History and Archaeology Research Paper

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Archaeology, one of the four divisions of anthropology, studies artifacts left by past cultures in order to understand how groups and societies developed. Attempts at archaeology were made as long ago as the sixth century BCE, but the practice grew into a science during the late nineteenth century and has continued to evolve more holistically, seeking to explore past civilizations through ecology, environment, and culture.

Archaeology is a part of the anthropological four-field approach to studying past and present cultures. The biological, linguistic, sociocultural, and archaeological divisions of anthropology work together to research societies through areas such as diet, language, social structures, and kinships. Archaeology in particular attempts to understand, describe, and explain the construction and development of past cultures through the study of their material remains. In order to do this, archaeologists often incorporate interdisciplinary methodologies from other fields, as well as develop techniques to explore the numerous questions archaeological data may present.

It appears that people have always had an interest in groups that lived before them. Typically, most want to understand how previous cultures interpreted the world around them. For instance, during Egypt’s eighteenth dynasty (1532–1305 BCE), a number of scribes wanted to know more about how those that lived before them constructed tombs, how people were interred, and how they interpreted the afterlife. To answer these questions they examined burials dating from centuries earlier and left graffiti to record their visits. During the sixth century BCE Nabonidus, a prominent king of the famous Babylonian empire, demonstrated his interest in the past by excavating at the city of Ur. He desired to know more about ancient Sumerian culture, a civilization then already 2,500 years old. Interestingly, the Babylonian king shared many of his finds with others by exhibiting them. His daughter, Bel-Shalti Nannar, continued her father’s archaeological work following his death.

Archaeology has continued to play a part in how people investigate past cultures, but the discipline has undergone considerable developments. During the fifteenth century CE, for example, Cyriacus of Ancona, an Italian merchant, traveled the Mediterranean coast and Greece, drawing and gathering information about ancient monuments, copying inscriptions, and collecting objects from early civilizations. Because Cyriacus attempted to study ancient writings and material culture, some consider him to be one of the first archaeologists. Moreover, scholars began to challenge religious traditions through archaeology. For instance, in 1655, Isaac de la Peyrere argued that stone tools found in Europe came from a culture that existed before the biblical Adam. The development of Assyriology and Egyptology during the nineteenth century CE also contributed to how scholars studied the civilizations of Assyria, Egypt, and others. Jean Francois Champollion’s deciphering of the Rosetta stone in 1822 was a huge breakthrough in understanding ancient Egyptian languages and dialects.

Also during the nineteenth century, scholars and laypersons from Europe and other countries around the world sought to explore past civilizations through the study of material culture. Although most had sincere motives, some of the approaches to excavating were essentially treasure hunting. However, the growing study of evolution during this period influenced archaeology profoundly. Many scholars now began to investigate the origin and development of peoples and their cultures; digging at sites became more systematic. In the latter nineteenth century and into the twentieth, archaeologists began to focus on chronology, established the successive “three-age scheme” of stone, bronze, and iron, and searched more intensely for the beginnings of humankind. Anthropologists Charles Darwin (1809–1882), Lewis Henry Morgan, Edward B. Tylor, and others contributed greatly to this new direction. Although chronologies, the three-age scheme, and the quest for human origins would undergo numerous debates and controversies, the discipline of archaeology benefited and adopted more scientific approaches. Some significant contributions to the discipline must be credited to scholars such as Heinrich Schliemann (Troy), Flinders Petrie (the Near East), Leonard Woolley (Carchemish), Aurel Stein (Asia), Mortimer Wheeler (Britain), the Leakeys (Africa), and W. F. Albright (Israel/Palestine).

The 1960s and 1970s “New Archaeology,” sometimes referred to as analytical or processual archaeology, brought a revolution to the field that is reflected in some fashion in the work of many archaeologists to this day. Lewis Binford, Fred Plog, William Longacre, and others took a more anthropological approach and sought to explore past civilizations holistically through ecology, environment, and culture. This “new” approach and philosophy has placed a permanent stamp on field and laboratory methodologies. Consequently, archaeological teams have grown to incorporate a blend of staff personnel that may include paleoethnozoologists, geologists, climatologists, and anatomists. Processual archaeology has also generated post-processual archaeology. This approach is similar to the New Archaeology, but also focuses on the inclusion of history and tries to interpret meaning in artifacts. Ian Hodder, Mark Leone, and others have contributed to the development of this methodology.


  1. Bahn, P. (Ed.). (1996). The Cambridge illustrated history of archaeology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Edwards, I. (1985). The pyramids of Egypt. New York: Viking Press.
  3. Trigger, B. (1993). The history of archaeological thought. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Woolley, C. (1982). Ur of the Chaldees. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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