There are very few scientific fields as misunderstood as the field of archaeology, and even fewer fields have been as romanticized. Anthropology, the parent field of archaeology, is also the only scientific study not taught in American schools.
Biology, geology, geography, chemistry, computers and technology – we’re introduced to the very basics of these sciences before we even enter high school. Why not archaeology and anthropology? After all, anthropology is the study of humankind!
It’s no wonder there are so many misconceptions about archaeologists. Here are the ten most common:
Archaeologists dig up dinosaurs: FALSE
Archaeologists do NOT dig up dinosaurs. Paleontologists dig up dinosaurs whose bones have been fossilizing in the ground for around 65 million years. Archaeologists study the life and behavior of modern people, who first appeared sometime around 200 thousand years ago. Dinosaurs and human beings are separated by millions of year. Calling an archaeologist a paleontologist is like calling a duck a fish. They both like water, but they live in totally different levels of it.
Archaeologists don’t do anything useful: FALSE
Archaeology has long been viewed as a glorified academic hobby with little real practical application. This may have been true a century ago when archaeology was still growing as a discipline, but modern archaeology has grown up. Modern archaeologists work closely with specialists in a variety of fields – from medical doctors to environmentalists to policy planners.
We don’t just study cool artifacts and old cultures, we uncover patterns in human behavior, resource distribution, urban planning, and more. We provide doctors with critical data about disease and medical conditions. And there are more than a few countries whose entire economies would collapse without the income generated by archaeological tourism.
Archaeologists are the chroniclers of humanity’s achievements and failures. The value of archaeology is just now becoming apparent to those in other fields.
Archaeologists are tomb robbers: FALSE
There was a time when archaeologists dug furiously just to uncover stunning treasures, pristine pottery, and bejeweled finery. Archaeologists used to be solely concerned with museum-quality pieces that justified the expenses of their adventure. More commonplace artifacts, even mummies, were crushed and lost in the onslaught of early excavators. Thankfully, those days are gone. Today’s excavations are meticulous, and every bit and artifact is plotted and recorded. Excavations require permits and approval, and graves are disturbed as little as possible (see Archaeologists like to dig up graves, below). In the present, archaeologists are collecting and analyzing scientific data to uncover trends in human behavior, human ecology, and more. Human remains are only uncovered when it’s legal to do so, and if doing so will help us answer specific questions about the culture being studied.
Archaeologists spend most of their time excavating: FALSE
Some archaeologists wish this were true! Excavation is only one piece of the archaeological puzzle — a crucial piece. Excavation is one cog in a systematic scientific machine whose goal is to answer a specific research question.
When an archaeologist excavates a site they collect data on every aspect it – soil samples, artifacts, features, flotation results. Everything that’s uncovered must be cleaned, measured, and cataloged. Once the data is compiled, the real analysis begins.
For every day spent excavating, weeks or months are spent in an office or lab, recording and analyzing every detail.
Archaeologists like to dig up graves: FALSE
Excavating human remains is tedious, time-consuming, costly, and often controversial. The cleaning, analysis, curation, and repatriation of human remains after excavation is also very expensive. One skeleton uncovered on a site can stop the rest of the dig in its tracks, completely taking over the excavation. Legal authorities must get involved and the paperwork doubles.
Archaeologists recognize the solemnity and respect that an exhumation deserves. There is a certain excitement that passes through the excavation site when a body is discovered. But it’s usually excitement about what the body can teach about when and how he or she lived. While uncovering a body might sound fascinating, no human can look at the bones of another without being reminded of her own mortality.
Archaeologists all dig in Egypt: FALSE
Egypt and archaeology have a long, complex, and often sordid history together – but not all archaeologists are Egyptologists. Egyptian archaeology is a specialized field called Egyptology. Most archaeologists were drawn to Egypt at one time or another, and we’re all familiar with Howard Carter’s famous discovery of Tutankhamen tomb. But archaeologists tend to specialize in a particular area, a geographical region, an aspect of human behavior, or a time period. Unless that specialty is Egyptology, there’s no reason to think that a random archaeologist knows more about the pharaohs than the average hobbyist.
Archaeologists get to keep their finds: FALSE
Archaeologists don’t get to keep any of their finds, whether it’s gold, a well-preserved artifact, or just a souvenir potsherd. Even if they could, there are very few archaeologists who would horde a piece of the archaeological record. Archaeologists are scientists, and with that role comes pride and professionalism. There is a deep sense of desire in the archaeological community to make information available to other researchers and to the public. Archaeologists see themselves as the curators of humanity. We don’t like to keep things to ourselves. It would be like a librarian stealing and hording books from the library. It’s silly!
Archaeologists are running out of things to dig up: FALSE
There are two things that humans do really well. We explore new lands, and leave trash behind when we do. The world is literally littered with 200,000 years worth of modern man’s activities. Every country has thousands and thousands of archaeological sites – most of which have yet to be discovered. Many well-known sites, where excavation has been ongoing for years, are only partially uncovered. For example, an estimated one-third of Pompeii still lies buried. Digital and satellite technologies have enabled archaeologists to locate thousands of sites that were previously unknown. The image to the left shows the more than 1,000 archaeological sites, most previously unknown, that are visible from a car in England. These were compiled by archaeology enthusiasts with the help of Google Street View technology. One participant said, “It’s amazing to think that out there beside our busy roads is thousands of years of history just waiting to be discovered.”
Archaeologists have to know a lot about history: FALSE
Most archaeologists (but not all) study prehistory – the time period before writing. Writing appeared at different times in different parts of the world, but even the oldest writing (cuneiform) first appears just three thousand years ago. In both the New World and the Old, non-literate societies flourished into modern times. Since anatomically modern man has been around for nearly 200,000 years, and writing for only 3,000 at most, about 99% of archaeology is prehistoric. Many archaeologists enjoy history, and most have attended university, so they know as much history as the next guy. There are also archaeologists who specialize in excavating sites from historical periods, such as classical archaeologists, Egyptologists, and historical archaeologists. But it’s important to make the distinction: archaeologists are not historians.
There’s only one kind of archaeologist: FALSE
Like any field, archaeology has its own branches and specializations. As well as the more “traditional” archaeologists, there are zooarchaeologists who specialize in human-animal interactions, and help study hunting and animal domestication. Experimental archaeologists recreate the behaviors of ancient people. They learn skills like flint-knapping, weaving, and butchering, to better understand how artifacts end up the way they do. Historical archaeologists specialize in cultures and sites for which writing is available, usually within the past few centuries. Environmental archaeologists specialize in reconstructing past ecosystems in which people lived. They look at soil samples, pollen grains, insects, and other, often microscopic, clues to find out whether a site was a swamp, a forest, or a desert in the past. They also study how humans impacted their environment, and work on applying those findings to modern environmental policies and practices.