What is Archaeology?

From Two Greek Words

Archaeology is a rapidly expanding science that involves the specialist study of selected ancient remains. The word, archaeology, is a compound term from two Greek words, archaios meaning ancient or old, and logia, which means learning or study. When combined, the word archaeology takes on the meaning of studying or learning about old or ancient things.

The term archaeology, was not used until early in the 17th Century. Prior to this there was no real desire to carefully preserve the history of long forgotten cultures and certainly never a science of investigating ancient civilizations. However, Europe’s Dark Ages were slowly being illuminated by a revived thirst for education. The newly invented printing press had placed bibles in the hands of those outside of the clergy and there was renewed interest in the biblical sites of antiquity.

Crusaders of Archaeology

Numerous expeditions set off, as academic crusaders, to the Holy Land and its neighbouring countries, to re-conquer the buried biblical cities, capture their contents and return as valiant new champions of the enlightenment period. They succeeded but in their triumph destroyed much historical evidence that sadly, can never be replaced.

In 1829 the Institute for Archaeological Correspondence was established in Rome. This prepared the way for professional and amateur alike to develop methods that would preserve the historical evidence and prevent the wanton destruction of archaeological sites.

Modern Definition of Archaeology

Today, archaeology is usually defined as ‘the science of the treatment of the material remains of the human past’ or as a ‘systematic and descriptive study of antiquities’. It is one of the four sub-fields of anthropology. It cannot be emphasised too much that archaeology is the scientific study of the human past. It has to do with people and its goal is obtaining a greater knowledge about lost societies and their behaviour.

Archaeologists are researchers who go directly to the source and analyse ancient cultures through artefacts, inscriptions and other remains. As people, we rely on archaeology as one of the main sources of unearthing history. Although locating artefacts and the physical remains of cultures such as buildings, roads and utilities like wells and aqueducts are a vital and necessary part of the work, they remain only a means to an end. Their importance lies in what they can tell about the people and cultures that produced them. Thus, an ordinary broken cooking pot found crushed beneath a fallen stonewall may be of inestimably more value than a delicately painted vase of the finest quality materials whose context is not known.

Archaeological Time Periods

To the archaeologist history is divided into eight distinct periods. Each period covers a varying length of time and is usually sub-divided into more specific periods. There are no hard and fast datelines, yet generally all students of antiquity agree with these commonly accepted demarcations:

Stone Age: before 4000 BC
Chalolithic: 4000 – 3150 BC
Bronze Age: 3150 – 1200 BC
Iron Age: 1200 – 300 BC
Hellenistic: 330 – 37 BC
Roman: 37 BC – AD 324
Byzantine: AD 324 – 636
Islamic: AD 636 – today

A Specialised Field

The specific branch of his or her investigation further defines the archaeologist. Because of the painstakingly slow nature of the recovery of historical remains from archaeological sites many archaeologists have committed their lives to only one branch of study.


As the name suggests this is the investigation of ancient Egyptian culture including its hieroglyphic language, history, art, trade and religion. It covers six time periods from the Stone Age up to the end of the Roman Period around AD 324. In 1822 the famous Rosetta Stone was deciphered and permitted Egypt’s ancient writings to be understood fuelling an insatiable hunger for the study of ancient Egypt.

Biblical Archaeology

This special study selects the material remains of the Holy Lands that relate to the biblical period and its narratives. Analysis of the remains of buildings and art, down to every tiny piece of papyri helps in the understanding of the life and culture of the Hebrew people and their neighbours. These discoveries have done much to assist, illustrate and often corroborate the biblical texts.

Underwater Archaeology

This relatively new science explores the shipwrecks of shallow seas and deep oceans attempting to study ancient civilisations buried for centuries underwater. The modern invention of SCUBA and remote controlled salvage vehicles means these lost worlds can surface again. The conservation of scientific discoveries and artefacts from the bottom of the sea is a fresh and challenging task involving the latest synthetic materials and processes.

Undertaking an Archaeological Excavation

Universities, museums, culturally responsible companies and historical research societies everywhere in the world, conduct archaeological digs, all year round. Most digs accept amateur volunteers, some are limited to professionals or student archaeologists studying at universities and some are a combination of each. Most archaeological digs are long term, lasting over many years, but are usually only undertaken for a short period annually while weather permits. Whether a long term dig at the Giza Pyramids or a short exploratory dig in the north of England the aim and purpose of archaeology is to increase our knowledge of forgotten, ancient civilisations.

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