Archeology - Wait, Am I Spelling that Right?

Even the Way Archaeology is Spelled Has to Do with the Past

The Talbot (Taberd) Inn on Borough High Street, Southwark, London, 1827. Artist: John Chessell Buckler
The Talbot (Taberd) Inn on Borough High Street, Southwark, London, 1827, where Chaucer's Canterbury Tales took place. Artist: John Chessell Buckler. If arkaoolauga was studied in Chaucer's day, we'd have met here to argue about it. Heritage Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

"Archeology" is an alternate spelling for the more-frequently used version "archaeology". Both spellings are accepted by most scholars today (as do most dictionaries these days), and both are pronounced in American English something like "ark-ee-AH-luh-gee"--British speakers like a little less "r" and a little more "ah". The print version of the 1989 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary insisted on 'archæology', with the mashed-together ae ligature in the middle: that was the original spelling.

That character isn't readily available to most computer users today, or even to most typewriters before the dawn of computers, so you rarely find the ligature in print or online--indeed modern print versions of the OED have ditched the ligature entirely.

The origins of the word archeology are found in Old English, and that word was is derived from the Greek 'arkhaios' meaning "ancient" or arkhaiologia, "ancient history". The OED definition reported that the first occurrence of the word 'archæology' was in 1607, in a book written by the English bishop and satirist Joseph Hall. His book Holy Observations also includes the famous quote "God loveth adverbs; and careth not how good, but how well". That is an in-joke for theologians, but darned obscure to the rest of us. Joe Hall! What a card.

The Great Vowel Shift

At any rate, during Hall's time, vowel pronunciation in England was undergoing a big change, called the Great Vowel Shift.

The way 14th century writer Geoffrey Chaucer would have pronounced the vowel sound in the middle of archæology would have sounded like a flat a, as in, well, the way we pronounce "flat". During the Great Vowel Shift of the 15th and 16th centuries, when English people changed the way they pronounced long vowels, the standard pronunciation for æ shifted from flat "a" to an "ee" sound.

While this is pretty interesting if you are a language geek, which I of course am, it's rather a side issue. The whole word in Middle English would have sounded something like "ark-a-OO-lau-ga". Good thing there weren't any archaeologists around at the time.  I don't think we could have said that without drinking an ale or two first.

The American Twist

I dug around a little bit but couldn't identify just when the first spelling of archeology without the a happened, but it's a good bet after the Great Vowel Shift and perhaps after it gained its new meaning of "the study of prehistoric past" as opposed to "ancient history": archaeology became a scientific study beginning in the 1800s. The spelling of "archeology" appears occasionally in the early 19th-century scientific literature, such as it is, but it was always pretty rare compared to "archaeology". An attempt was made in the mid-20th century to modernize the spelling to 'archeology', particularly among American archeologists, but many or perhaps most archaeologists, being stodgy and fond of old things, still cling to the old spelling.

That's only my opinion, of course. According to archaeologist and writer A.H. Walle (2000), in the 1960s, his mentor Raymond Thompson asserted that students who used the archeology spelling tended to be the 'new archeologists'; and as far as he was concerned he would respect his ancestors and keep to the ae spelling.

According to Quetzil Castenada (1996), archaeology refers to the concept as used by Foucault (the "Archaeology of Knowledge" or "L'archéologie du savoir" in the original French, written in 1969), while archeology is strictly the scientific discipline. I don't know that I agree with either of these gentlemen, but there you go.  

Modern dictionaries, including the new online version of the OED, call the word archeology an acceptable, albeit American, form of archaeology.

So, What Does Archeology Mean?

Now, you probably came here for a definition of archeology, and not a linguistic side track. Archeology, just like archaeology, is the study of the human past, including everything from yesterday's garbage in the landfill to the impressions of footprints in the mud at Laetoli by our ancestor Australopithecus.

Whether studied in a classics department as part of ancient history, or in an anthropology department as part of human cultures, then, archeology is always about people and our immediate ancestors, and never about dinosaurs, "intelligent design", or space aliens. See the Defining Archaeology collection for more than 30 definitions of the science.

Because the word was originally English, you can spot the ae spelling in other languages who borrowed it. Archeology is spelled: archéologie (French), 考古学 (simplified Chinese), Archäologie (German), археология (Russian), arqueología (Spanish), archeologia (Italian), 고고학 (Korean), and αρχαιολογία (Greek).


This article is part of the guide to Defining Archaeology, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology

Castenada QE. 1996. In the Museum of Maya Cultures. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Oxford English Dictionary (second edition). 1989. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Oxford English Dictionary (online edition). 2016. Accessed 13 August 2016.

Walle AH. 2000. The Cowboy Hero and its Audience: Popular Culture as Market Derived Art. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.