Defining Archaeology: 40 Different Ways to Describe Archaeology

Archaeology is many things to many people, or so they say

Ruins of Delphi, Greece
Ruins of Delphi, home of the most famous oracle of ancient times, with the Phocis Valley in the background. Ed Freeman / Stone Collection / Getty Images

Archaeology has been defined by many people in many different ways since the formal study began 150 years ago. Of course, some of the differences in those definitions reflect the dynamic nature of the field. If you look at the history of archaeology, you will notice that the study has become more scientific over time, and more focused on human behavior. But mostly, these definitions are simply subjective, reflecting how individuals look at and feel about archaeology. Archaeologists speak from their varied experiences in the field and in the lab. Non-archaeologists speak from their vision of the archaeology, as filtered by what archaeologists say, and by how popular media presents the study. In my opinion, all of these definitions are valid expressions of what archaeology is.

Defining Archaeology

Archaeologists work at the excavation site of No. 1 pit of the Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum in Lintong District of Xian, Shaanxi Province, China. (August 2009).  China Photos / Getty Images

"[Archaeology is] the discipline with the theory and practice for the recovery of unobservable hominid behavior patterns from indirect traces in bad samples." David Clarke. 1973. Archaeology: The Loss of Innocence. Antiquity 47:17.

"Archaeology is the scientific study of peoples of the past... their culture and their relationship with their environment. The purpose of archaeology is to understand how humans in the past interacted with their environment, and to preserve this history for present and future learning." Larry J. Zimmerman

"Archaeology is a term which can be interpreted in different ways, given the broad range of research methods, periods and activities that can constitute 'archaeology' and its research." Suzie Thomas. "Community archaeology." Key Concepts in Public Archaeology. Ed. Moshenska, Gabriel. London: UCL Press, 2017. 15.

"Historical archaeology is more than just a treasure hunt. It is a challenging search for clues to the people, events, and places of the past." Society for Historical Archaeology

"Archaeology is about adventure and discovery, it involves explorations in exotic places (near or far) and it is carried out by digging detectives. Arguably, in popular culture, the research process—archaeology in action—has actually been more important than the actual research results themselves." Cornelius Holtorf. Archaeology Is a Brand! The Meaning of Archaeology in Contemporary Popular Culture. London: Routledge, 2016. 45

"Archaeology is our way of reading that message and understanding how these peoples lived. Archaeologists take the clues left behind by the people of the past, and, like detectives, work to reconstruct how long ago they lived, what they ate, what their tools and homes were like, and what became of them." State Historical Society of South Dakota

"Archaeology is the scientific study of past cultures and the way people lived based on the things they left behind." Alabama Archaeology

"Archaeology is not a science because it does not apply any recognised model has no validity: each science studies a different subject and therefore uses, or could use, a different model." Merilee Salmon, quote suggested by Andrea Vianello.

A Mind-Numbing Job

"Archaeologists have the most mind-numbing job on the planet." Bill Watterson. Calvin and Hobbes, 17 June 2009.

"After all, archeology is fun. Hell, I don't break the soil periodically to 'reaffirm my status'. I do it because archeology is still the most fun you can have with your pants on." Kent V. Flannery. 1982. The golden Marshalltown: A parable for the archeology of the 1980s. American Anthropologist 84:265-278.

"[Archaeology] seeks to discover how we became human beings endowed with minds and souls before we had learned to write." Grahame Clarke. 1993. A Path to Prehistory. Cited in Brian Fagan's Grahame Clark: An Intellectual Biography of an Archaeologist. 2001. Westview Press.

"Archaeology puts all human societies on an equal footing." Brian Fagan. 1996. Introduction to the Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Oxford University Press, New York.

"Archeology is the only branch of anthropology where we kill our informants in the process of studying them." Kent Flannery. 1982. The golden Marshalltown: A parable for the archeology of the 1980s. American Anthropologist 84:265-278.

"The fundamental problem of using statistics in archaeology is quantification, i.e., the reduction of collections of objects to datasets." Clive Orton. "Data." A Dictionary of Archaeology. Eds. Shaw, Ian and Robert Jameson. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2002. 194.

"Archaeology is like life: if you're going to accomplish anything you have to learn to live with regret, learn from mistakes, and get on with it." Tom King. 2005. Doing Archaeology. Left Coast Press

Partaking of the Past

Throne Room, Palace of Knossos, Crete, Greece
Throne Room, Palace of Knossos, Crete, Greece. Ed Freeman / Getty Images

"The archaeologist partakes of, contributes to, is validated by, and dutifully records present-day social and political structures in the identification of research problems and in the interpretation of findings. It remains for reflective, socio-political research in archaeology to decipher the present while we unearth the past, and to distinguish the two whenever possible." Joan Gero. 1985. Socio-politics and the woman-at-home ideology. American Antiquity 50(2):347

"Archaeology is not simply the finite body of artefactual evidence uncovered in excavations. Rather, archaeology is what archaeologists say about that evidence. It is the ongoing process of discussing the past which is, in itself, an ongoing process. Only recently have we begun to realise the complexity of that discourse. ... [T]he discipline of archaeology is a site of disputation--a dynamic, fluid, multidimensional engagement of voices bearing upon both past and present." John C. McEnroe. 2002. Cretan Questions: Politics and archaeology 1898-1913. In Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking 'Minoan' Archaeology, Yannis Hamilakis, editor. Oxbow Books, Oxford

"Public archaeology is not only a matter of working with communities or providing educational opportunities. It is about management and the construction of knowledge and the concept of heritage." Lorna-Jane Richardson, and Jaime Almansa-Sánchez. "Do You Even Know What Public Archaeology Is? Trends, Theory, Practice, Ethics." World Archaeology 47.2 (2015): 194-211. Print.

"[Archaeology] is not what you find, it’s what you find out." David Hurst Thomas. 1989. Archaeology. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 2nd edition, page 31.

"I can understand archaeology being attacked on the ground of its excessive realism, but to attack it as pedantic seems to be very much beside the mark. However, to attack it for any reason is foolish; one might just as well speak disrespectfully of the equator. For archaeology, being a science, is neither good nor bad, but a fact simply. Its value depends entirely on how it is used, and only an artist can use it. We look to the archaeologist for the materials, to the artist for the method. Indeed, archaeology is only really delightful when transfused into some form of art." Oscar Wilde. 1891. "The Truth of Masks", Intentions (1891), and page 216 in The Works of Oscar Wilde. 1909. Edited by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, Lamb: London.

The Search for Fact

Tikal - the Rebel Base
Tikal - the Rebel Base. Hector Garcia

"Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth." Indiana Jones. 1989. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Screenplay by Jeff Boam, story by George Lucas and Menno Meyjes.

"An aware, responsible and engaged global archaeology might be a relevant, positive force which recognizes and celebrates difference, diversity and real multivocality. Under common skies and before divided horizons, exposure to global difference and alterity prompts us all to seek responses and responsibility." Lynn Meskell. 1998. Introduction: Archaeology matters. In Archaeology Under Fire. Lynn Meskell (ed.), Routledge Press, London. p. 5.

"Archaeology is the study of humanity itself, and unless that attitude towards the subject is kept in mind archaeology will be overwhelmed by impossible theories or a welter of flint chips." Margaret Murray. 1961. First steps in archaeology. Antiquity 35:13

"This has become the archaeologist's grandiose task: to make dried-up wellsprings bubble forth again, to make the forgotten known again, the dead alive, and to cause to flow once more that historic stream in which we are all encompassed." C. W. Ceram. 1949. Gods, Graves and Scholars. Thanks to Marilyn Johnson for the suggestion.

"Archaeology is the only discipline that seeks to study human behavior and thought without having any direct contact with either." Bruce G. Trigger. 1991. Archaeology and epistemology: Dialoguing across the Darwinian chasm. American Journal of Archaeology 102:1-34.

A Voyage to the Past

"Archaeology is our voyage to the past, where we discover who we were and therefore who we are." Camille Paglia. 1999. "Mummy Dearest: Archaeology is Unfairly Maligned by Trendy Academics." Wall Street Journal, p. A26

"[Archaeology is] a vast fiendish jigsaw puzzle invented by the devil as an instrument of tantalizing torture." Paul Bahn. 1989 Bluff your way through archaeology. Egmont House: London

"The role of New World archaeology in providing material for the study of aesthetics is not inconsiderable, but is tangential to the main interest and non-significant from the point of view of theory. In short, paraphrasing [Frederic William] Maitland's famous dictum: New World archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing." Philip Phillips. 1955. American archaeology and general anthropological theory. Southwestern Journal of Archaeology 11:246.

"By and by, anthropology will have the choice between being history and being nothing." Frederic William Maitland. 1911. The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, vol. 3. Edited by H.A.L. Fisher.

This feature is part of the Guide to Field Definitions of Archaeology and Related Disciplines.

Geoff Carver's Collection of Archaeology Definitions

"Archaeology is that branch of science which is concerned with past phases of human culture; in practice it is concerned more, but not exclusively, with early and prehistoric phases than with those illustrated by written documents." O.G.S. Crawford, 1960. Archaeology in the Field. Phoenix House, London.

"[Archaeology] is the method of finding out about the past of the human race in its material aspects, and the study of the products of this past." Kathleen Kenyon, 1956. Beginning in Archaeology. Phoenix House, London.

Archaeology Definition: A Few Thousand Years

Woolley and Lawrence at Carchemish, 1913
British archaeologist Leonard Woolley (right) and T E Lawrence with a Hittite bas-relief in basalt at the ancient city of Carchemish, Turkey, 1913.  Pierre Perrin / Sygma / Getty Images

"Archaeology... deals with a period limited to a few thousand years and its subject is not the universe, not even the human race, but modern man." C. Leonard Woolley, 1961. Digging up the Past. Penguin, Harmondsworth.

"Archaeology is what archaeologists do." David Clarke, 1973 Archaeology: the loss of innocence. Antiquity 47:6-18.

"Archaeology is, after all, one discipline." David Clarke, 1973 Archaeology: the loss of innocence. Antiquity 47:6-18.

Defining Archaeology: The Value of an Object

"Field Archaeology is the application of scientific method to the excavation of ancient objects, and it is based on the theory that the historical value of an object depends not so much on the nature of the object itself as on its associations, which only scientific excavation can detect... digging consists very largely in observation, recording and interpretation." C. Leonard Woolley, 1961. Digging up the Past. Penguin, Harmondsworth.

"Archaeology – the knowledge of how man has acquired his present position and powers – is one of the widest studies, best fitted to open the mind, and to produce that type of wide interests and toleration which is the highest result of education." William Flinders Petrie, 1904 Methods and Aims in Archaeology. Macmillan and Co., London.

Archaeology Definition: Not Things, But People

"If there be a connecting theme in the following pages, it is this: an insistence that the archaeologist is digging up, not things, but people." R.E. Mortimer Wheeler, 1954. Archaeology from the Earth. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

"Field archaeology is, not surprisingly, what archaeologists do in the field. However, it also has a considerable pre-field element and an even more considerable post-field element. Sometimes the term ‘field archaeology’ is used only to refer to techniques, other than excavation, used by archaeologists in the field. ‘Field archaeology’ used in this way refers essentially to the battery of non-destructive field techniques used to locate areas of archaeological interest (sites)". Peter L. Drewett, 1999. Field Archaeology: An Introduction. UCL Press, London.

"We are concerned here with methodical digging for systematic information, not with the upturning of earth in a hunt for the bones of saints and giants or the armoury of heroes, or just plainly for treasure". R.E. Mortimer Wheeler, 1954. Archaeology from the Earth. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

The Material Remains of the Human Past

Classical Greek terracotta gorgoneion antefix (roof tile), 2nd half of 5th c BC
Classical Greek terracotta gorgoneion antefix (roof tile), 2nd half of 5th c BC. The Metropolitan Museum, New York

"The Greeks and Romans, though they were interested in the early development of man and in the status of their barbarian neighbours, did not develop the necessary prerequisites for writing prehistory, namely the collection, excavation, classification, description and analysis of the material remains of the human past." Glyn E. Daniel, 1975. A Hundred and Fifty Years of Archaeology. 2nd ed. Duckworth, London.

"[Archaeology] researches tending to illustrate the monuments and remains of antiquity." T. J. Pettigrew, 1848. Introductory address. Transactions of the British Archaeological Association 1-15.

"So lässt sich Archäologie bestimmen als die Wissenschaft vom materiellen Erbe der antiken Kulturen des Mittelmeerraumes." German. August Herman Niemeyer, cited in C. Häuber and F. X. Schütz, 2004. Einführung in Archäologische Informationssysteme (AIS): Ein Methodenspektrum für Schule, Studium und Beruf mit Beispielen auf CD. Philipp von Zabern, Mainz am Rhein.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Defining Archaeology: 40 Different Ways to Describe Archaeology." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, September 2). Defining Archaeology: 40 Different Ways to Describe Archaeology. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Defining Archaeology: 40 Different Ways to Describe Archaeology." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).