Anthropology - Archaeology
Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ambiguity - Ambiguity to Anticolonialism in Middle East - Ottoman Empire And The Mandate SystemAnthropology - Biological Anthropology, Archaeology, Linguistics, Sociocultural Anthropology, Bibliography
Archaeology's roots lie in the early eighteenth century, when the landed gentry in Britain and elsewhere in Europe began to acquire stone, bronze, and iron implements for display, but it was not until late in that century that serious excavations began, largely inspired by discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Two major events in the 1830s moved the fledgling discipline of archaeology to a new level. One was Jacques Boucher de Perthes's (1788–1868) discovery in 1838, near Abbeville, France, of a crude lithic (stone) technology that predated the gentlemen's displayed objects by well over 100,000 years. The second was the Danish scholar Christian Thomsen's (1788–1865) articulation of the "three-age system"—still a fundamental archaeological concept: the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, which appeared in 1836 in the Catalogue of the Danish National Museum's collection (Thomsen was its first curator). Because stone artifacts typically came from the lowest levels of a trench or pit, while bronze objects came from the middle levels, and iron objects were typically found closest to the surface, Thomsen realized that this reflected a universal temporal sequence.
A generation later, in another important book, Prehistoric Times (1865), Sir John Lubbock (1834–1913), later Lord Avebury, not only coined the term prehistory, but also divided Thomsen's Stone Age into two successive stages, the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, and the Neolithic, or New Stone Age. Subsequent archaeologists added the term Mesolithic to refer to the transitional period at the end of the Ice Age between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic, which saw the beginnings of settled life, agriculture, and animal husbandry.
By the early twentieth century, archaeology was an established scholarly discipline. In subsequent decades, archaeologists sought to discover sequences, or stages, in the evolution of culture per se and to reconstruct the trajectory of cultural development in specific regions, such as the ancient Near East, Mexico, the American Southwest, Peru, Africa, India, Oceania, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, a split occurred between processual and postprocessual archaeologists. Processual archaeology starts from the assumption that all human communities are themselves systems, and need to be viewed as such. Processual archaeologists are primarily concerned with the processes whereby ancient peoples adapted to their ecosystems, and how these processes changed over time as the ecosystems changed. Postprocessual archaeology, on the other hand, focuses on reconstructing the daily lives of the people who lived in prehistoric communities, how their societies were organized, the nature of their religious beliefs and worldviews, their socioeconomic hierarchies, and other elements of culture that sociocultural anthropologists study in living communities. Postprocessualists, for the most part, see themselves as cultural anthropologists who work with artifacts rather than living informants.
Out of processual and postprocessual archaeology have developed branches of contemporary archaeology: urban archaeology, which looks at the nature of urban life in premodern cities, and industrial archaeology, which attempts to reconstruct what life was like for the majority of people in early industrial towns in the Midlands of England, parts of New England, and elsewhere in the emerging industrial regions of Europe and America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A similar approach has been applied to reconstructing the lives of enslaved Africans and African-Americans on antebellum plantations in the Caribbean and the American South, as well as of African-Americans in the urban northeast.
Other trends in contemporary archaeology include a focus on the lives of women, ordinary people, and the poor, rather than the "great men" of history. Scientific developments that make it possible to recover detailed data about diet, farming systems, and other aspects of everyday life have provided the technical impetus for these new research areas. While the study of the most ancient manifestations of human culture, such as the rise of agriculture or the state, remains important to archaeologists, an increasing number have turned to historical projects in which documents and archives and working with historians complement the material remains retrieved during excavations. Such projects promise new insights into many aspects of human history, including medieval Europe, colonial Latin America, and early settlements in the United States.