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Archaeology is concerned with the study and comparison of people in all parts of the world, their physical characteristics, customs, languages, traditions, material possessions, and social and religious beliefs and practices. At most universities, archaeology is considered a branch of anthropology.
Archaeologists play an important role in the areas of anthropology, especially cultural anthropology. They apply specialized techniques to construct a record of past cultures by studying, classifying, and interpreting artifacts such as pottery, clothing, tools, weapons, and ornaments, to determine cultural identity. They obtain these artifacts through excavation of sites including buildings and cities, and they establish the chronological sequence of the development of each culture from simpler to more advanced levels. Prehistoric archaeologists study cultures that existed prior to the period of recorded history, while historical archaeologists study more recent societies. The historic period spans several thousand years in some parts of the world and sometimes only a few hundred years in others. Classical archaeologists concentrate on ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures. Through the study of the history of specific groups of peoples whose societies may be extinct, archaeologists are able to reconstruct their cultures, including the pattern of daily life.
Archaeologists must travel extensively to perform fieldwork on the site where a culture once flourished. Site work is often slow and laborious. It may take years to uncover artifacts from an archaeological dig that produce valuable information. Another important aspect of archaeology is the cleaning, restoration, and preservation of artifacts. This work sometimes takes place on the site of discovery to minimize deterioration of textiles and mummified remains. Careful recording of the exact location and condition of artifacts is essential for further study.
As faculty members of colleges and universities, archaeologists lecture on the subject, work with research assistants, and publish books and articles. Those who work outside of academia, such as for corporations and government agencies, have a variety of duties and responsibilities.
Archaeologists work in many specialties:
Cultural resources management (CRM) archaeologists determine if cultural resources are present at proposed construction and land use sites (such as buildings, roads, bridges, highways, and dams) and document and/or recover these resources before the project begins. Some sites have also been discovered during reconstruction or renovation of existing structures. When working with larger projects, CRM firms often turn to the services of contract archaeologists to survey and evaluate potential sites.
Environmental archaeologists study how past cultures interacted with and affected the natural world. Specialists in this field study animals, plants, and landscapes. Environmental archaeologists study ancient materials and modern specimens in order to better understand the relationships between ancient cultures and their environments. The field of environmental archaeology is often divided into three subspecialties: zooarchaeology, the study of past use of animals by humans; archaeobotany, the study of past use of plants by humans; and geoarchaeology, the study of nonliving aspects of the landscape such as geology, geography, and weather.
Ethnoarchaeologists study the material remains of contemporary cultures with the goal of understanding cultures of the past. They examine current customs and rituals, collect and study ancient and current artifacts, and talk to present-day cultural groups about their lifestyle. Based on their findings, ethnoarchaeologists hypothesize about a past culture’s social organization, everyday life (hunting, cooking, religion, social customs, etc.), and history.
Underwater archaeology involves any archaeological work or investigation done under water or sediment. The field is sometimes broken into the following specialties: nautical archaeology (the study of shipbuilding and watercraft) and maritime or marine archaeology (the study of shipwrecks, ports, and seafaring cultures). Other underwater archaeologists specialize in studying artifacts from a particular era, such as the time of the Roman Empire. Underwater archeologists identify potential survey sites, conduct the excavation work, and bring items to the surface for further study and research.
Forensic archaeologists are specialized anthropologists who find and excavate human remains, evidence (weapons, cell phones, etc.), and other objects at crime scenes and accident sites.