What is Archeology?

Jaffa, Israel, an ancient city that has been studied by many archaeologists.

Archeology is the discipline of excavating ancient artifacts and buildings to learn more about human history. It is often considered a type of science, although it is based more on interpretation and cross-comparisons than on hypothesis formulation and experimentation. Archeology is an imperfect discipline, as excavations recover only a small percentage of the original artifacts, and different researchers can have conflicting interpretations of the evidence discovered. Despite this, we have learned a lot about human history and prehistory through archeology.

Archaeologists concerned with the prehistoric period study tools left behind by Neanderthals and other extinct populations.

Modern humans have been around for at least 200,000 years, but archeology has revealed facts about our even older ancestors, such as members of the species Homo habilis and Homo erectus. These species colonized parts of Eurasia more than two million years ago, leaving behind simple stone tools along the way. Much more recently, just 50,000 years ago, modern humans spread across Eurasia, leaving far more complicated tools in their wake. Thanks to archeology (as well as fossil excavations), we have good control over when these events took place and in which regions.

Archaeologists use cultural artifacts, such as cave paintings in Lascaux, France, to reconstruct the behavior of past populations.

Modern archeology dates only to the early 19th century. Since then, some of the most interesting archaeological finds have been: the discovery of Egyptian, Mayan and Chinese royal tombs, complete with tons of artifacts, meant to accompany kings in the afterlife; traces of settlements that indicate that the Vikings arrived in the Americas as early as the year 1000, almost 500 years before Columbus; remnants of prehistoric settlements under the North Sea (adjacent to the UK), from times when world sea levels were lower; Spanish galleons sunk in the Atlantic Ocean carrying gold, silver and emeralds worth up to ten billion dollars and more.

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The discipline of archeology has been dramatized in films like Indiana Jones and games like Tomb Raider. Younger archaeologists often cite this as inspiration for entering the field.

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