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BIG IDEAS

What is Archaeology?

Archaeology is the study of people and artifacts from ancient times

1. Piecing Together the Puzzle of History

How do we know about people who lived in ancient times? If people didn’t leave behind any written records, how do we know what gods they worshiped, what food they ate, or what clothes they wore?

One of the ways we know about people who lived long ago is through  archaeology : the study of past life through what’s been left behind.

An archaeologist might find a pot, a grave, or the remains of a building. Each discovery is like a piece of a puzzle. The archaeologist works to put these pieces together to create a picture of what life was like long ago.

2. Clues to the Past

Anthropologists study people and cultures, both in the past and in the present. Archaeology is a special branch of anthropology that focuses on the past.

Like all scientists, archaeologists start with a question they want to explore, such as “Why was this ancient city abandoned?” Then, they gather evidence by digging in the field. Back in the lab, they analyze their evidence. Finally, they share their results with others.

Overhead view of a table full of pottery artifacts. There are over 30 plates, bowls, cups and vases.

Pieces of pottery are the most common artifacts found on a site. Every new piece of evidence provides more clues.

Woman kneeling in front of a large wooden loom weaving a textile.

Local people can provide insight into understanding past cultures.

3. Fieldwork is Where They Dig In

Ten people working to excavate the very large site of a former building.

An excavation takes a whole team.

It’s not easy finding the remains of an ancient culture. As years pass, buildings and artifacts get buried under dirt, rubble, or even other settlements. Archaeologists have to dig underground to find these remains. But finding the right place, or “site,” to dig is the first challenge.

Archaeologists don’t just dig anywhere. They look for a site they think will help answer their questions about the people or time they are studying.

This takes a lot of planning and research. Before digging begins, archaeologists survey  the site, and then create a map of it to help them decide where to dig.

Woman holding a large wooden drawing board, next to two men kneeling down with a measuring tape surveying an area.

Archaeologists conduct a survey of a site before digging in.

handdrawn map showing eight rectangles (representing buildings) clustered around an area, with several more rectangles scattered around them.

Map of a site. 

4. Evidence of an Era 

There are many kinds of evidence that teach us about the past: majestic pyramids, the ruins of an ancient city, pieces of pottery, even a simple trash pit.

Every piece of evidence has one thing in common—it’s lasted a long time.

Most things from the past, like fabric, wood, and food, decay over time. Things made of clay, metal, and stone survive much longer. What survives also depends on the environment. In a rain forest, a wooden spear would rot and decay. But in a desert, the same spear might be preserved by the dry air.

5. Recording the Remains

When a site is excavated , it is also destroyed. That’s why it’s so important to keep accurate, detailed records of everything on a site.

When archaeologists dig, they create a grid to keep track of where they find things. They also draw pictures and take photographs of everything they find.

All this information helps archaeologists re-create a picture of the site later. These records will be shared with other scientists interested in that site. They’re also left for future generations of scientists, like you!

String grid overlaying a dirt area with rocky edges.

Grids help mark the location of an object compared to the other things around it.

Line drawing of a stella from Teotihuacan. It depicts a man donning an elaborate feathered headdress and cape, as well as a loin cloth and sandals.

Archaeologists often draw what they find at a site. 

6. Making Discoveries in the Lab

When archaeologists complete an excavation, work in the lab begins. This is where they analyze their findings by carefully measuring, weighing, drawing, and comparing. They try to answer questions about when it was made and how it was used. They can learn even more by looking at objects found together as a group.

Archaeologists publish what they’ve learned in books and articles. They might support or challenge other theories. Most importantly, they’re bringing new ideas to the debate. And that’s what science is all about!

7. Into the Collections

Many places, like the American Museum of Natural History, collect artifacts from around the world. The artifacts on display at the Museum are only a fraction of these huge collections. Rows of cabinets are filled with thousands of artifacts, like bowls, tools, masks, and textiles.

Scientists use the collections like a library. They come to observe objects for their own research.

These collections give people a chance to see artifacts from faraway places and ancient cultures that disappeared long ago.

Man seated at a table with a small case of objects. He holds up an artifact with one gloved hand while filling out a form with the other.

At the Museum, each artifact has a number and description so it can be easily found. 

Man standing between two tall rows of shelves holding pottery artifacts. The man has gloves on and has pulled open a tray of smaller artifacts.

A collections manager keeps the artifacts organized.

Image Credits:

Photos: pottery: courtesy of AMNH; artifacts: courtesy of AMNH; monument: courtesy of Christina Elson; woman working: courtesy of AMNH; excavation site: courtesy of Chuck Spencer; building remains: courtesy of Chuck Spencer; Building excavation: courtesy Christina Elson; pottery pieces: courtesy of Christina Elson; grid: courtesy of Chuck Spencer; Jaguar urn: courtesy of AMNH; New World pottery: courtesy of Christina Elson; Illustrations: broken pottery drawing: Christina Elson