Archaeology Subfields

Archaeology has many subfields--including both ways of thinking about archaeology and ways of studying archaeology

Battlefield Archaeology

Artillery at Manassas Battlefield Site
Artillery at Manassas Battlefield Site. Mr. T in DC

Battlefield archaeology is an area of specialization among historical archaeologists. Archaeologists study battlefields of many different centuries, eras, and cultures, to document what historians cannot.

Biblical Archaeology

Calendrical Document - Dead Sea Scrolls Document 4Q325
Calendrical Document - Dead Sea Scrolls Document 4Q325. Dead Sea Scrolls Document 4Q325. Israel Antiquities Authority/Tsila Sagiv

Traditionally, biblical archaeology is the name given to the study of the archaeological aspects of the history of the Jewish and Christian churches as provided in the Judeo-Christian bible.

Classical Archaeology

Greek Vase, Heraklion Museum (Flying Spaghetti Monster)
Greek Vase, Heraklion Museum (Flying Spaghetti Monster). Greek Vase, Heraklion Museum. by A Pastafarian

Classical archaeology is the study of the ancient Mediterranean, including ancient Greece and Rome and their immediate forebears Minoans and Mycenaeans. The study is often found in ancient history or art departments in graduate schools, and in general is a broad, culture-based study.

Cognitive Archaeology

For the Love of God, Platinum Cast Skull, Damien Hirst
Artist Damien Hirst's platinum cast of a human skull is shown covered with 8,601 ethically sourced diamonds and is estimated to be worth over 50 million pounds. For the Love of God, Damien Hirst. Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd / Getty Images

Archaeologists who practice cognitive archaeology are interested in the material expression of human ways of thinking about things, such as gender, class, status, kinship.

Commercial Archaeology

The crossroads plaza in Palmyra
The crossroads plaza in Palmyra. Crossroads Plaza in Palmyra, Diane Jabi

Commercial archaeology is not, as you might think, the buying and selling of artifacts, but rather archaeology which focuses on the material culture aspects of commerce and transportation.

Cultural Resource Management

Save Pasargad and Persepolis
Save Pasargad and Persepolis. Save Pasargad and Persepolis. Ebad Hashemi

Cultural Resource Management, also called Heritage Management in some countries, is the way cultural resources including archaeology are managed at the governmental level. When it works best, CRM is a process, in which all the interested parties are allowed to have some input into the decision about what to do about endangered resources on public property.

Economic Archaeology

Karl Marx's Gravestone, Highgate Cemetery, London, England
Karl Marx's Gravestone, Highgate Cemetery, London, England. Karl Marx's Gravestone, London. 13bobby

Economic archaeologists are concerned with how people control their economic resources, most particularly but not entirely, their food supply. Many economic archaeologists are Marxists, in that they are interested in who controls food supply, and how.

Environmental Archaeology

Huge tree in Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Huge tree in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Huge tree in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Marco Lo Vullo

Environmental archaeology is the subdiscipline of archaeology that focuses on the impacts of a given culture on the environment, as well as the impact of the environment on that culture.


19th Century Limba Arrows, Sierra Leone
19th century Limba arrows held by Mamadou Mansaray, town chief of Bafodia, Sierra Leone (West Africa). John Atherton

Ethnoarchaeology is the science of applying archaeological methods to living groups, in part to understand how the processes of how various cultures create archaeological sites, what they leave behind and what kind of patterns can be seen in modern rubbish.

Experimental Archaeology

Flint Knapper at Work
Flint Knapper at Work. Flint Knapper at Work. Travis Shinabarger

Experimental archaeology is a branch of archaeological study that replicates or attempts to replicate past processes to understand how the deposits came about. Experimental archaeoloy includes everything from the recreation of a stone tool through flintknapping to reconstruction of an entire village into a living history farm.

Indigenous Archaeology

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde
Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde. Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde © Comstock Images/Alamy

Indigenous archaeology is archaeological research which is conducted by the descendants of the people who built the towns, camps, burial sites and middens that are under study. The most explicitly indigenous archaeological research is conducted in the United States and Canada by Native Americans and First Peoples.

Maritime Archaeology

Oseberg Viking Ship (Norway)
Oseberg Viking Ship (Norway). Oseberg Viking Ship (Norway). Jim Gateley

The study of ships and sea-faring is often called maritime or marine archaeology, but the study also includes investigations of coastline villages and towns, and other topics related to life on and around the seas and oceans.


"Lucy" Exhibit To Open In Houston
Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), Ethiopia. Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), Ethiopia. David Einsel / Getty Images

By and large paleontology is the study of pre-human life forms, primarily dinosaurs. But some scientists who study the earliest human ancestors, Homo erectus and Australopithecus, refer to themselves as paleontologists as well.

Post-Processual Archaeology

Bike To Work group members conduct a tree planting program in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Bike To Work group members conduct a tree planting program on November 11, 2007 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Tree Planting in Jakarta. Dimas Ardian / Getty Images

Post-processual archaeology is a reaction to processual archaeology, in that its practitioners believe that by emphasizing decay processes, you ignore the essential humanity of people. Post-processualists argue that you can't really understand the past by studying the way it falls apart.

Prehistoric Archaeology

Bone and Ivory Artifacts from the Kostenki Site
An assemblage of bone and ivory artifacts from the lowest layer at Kostenki that includes a perforated shell, a probable small human figurine (three views, top center) and several assorted awls, mattocks and bone points dating to about 45,000 years ago. Kostenki Site Assemblage. Colorado University at Boulder (c) 2007

Prehistoric archaeology refers to studies of the remains of cultures that are primarily pre-urban and so, by definition, don't have contemporary economic and social records that can be consulted

Processual Archaeology

Collapsed Houses in Wajima, Japan
Collapsed houses are seen after an earthquake struck off the west coast of Japan's Largest Island Honshu, on March 25, 2007 in Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan. The 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck at 0942 (0042 GMT). Collapsed Houses in Wajima, Japan - Getty Images

Processual Archaeology is the study of process, that is to say, investigations of the way humans do things, and the way things decay.

Urban Archaeology

Archaeological Strata at Lohstraße Osnabrück
Archaeological Strata at Lohstraße Osnabrück. Archaeological Strata at Lohstraße Osnabrück. Jens-Olaf Walter

Urban archaeology is, essentially, the study of cities. Archaeologists call a human settlement a city if it has more than 5,000 people, and if it has a centralized political structure, craft specialists, complex economies, and social stratification.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Archaeology Subfields." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, September 3). Archaeology Subfields. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Archaeology Subfields." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).