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3.2: Archaeology Today

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    Today, both processual and post-processual paradigms are used in archaeology. This is a unique situation since, in the past, new paradigms replaced old ones. These two paradigms are quite different and, typically, college and university archaeology faculty rely on only one of the paradigms. It is rare for a faculty to be composed of researchers who use different paradigms. The same data can be analyzed from each of these vastly different perspectives to bring distinct interpretations to the data. However, both approaches contribute to meeting archaeology's one overarching goal: managing, conserving, and preserving the material remains of the past for future generations (Fagan, 2006).

    Whether it is through looting, construction, or a systematic excavation, once a site is disturbed, the archaeological record in its original context is gone forever. The act of excavating a site is actually a destructive process. However, when a site must be disturbed, a systematic excavation with detailed records of what was found and where it was found is the beginning of understanding and reconstructing the history of the people and helps to document and preserve the knowledge learned for future generations. In archaeological research, there are three primary goals: 1) constructing the culture history (form), 2) reconstructing past lifeways (function), and 3) interpreting and explaining culture change. Each of the three primary goals helps archaeologists achieve their overarching goal, to preserve the archaeological record (Fagan, 2006).

    Goals of Archaeology.jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Primary Goals of Archaeology.

    Constructing Culture History

    As we learned in Chapter 2, culture history is the approach to archaeology that assumes artifacts can be used to build a generalized picture of human culture and descriptive models in time and space (Fagan, 2006). The first goal of archaeology is to build a culture history through classifying material culture and archaeological sites in the context of time and space. In other words, it looks to answer the questions: what happened, where did it happen, and when did it happen? Through detailed descriptions and classification of sites and artifacts, a chronology is developed. The archaeological site can be placed in a timeline based on the sequences of artifacts identified, such as pottery style and stone tool technology.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Through sequencing pottery and stone tools, archaeologists construct a culture history that is used to date archaeological sites.

    Reconstruct Past Lifeways

    The second goal of archaeology is to reconstruct the life of the people who lived in the past. The archaeologist moves beyond asking what, where, and when a site was inhabited to asking, "Who lived here and how did they live?". Material culture can help us identify when people inhabited a site, but it does not tell us about the people who created that material culture. How did the people make a living? What did they believe? How did they interact with each other? Archaeologists use artifacts to reconstruct ancient lifeways. Lifeways can be broken into four broad categories: subsistence, environmental modeling, human interaction, and social organization/religious beliefs (Fagan, 2006).


    The activities of human life including subsistence, human interaction, social organization, religious beliefs, and the environment they live in (Fagan, 2006).


    How people make their living or acquire food.


    Using archaeological evidence found at a site, such as animal bones, seeds and nuts or the presence of pottery or grains can all help archaeologists determine how the people were acquiring food. For example, a storage pit and a grinding stone were found on a site, this is evidence that the people were growing and processing grains. On the other hand, if the site lacks any signs of pottery and no grains are found, this could be evidence that the group relied on hunting and gathering for their subsistence.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Archaeologists study subsistence activities through the material culture such as tools, pottery, seeds, grains, and animal bones. Different modes of subsistence will produce distinguishing artifacts and features in the archaeological record.


    Environmental Modeling

    Subsistence and the environment are interrelated. Therefore, in studying the people's subsistence activities, archaeologists also attempt to reconstruct the environment in which they lived and how it influenced their behavior.

    Human Interaction

    Another aspect of past societies that archaeologists study is the ways in which the people interacted. Archaeological sites and artifacts can provide clues on other features of culture such as gender roles, status and rank among the people, how goods were distributed or traded between groups, and family organization.

    Social Organization and Religious Beliefs

    As discussed in Chapter 1, culture is the beliefs, practices, and symbols that are learned and shared in a society. While this is a challenging task and we may never fully understand the culture of the prehistoric peoples, archaeologists attempt to learn about the social organization and religious belief systems of past societies. Through studying the material culture (i.e. artifacts, art, architecture, burial practices, and grave goods, etc.) can give us clues about the intangible culture (i.e. beliefs and behavior).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Studying the art and architecture of past societies can give us a glimpse into their cultural practices and religious beliefs.

    Image 1: These prehistoric rock paintings, found in in Manda Guéli Cave in the Ennedi Mountains, Chad, Central Africa, camels have been painted over earlier images of cattle, perhaps reflecting climatic changes.
    Image 2: This clay model from Kamilari, Greece, dated to about 1500-1450 BCE, depicts a two-columned stoa (roofed colonnade), a wall with windows, and four figures seated on low seats in the interior. Two smaller standing figures holding vessels are giving offerings on alters.
    Image 3: A Mesoamerican pok-ta-tok goal from a Mayan ball court in Uxmal, Mexico.
    Image 4: Depiction of a ballplayer on a Mayan ballgame marker exhibited at Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México.

    Interpret and Explain Cultural and Social Change

    The third goal of archaeology takes the research even further by attempting to answer the question, "Why?" Specifically, archaeologists study the process of cultural and social change over time and look for explanations for those changes. This is perhaps the most challenging of the aspects of archaeology. Why did a population move from foraging to horticulture or horticulture to agriculture? Why did complex, urban civilizations develop? Why did some civilizations collapse? Rather than just describing the culture, archaeologists seek to explain events using global comparisons and scientific methods.


    As mentioned earlier in this section, the overarching goal of archaeology is managing, conserving, and preserving the archaeological evidence of past societies. The three primary goals all work together to achieve this final objective. Today, most archaeological excavations are devoted to managing and preserving the surviving archaeological sites and artifacts that are in danger of being destroyed by present-day construction and infrastructure projects such as highways and pipelines. Cultural Resource Management (CRM), which is discussed in a later chapter, is now the predominant paradigm. If a site is unable to be preserved, archaeologist will conduct an excavation to collect artifacts, document the site, and learn as much as they can before the site is destroyed as a result of modern development.


    Ashmore, W., & Sharer, R. J. (2014). Discovering our past: A brief introduction to archaeology. New York, N.Y: McGraw-Hill.

    Fagan, B. M. (2006). Archaeology: A brief introduction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.


    Figure 3.2.1 The Goals of Archaeology. (2021). By Crystal Scheib under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

    Figure 3.2.2 Archaeology Timeline. (2007). By placeuvm under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via flicker.

    Figure 3.2.3 Bayaka people in the Dzanga Sangha Ndoki reserve. Central African Republic rainforest. (2014). By JMGRACIA100 under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    Figure 3.2.4 Image 1:These prehistoric rock paintings are in Manda Guéli Cave in the Ennedi Mountains, Chad, Central Africa. Camels have been painted over earlier images of cattle, perhaps reflecting climatic changes. (2015). By David Stanley from Nanaimo, Canada, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    Figure 3.2.4 Image 2: Clay model of a two-columned stoa (roofed colonnade) and a wall with windows. Four figures are shown seated on low seats in the interior and receiving offerings on altars, made by two smaller standing figures holding vessels. The most likely interpretation is that the model depicts an ancestor-cult scene relating to those buried inside the tomb. Kamilari, 1500-1450 BC. By Zde under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    Figure 3.2.4 Image 3: View from inside a poc-ta-tok field, Mexico. By Sebastien Paquet from Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    Figure 3.2.4 Image 4: Maya ballgame marker exhibited at Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México. (2010.) By Maunus under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    3.2: Archaeology Today is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.