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What is Archaeology
Archaeology is the study of the human past. Archaeologists use the material remains of human activities to reconstruct the behaviors and beliefs of prehistoric peoples. One of the most unique features of the science of archaeology is its ability to study human behavior over spans of hundreds or even thousands of years.
Archaeologists are well-known for their excavations, or “digs.” While excavations remain a prominent part of archaeology, excavation is a destructive process and it is often preferable to avoid disturbing the archaeological record. Instead, the remains of past human activities can sometimes be found plainly visible on the ground surface or with special technology that allows archaeologists to see below the surface. Click here to see a video clip explaining the depth and scope of Archaeology, presented by the Archaeological Institute of America.
One thing archaeologists do not do is study dinosaurs or other fossils. This falls under the discipline of Paleontology. Paleontology includes the study of prehistoric life forms represented by the fossils of plants, animals, and other non-human organisms.
While some form of archaeology has been practiced through history by the Egyptians, Romans, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Thomas Jefferson (to name a few), archaeology as we know it has its roots in the late 1800s. At this time, wealthy European travelers began to collect antiquities from places like Greece, Egypt, and the Middle East. While most of these collectors collected for selfish purposes, some began to study the objects they collected.
As archaeology evolved through the 20th and now 21st centuries, archaeologists maintained this tradition of studying the material remains of the past. In contrast, modern professional archaeologists do not collect artifacts for private collections or for sale. Additionally, in the 1800s, collectors were interested only in the most spectacular artifacts like gold from tombs or marble from temples. The collectors discarded much of what is most interesting to archaeologists today. Modern archaeologists can learn much about prehistory from the smallest bits of pottery, animal bones, seeds, and other artifacts that would have been discarded by early archaeologists.
While the popular image of the archaeologist is an Indiana Jones-like professor who travels to exotic locations, you might be surprised to learn that much of archaeological activity today takes place close to home. As our modern cities grow and more buildings and roads are built, many archaeological sites are threatened with destruction. In the U.S., federal law requires that projects receiving federal money must undergo an evaluation of the archaeological significance of the land and the potential impacts of construction. As a result of this legislation, there are many private companies called cultural resource management (CRM) companies that specialize in these evaluations and undertake work to save sites that are particularly endangered. CRM companies employ about 80-90% of archaeologists in the United States today.
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