eu=115327

Archeology is "the scientific study of the material remains of past human life and activities. These include human artifacts from the very earliest stone tools to the man-made objects that are buried or thrown away in the present day: everything made by human beings—from simple tools to complex machines, from the earliest houses and temples and tombs to palaces, cathedrals, and pyramids. Archaeological investigations are a principal source of knowledge of prehistoric, ancient, and extinct culture. The word comes from the Greek archaia ('ancient things') and logos ('theory' or 'science').

The archaeologist is first a descriptive worker: he has to describe, classify, and analyze the artifacts he studies. An adequate and objective taxonomy is the basis of all archaeology, and many good archaeologists spend their lives in this activity of description and classification. But the main aim of the archaeologist is to place the material remains in historical contexts, to supplement what may be known from written sources, and, thus, to increase understanding of the past. Ultimately, then, the archaeologist is a historian: his aim is the interpretive description of the past of man.

Increasingly, many scientific techniques are used by the archaeologist, and he uses the scientific expertise of many persons who are not archaeologists in his work. The artifacts he studies must often be studied in their environmental contexts; and botanists, zoologists, soil scientists, and geologists may be brought in to identify and describe plants, animals, soils, and rocks. Radioactive carbon dating, which has revolutionized much of archaeological chronology, is a by-product of research in atomic physics. But although archaeology uses extensively the methods, techniques, and results of the physical and biological sciences, it is not a natural science; some consider it a discipline that is half science and half humanity. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the archaeologist is first a craftsman, practicing many specialized crafts (of which excavation is the most familiar to the general public), and then a historian.

The justification for this work is the justification of all historical scholarship: to enrich the present by knowledge of the experiences and achievements of our predecessors. Because it concerns things people have made, the most direct findings of archaeology bear on the history of art and technology; but by inference it also yields information about the society, religion, and economy of the people who created the artifacts. Also, it may bring to light and interpret previously unknown written documents, providing even more certain evidence about the past.

But no one archaeologist can cover the whole range of man's history, and there are many branches of archaeology divided by geographical areas (such as classical archaeology, the archaeology of ancient Greece and Rome; or Egyptology, the archaeology of ancient Egypt) or by periods (such as medieval archaeology and industrial archaeology). Writing began 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt; its beginnings were somewhat later in India and China, and later still in Europe. The aspect of archaeology that deals with the past of man before he learned to write has, since the middle of the 19th century, been referred to as prehistoric archaeology, or prehistory. In prehistory the archaeologist is paramount, for here the only sources are material and environmental.

The scope of this article is to describe briefly how archaeology came into existence as a learned discipline; how the archaeologist works in the field, museum, laboratory, and study; and how he assesses and interprets his evidence and transmutes it into history."

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Contact Kimberly M. Radek, the instructor of Women in Ancient Cultures, at Kimberly_Radek@ivcc.edu

This page was last updated on 01 February 2008 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek, 2001.