The discipline had its origins in early efforts to collect artistic materials of extinct groups, an endeavor that can be traced back to the 15th cent. in Italy when growing interest in ancient Greece inspired the excavation of Greek sculpture. In the 18th cent. the progress of Greek and Roman archaeology was advanced by Johann Winckelmann and Ennio Visconti and by excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii; in the 19th cent., by the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles. The study of ancient cultures in the Aegean region was stimulated by the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy, and of Arthur Evans at Crete. The work of Martin Nilsson, Alan Wace, and John Pendlebury was also significant in this area, and the decipherment of the Minoan script by Michael Ventris raised new speculations about the early Aegean cultures.
The foundations of Egyptology, a prolific branch of classical archaeology because of the wealth of material preserved in the dry Egyptian climate, were laid by the recovery of the Rosetta Stone (see under Rosetta) and the work of French scholars who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt. Investigations that have reconstructed the lives and arts of elite segments of ancient Egyptian society and rewritten Egyptian history were carried on in the 19th cent. by Karl Lepsius, Auguste Mariette, and Gaston Maspero, and in the 19th and 20th cent. by W. M. Flinders Petrie, James Breasted, and others.
Interest in the Middle East was stimulated by the work of Edward Robinson (1794-1863) on the geography of the Bible and by the decipherment of a cuneiform inscription of Darius I, which was copied (1835) by Henry Rawlinson from the Behistun rock in Iran. Archaeology in Mesopotamia was notably advanced in the 19th cent. by Jules Oppert, Paul Botta, and Austen Layard and in the 20th cent. by Charles Woolley, Henri Frankfort, and Seton Lloyd. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, beginning in 1947, aroused new interest in biblical studies (see biblical archaeology).
Interest in complex New World cultures was stimulated by the publication by John Stephens of an account of his travels (1839) in Central America, which excited the interest of archaeologists in the Maya. In the 19th cent. studies began of the Toltec and the Aztec in Mexico and of the Inca in South America. In 1926 the discovery of human cultural remains associated with extinct fauna near Folsom, N.Mex. (see Folsom culture), established the substantial depth of prehistory for the New World (see Americas, antiquity and prehistory of the).
In contrast to the antiquarianism of classical archaeology, anthropological archaeology today is concerned with culture history (i.e., the chronology of events and cultural traditions) and the explanation of cultural processes. A variety of different dating techniques, both relative (e.g., stratigraphy) and absolute (e.g., radiocarbon, obsidian hydration, potassium-argon), are used to place events in time. Attempts at explaining evolutionary processes underlying prehistoric remains began with the conclusion advanced in 1832 by the Danish archaeologist Christian Thomsen that cultures may be divided into stages of progress based on the principal materials used for weapons and implements. His three-age theory (the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age) was essentially based on prehistoric materials from Scandinavia and France.
Concerted investigations began in the mid-19th cent. with the stratigraphic excavation of such remains as the lake dwelling, barrow, and kitchen midden. At first the sequences of culture change uncovered in Western Europe were generalized to include all of world history, but improved techniques of field excavation and the expansion of archaeological discoveries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas challenged the universality of rigid classifications. Technological traditions ceased to be regarded as inevitable concomitants of specific cultural stages.
Later interpretations of prehistoric human life emphasize cultural responses to changing demographic and environmental conditions (see ecology). Thus the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods are evaluated in terms of subsistence technologies, and explanations are sought for the causes underlying these transitions. Advances in the recovery and analysis of botanical remains have allowed investigators to model changes in the prehistoric environment with increasing precision, improving the accuracy of such explanations. Paleobotany, the analysis of ancient plant remains, and ethnobotany, the study of the cultural utilization of plants, therefore play a vital role in modern archaeology. Faunal analysis, the recovery and analysis of animal remains such as bone, also plays an important part in the study of prehistoric ecology and subsistence patterns. The careful analysis of botanical and faunal material, combined with advances in the analysis of genetic material, have led to the detailed understanding of the process of the domestication of plants and animals in both the Old and New World. Contemporary archaeologists are also concerned with the emergence of various forms of complex social organization, including chiefdoms, class stratification, and states. Among the most important work done in the mid-20th cent. was that of Louis and Mary Leakey, who located the skeletal remains of humans in East Africa dating back 1.7 million years (see human evolution). In recent years, a number of archaeologists have turned from traditional concerns and have made efforts to reconstruct ideological elements of extinct cultures.
Modern museums with valuable collections include the Metropolitan Museum and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; the British Museum; the Louvre; national museums in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, rich in remains of the Iron Age; the Vatican and Capitoline museums, Rome; collections from Pompeii and Herculaneum at Naples, Italy; and museums in Athens, Cairo, and Jerusalem. Many universities have established schools and museums of archaeology. Organizations such as the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Geographic Society in the United States promote archaeological studies.
See G. Daniel, A Hundred and Fifty Years of Archaeology (2d ed. 1975); B. G. Trigger, A History of Archaeological Thought (1989); R. J. Wenke, Patterns in Prehistory (3d ed. 1990); G. R. Willey and J. Sabloff, A History of American Archaeology (1990); I. Hodder, Reading the Past (2d ed. 1991).
The term archaeological excavation has a double meaning.
The presence or absence of archaeological remains can often be suggested to a more or less high degree of probability, by remote sensing, such as ground-penetrating radar. Indeed, grosser information about the development of the site may be drawn from this work but the understanding of finer features usually requires excavation though appropriate use of augering. Retrieval of information from artefacts can be achieved only by the invasive method of excavation.
Its history began with a crude search for treasure and for artefacts which fell into the category of 'curio'. These curios were the subject of interest of antiquarians. It was later appreciated that digging on a site destroyed the evidence of earlier people's lives which it had contained. Once the curio had been removed from its context, most of the information it held was lost. It was from this realization that antiquarianism began to be replaced by archaeology, a process still being perfected.
Phase is the most easily understood grouping for the layman as it implies a near contemporaneous Archaeological horizon representing "what you would see if you went back to a specific point in time". Often but not always a phase implies the identification of an occupation surface "old ground level" that existed at some earlier time. The production of phase interpretations is one of the first goals of stratigraphic interpretation and excavation. Digging "in phase" is not quite the same as phasing a site. Phasing a site represents reducing the site either in excavation or post excavation to contemporaneous horizons where as "digging in phase" is the process of stratigraphic removal of archaeological remains so as not to remove contexts that are earlier in time "lower in the sequence" before other contexts that have a latter physical stratigraphic relationship to them as defined by the law of superposition. The process of interpretation in practice will have a bearing on excavation strategies on site so "phasing" a site is actively pursued during excavation where at all possible, and is considered good practice.
Best practice of stratigraphic excavation in its basic sense involves a cyclical process of cleaning or "troweling back" the surface of the site and isolating contexts and edges which are definable in their entirety or part as either
Following this preliminary process of defining the context, the context is then assessed in relation to the wider understanding of the site, for considerations of reduction of the site in phases, and then removed and recorded by various methods. Often, owing to practical considerations or error, the process of defining the edges of contexts is not followed and contexts are removed out of sequence and un-stratigraphically. This is called "digging out of phase". It is not good practice. After removing a context or if practical a set of contexts such as the case would be for features, the "isolate and dig" procedure is repeated until no man made remains are left on site and the site is reduced to natural.
Over-cutting represents the loss of information whereas undercutting represents false information. One role of an archaeologist is to avoid false information and minimize the loss of information.