Archaeology is usually defined as “the study of the human past through material culture”, although I would argue that it is really “the study of human behaviour through material culture”. The important thing is that archaeologists study the changes human beings have made to their world. Archaeology looks at the artefacts (the tools, ornaments and other objects), the structures and landscapes that people have been creating for the five million or so years we have been creatures distinct from the other great apes.
Archaeologists use a particular set of data that no other discipline uses as a discrete set, although it overlaps with history, anthropology, cultural studies, sociology and many other disciplines. The data comes from a wide variety of sources, in the form of monuments (unique places such as Stonehenge, or places that are much more mundane, such as field systems), sites (places that are buried and invisible today, such as Start Carr) and artefacts. To deal with their unique data set, archaeologists have developed their own special jargon.
In common with the other social sciences, archaeology depends for the majority of its data upon what are essentially case studies of unrepeatable experiments. It has long been recognised that the meticulous and objective recording of such case studies is a prerequisite for subsequent synthesis and generalisation. At the root of all archaeological work lies the careful gathering and recording of the primary data.
However, it has moved away from being the ‘stamp-collecting’ discipline it once was and has become one that seeks to explain the varieties of human experience; for this reason, it has been described as the past tense of anthropology. Many attempts have been made by archaeologists to establish conceptual frameworks to explain how human societies have developed and changed. No archaeologist examines data objectively, and most now use a conscious theoretical approach to gathering data or interpreting existing information.
The nineteenth-century combination of evolutionary concepts and historical accounts of the past led to the classification of artefacts and settlements into cultures that were supposed to represent distinct ethnic or socio-political groupings of people, an approach that is now seen as too simplistic. Much of the analytical work done before the 1960s was qualitative rather than quanititative, providing impressionistic results that often could not be backed up with hard data. The ‘new’ archaeology of the 1960s made recording archaeological information more rigorous, because its interest in systems and processes demanded high quality data. Many of its proponents regarded archaeology as a quantitative science and sought to define laws of human and artefact behaviour. Many now reject this as too ambitious and overly scientistic, preferring to see archaeology as a humanistic discipline rather than a hard science. Post-processual archaeology developed in the 1980s as a reaction to the scientistic excesses of some processualists. It involves breaking down established paradigms. It was interested in relationships between norm and particular, process and structure, material and ideal, object and subject. It did not force one approach and invoked pluralism and multi-vocality.
Archaeology, like so many academic enterprises, is deeply political and engages (or, at least, should engage) with issues ranging from conservation of the environment to the treatment of women, from the rights of indigenous peoples to debates about religion versus science. At the start of the twenty-first century, archaeology is coming-of-age as a political animal and its practitioners recognise that what they are researching is determined by current concerns and viewpoints. In trying to piece together an account of the past, the archaeologist is engaging in a relationship with that past. This is particularly important when presenting the results of archaeological investigations to the public: our understanding of the past can only give us interpretations that will change through time, not hard-and-fast, unchanging facts.
It is one of the most diverse and multi-disciplinary of all academic enterprises, using expertise from the historical disciplines, anthropology, hard sciences, geography, linguistics and a virtually unlimited array of other specialities. For this reason, a distinguished philosopher of science has described archaeology as “the most basic science of all”.