What is Archaeology – Definition and Overview

What is Archaeology



Archaeology is the study of the human past through material remains. It is a discipline that strives to understand cultures through their material culture, including their art, architecture, foodways, and environmental remains.

Today, archaeology is used to answer all sorts of questions about our ancestors, from how they lived to what they believed. By studying the material culture left behind by past cultures, we can begin to piece together a more complete picture of our shared human history.

History of Archaeology

The history of archaeology is long and convoluted, filled with many different people and events.

It began with the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century BCE. He is credited with being the first person to record systematic observations about the past.

In the 4th century BCE, Aristotle wrote a treatise called The Politics which included descriptions of archaeological methods used in his time.

Archaeology truly began, however, with the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century CE. This was a time when scholars rediscovered many ancient texts and began to question previously held beliefs about history. They looked to the material evidence of the past for answers, rather than relying solely on written records. This led to new ways of thinking about history and archaeology that are still practiced today.

Types of Archaeology

There are many different types of archaeology, each with its own methods and techniques. Here are most common types are as follows:

Historical Archaeology

This type of archaeology studies the material remains of past cultures in order to learn about their history and way of life. Historians often use historical archaeology to supplement written records.

Industrial Archaeology

This type of archaeology looks at the material remains of past industries and technology. It can be used to learn about the history of a particular industry or technology, as well as its impact on society.

Forensic Archaeology

This type of archaeology uses scientific methods to investigate crimes and other legal matters. Forensic archaeologists often work with law enforcement agencies to help solve cases.

Underwater Archaeology

This type of archaeology involves the study of submerged ancient remains such as shipwrecks and underwater cities. It can be used to learn about the origins of civilization and maritime trade, as well as the technology of past cultures.


This type of archaeology is used to study sites that contain ancient animal remains such as bones and other animal artifacts. It can be used to learn about the evolution of species, as well as human interaction with animals in the past.

Forensic Archaeology

This type of archaeology is used to help solve crimes when ancient remains are found. For example, forensic archaeologists have been able to identify victims in mass graves as well as the mass graves themselves.

Maritime Archaeology

This type of archaeology is used to study the remains of ships and their cargoes. Maritime archaeologists are also interested in how ancient people navigated the oceans, as well as how they moved goods and materials around the world.


The study of ancient plants and how they were used. Paleoethnobotanists look at the remains of seeds, pollen, and other plant parts to determine what types of plants were grown in an area.

Archaeological Methods

Here are some Archaeological Methods:

  • Geologic Dating
  • Stratigraphy
  • Seriation
  • Cross-Dating
  • Horizon Markers

Geologic Dating

Geologic dating is one of the most important archaeological methods for understanding the history of the earth and human occupation. This technique is used to date rocks and minerals, which can provide information about the age of a site or artifact. Geologic dating can be done using a variety of methods, including:

  • Radiocarbon Dating
  • Uranium-lead Dating
  • Potassium-argon Dating
Radiocarbon Dating

Radiocarbon dating is one of the most common methods used in geologic dating. This method measures the amount of radioactive carbon in an object. The half-life of carbon-14 is 5,730 years, so this method can be used to date objects that are up to 60,000 years old.

Uranium-lead Dating

Uranium-lead dating is another common method used in geologic dating. This method uses the decay of uranium and lead isotopes to date rocks and minerals. The half-life of uranium-235 is approximately 703 million years, and the half-life of lead-207 is approximately 4.5 billion years.

Potassium-argon Dating

Potassium-argon dating is another common method used in geologic dating. This method measures the amount of radioactive potassium and argon in a mineral or rock. Potassium-40 decays to argon-40 with a half-life of 1.3 billion years. This method can be used to date objects up to 1.5 billion years old.


Stratigraphy is an archaeological method used to date artifacts and features in a site. It relies on the law of superposition, which states that the oldest layers are found at the bottom and the youngest layers are found at the top. By examining the stratigraphy of a site, archaeologists can determine the order in which events occurred.

Stratigraphy can be used to date artifacts within a layer. For example, if an artifact is found in a layer that has been dated to 1000 BCE, then the artifact must also date to 1000 BCE or earlier. However, stratigraphy cannot be used to precisely date an artifact; it can only narrow down the possible dates.

In addition to dating artifacts, stratigraphy can also be used to understand how people lived in the past.


Seriation is a method of ordering artifacts from an archaeological site according to their age. This dating method was first developed by Sir Flinders Petrie in the late 19th century and is still used today.

To date a site using seriation, archaeologists first collect and catalog all of the artifacts from the site. Next, they arrange the artifacts into groups based on similarities in form or function. Finally, they compare the groups to other known sites with similar artifacts to determine which group is older or younger.

Seriation is a valuable tool for archaeologists because it allows them to date sites without having to rely on radiocarbon dating, which can be expensive and time-consuming. Additionally, seriation can be used to date sites that lack organic materials, such as stone tools.


In archaeological terms, cross-dating is the process of using artifacts from known chronological sequences to determine the age of unknown objects. By comparing objects from different sites that have similar characteristics, archaeologists can create a relative chronology for an entire region. Cross-dating is also a valuable tool for confirming the results of radiocarbon dating.

Horizon Markers

In archaeological terms, a horizon is a period of time during which a distinctive culture is prevalent. A horizon marker is an artifact or feature that can be used to date a particular horizon. Common horizon markers include pottery styles, changes in tool technology, and architectural innovations.

Horizon markers are an important part of archaeological dating methods. By identifying the horizon in which an artifact was made, archaeologists can narrow down the date range for that artifact. This is especially useful when multiple horizons are present at a site. For example, if an archaeologist finds a piece of pottery from Horizon A and a piece of pottery from Horizon B, they can assume that the site was occupied at some point between the dates associated with those two horizons.

Horizon markers can also be used to identify the source of an artifact.

Purpose of Archaeology

The purpose of archaeology is to study the past through material remains. This includes investigating how people lived, what they ate, how they made things, and what belief systems they had. Archaeologists use a variety of methods to learn about the past, including excavating sites and analyzing artifacts. By studying the material remains of past cultures, archaeologists can piece together how these cultures lived and what their beliefs were.

About the author

Muhammad Hassan

Researcher, Academic Writer, Web developer