What is archaeology?

A view over Housesteads Fort at Hadrians Wall

Archaeology is the study of past human societies through the study of the physical remains and traces that survive them – anything that might have been part of human experience, be it a stone tool or a farming landscape. Research methods involve excavation, metal detecting, aerial photography, lab analysis, and even looking under the floorboards in historic houses.

The first archaeologists?

People have always been interested in what came before them. The Babylonian King Nabonidus (reigned 555-539 BC) performed excavations to find out about the history of his kingdom. In the Medieval period, Roman coins and gems were found and used for prestigious jewellery.

In the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries upper-class Europeans began to assemble ‘cabinets of curiosities’: eclectic collections of natural, ancient and exotic objects. Some of these were archaeological objects, found by travellers and sold by dealers.

A new discipline

The academic discipline of archaeology is generally accepted to go back to the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when researchers began to dig at sites such as Stonehenge and Pompeii and record their findings.

These archaeologists included Richard Colt Hoare, Johann Joachim Winckelmann and even the US president Thomas Jefferson, who as early as 1784 excavated a burial mound on his estate. However, what was recorded and published was often selective and based on the individual interests of the person running the excavations.

Twentieth-century innovations

At this time archaeologists began to look beyond individual sites and objects, bringing together research to suggest broader systems and chronologies for historical periods and regions of the world.

Researchers such as Dorothy Garrod and Mortimer Wheeler modernised and standardised excavation methods and produced systematic research that is still influential in archaeology today.

Excavations such as Sutton Hoo in the 1930s made vital contributions to British archaeology, meticulously preserving and recording more than just impressive metal and stone objects.

Present and future

Archaeological research continues to develop and change to this day.

Methods such as remote sensing allow us to gain an idea of what lies beneath the ground before physical intervention, which is by nature inherently destructive.

Developers are now obliged by law to consult archaeologists about sites before they build, meaning that as much as possible is investigated and, if necessary, preserved.

It is an exciting time in archaeology, and organisations such as the National Trust are vital in preserving what is found and making it available for researchers and the public, for the present and future.

Hidden stories uncovered