February 16, 2023
Why do I, the Arkansas State Archeologist, have a bookshelf in my office with anthropology textbooks and ethnographies? Why are my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and even my doctoral degree, in anthropology? Well, it turns out that most archeologists who study in the United States go through anthropology programs because anthropology is a discipline that includes cultural anthropology (the study of human cultures), archeology (the study of past human cultures), physical anthropology (the study of human evolution and biology), and linguistics (the study of human language evolution, use, and acquisition). In a few US colleges and universities, and in most non-US academic institutions, these four subdisciplines are separated out into their own departments or included in others. Here in the US, the subdisciplines stay linked, thereby giving specialists in any of the topics a more well-rounded perspective of humanity.
When asked to define archeology, most people will say that it is the study of the stuff that people left behind. I’m even guilty of defining it that way sometimes. But what exactly are we studying about the stuff? At the beginning of archeological analysis, we’re amassing basic information. How much stuff is there? What material is the stuff made of? Where did the people who made or used the stuff get the stuff? But after the cleaning, sorting, counting, weighing, bagging, and tagging are done, archeologists use anthropological method and theory to attempt to explain the stuff in the context of human culture.
Did you know that just about everything that you do is governed by culture? The food you eat, the clothes you wear, the language(s) you speak, the music you make and listen to, even how you sit, greet people, and sleep are all bound in culture? These characteristics reflect larger cultural norms like social organization, economics, religion, and art. Cultural anthropologists who study living cultures have the advantage (after overcoming the hurdles of language, culture shock, and gaining rapport) of seeing living cultures with their own eyes and asking the people how and why they do things. Archeologists also ask how and why people do things, but they are working with partial data, and broken or misunderstood objects. By using concepts that have already been worked out by cultural anthropologists, they can get a pretty good idea of how life in the past worked. That is not to say that archeologists can say that things they find from the past—whether it be objects or intangible ideas like settlement patterns for example—have the same use or meaning as they do now. Rather, the methods are a framework to go by because we are all, from the earliest people almost 1 million years ago to the folks living today, human. Humans always have and always will need the same things: water, food, shelter, and social ties. Humans from every place and every time have had to fulfill these needs and the only variation is what materials were available to each group.
Archeologists don’t just rely on the stuff, either, by the way. If they do it right, archeologists work with descendant communities (if they’re not descendants of the cultures they are studying—which unfortunately they most often are not) to help answer questions and learn modern significance to see if meanings might transcend time. This sort of makes archeologists cultural anthropologists also, right?
There’s also one more thing about archeology, though: there’s also a lot of physical science involved, in addition to the social science described above. Math, chemistry, physics, geology, botany, zoology, ecology, engineering, and biology are all used to understand the data collected during archeological projects. How each of these apply is a discussion for another day. So, archeology is a super-duper discipline because it combines social science AND physical science to create a deep understanding of the human past for applications and problem-solving in the present and future. Not all archeologists are experts in all the things. Learning about the past can only be accomplished by a large group of people, with varied skillsets in anthropology and other sciences that are brought together as a team to share methodology, findings, data, and thoughts. Go archeology!