The Many And Varied Types Of Archaeology

“History is too serious to be left to historians.” —Ian Macleod, The Observer

In A Nutshell

Archaeology is one of those careers we’d all like to have, as long as we can be Indiana Jones. It’s rarely like that, though, and it’s also one of those careers that’s been vastly misrepresented by the media. Archaeologists aren’t just archaeologists: They’re marine and underwater archaeologists, prehistoric archaeologists, battlefield archaeologists, aerial archaeologists, or even biblical archaeologists.

The Whole Bushel

From the time we’re old enough to watch our first Indiana Jones movie, we all have an idealized, romantic idea about what archaeology is like. Once we get a little older, we realize that it’s not all about chasing Nazis and going on death-defying adventures. But there are still many different kinds of archaeology; those researchers that are in the field usually have very specific specializations.

In order to be considered archaeology, the field has to be mainly concerned with the physical evidence that’s been left behind by a group of civilized people. This sets it apart from other related fields like anthropology. There’s often still a lot of interpretation involved, but all these different types deal with the concrete, no matter how fragmentary the items might be.

Underwater archaeology is just that—made up of archaeologists who scour the depths of the oceans for relics that have been long buried. Some specialize in deep-sea marine archaeology, while others work mainly in lakes, rivers, and ponds. Sites can be sunken ships, but aren’t always, as they also study cities, towns, and settlements that have been flooded by the Earth’s ever-changing waters. Wreck diving can be both a career and a pastime; while some shipwrecks have been completely explored and are open to casual divers, many others are off-limits.

Battlefield archaeologists methodically cover every inch of battlefields, looking for weapons and armor, but also artifacts that show how soldiers lived from day to day, along with their camp followers.

Prehistoric archaeology is defined by the cultures that it studies, specifically encompassing those that didn’t yet have a form of written language. On the other hand, historical archaeology is the field that covers everything that came after the written word. That’s broken up into different groups as well, including areas of expertise like classical (Ancient Greece and Rome), Egyptian, and biblical, where researchers try to find sites mentioned in the Bible and evidence for certain biblical events.

Article Continued Below

There are also some strangely modern types of archaeology. Garbology examines what a society throws away to try to determine patterns and changes in the habits of a section of civilized life. Industrial archaeologists are mainly concerned with the development of our industrial landscape, and those that specialize in urban research look at the evolution of cities that have a long history of constant occupation.

Experimental archaeology is a very hands-on branch of the field. These researchers not only discover and document artifacts and historical findings, but they try to piece together a timeline of events and occurrences that link the different stages of human history.

And there’s also ethnoarchaeology, a branch that looks at cultures that still exist today that have held onto beliefs and ways of living that are similar to those of the past. They study present-day nomadic tribes, hunter-gatherers, and societies that haven’t had access to many modern amenities, and then apply their findings to those cultures that are now extinct.

And today, there’s also aerial archaeology. Exciting, but difficult. Those who know what they’re looking for can spot previously undiscovered burial mounds, earthworks, and even settlements from above, as they can see patterns and landscape features that become invisible when you’re walking through them.

Show Me The Proof

BBC History: Types of Archaeology
Society for American Archaeology: What Is Archaeology?
Learning Center of the American Southwest: Types of Archaeology
Ohio State Archaeological Projects in Greece: Introduction to Classical Archaeology

Looking for our newsletter? Subscribe here!