What is archaeology?

Archaeology might be described as the examination of the past by means of its surviving material remains, ‘stuff’ in other words. The material objects can be very small, like a Roman coin, or very large, like a farming landscape. The objects are often inorganic, flints, metals or pottery for example, but organic materials such as pollens, cereal grains, bones, and DNA have become increasingly important. We want to understand some aspect of the past but we only have remains in the present. The wet conditions in Britain are very hard on paper and leather but will not destroy stone, brick and, seldom, glass. A society that produced little in the way of material remains is likely to be underrated by archaeologists. If the favourite occupations of Neanderthal men and women were mental arithmetic, choral singing and classifying wild flowers we should never know it.

When does the past begin? If you drop a coin in a formal sense it enters the archaeological record and becomes worthy of study, although I suppose the 1960s and later is a period of time which is still more likely to be examined by cultural historians. But the industrial archaeology of the 18-19th century, and battlefield archaeology from the World Wars are certainly taken very seriously by archaeologists today. The important consideration is not how old a particular site or problem is, but whether it lends itself to investigation by archaeological techniques. It follows then that unrecorded burials in recent conflict zones are very much an archaeological concern.

Does archaeology always involve digging? By no means: the archaeology of houses and landscapes are very important and seldom involve excavation. Even within field archaeology today there is enormous interest in non-destructive techniques like LIDAR and ground-penetrating radar. Archaeology has recently become very popular on television. I have to admit that Time Team stimulated my interest in the subject 15 years ago. It is easy to be misled by the need to make exciting TV. The archaeologists are often portrayed as more certain of their facts and interpretations than, in reality, it is ever possible to be. Among topics unlikely to be considered by serious archaeologists are several popular with the media. These include: King Arthur, ancient astronauts, and coded messages left by Knights Templar. Here I shall stick to problems that will never provide the material for block-buster novels. If you want to pursue them please read the Bad Archaeology blog first!

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