This lesson will give an overview of archaeological anthropology. In doing so, it will explain the concept of prehistory, the specialty of historical archaeology, and the terms ‘artifact’ and ‘excavate.’

(Video available on February 2016)

Lesson Transcript

Definition of Terms

The science of anthropology, the study of humankind, has many subfields. For example, some anthropologists focus on ancient languages, while others focus on physical changes. There are others still who take part in the study of the material remains of past cultures. These anthropologists dabble in archaeological anthropology, often simply shortened to ‘archaeology.’ In today’s lesson, we’ll seek to get a better understanding of these archaeological anthropologists and what they do.

Like detectives, archaeological anthropologists work to reconstruct the daily lives of past cultures by studying what’s been left behind. To them, things like unearthed weapons, pots, tools, and even decayed bones give clues into past people groups and cultures. However, unlike detectives, archaeological anthropologists aren’t looking for lost treasures for the reason of just finding lost treasures; they are more like historians – they seek them in order to find feasible explanations for how past cultures functioned, changed, and eventually ceased to exist.


However, unlike historians, who usually only deal with societies that have left written record, our archaeological anthropologists reach further back in time to prehistory, the time before written record. For instance, while a historian will study ancient Greece by reading the works of men like Aristotle, our archaeological anthropologist might very well go further back in time, uncovering pottery and paintings from the even more ancient Greek island of Crete.

Yes, they might not have written records about the very ancient Greeks who lived there, but they’ll uncover everyday tools and artwork in order to understand Greek life even before men like Aristotle penned a thing. Using these artifacts, objects made by human beings, which are of cultural or historical interest, our archaeological anthropologists will try to reconstruct the cultures they came from. They’ll try to answer questions like ‘What did these people usually eat?’ or even ‘What did they do for sport?’

Again using the Greek island of Crete, archaeological anthropology has uncovered some pretty interesting sculptures and frescoes of what’s been coined ‘bull-leaping,’ a sport enjoyed by ancient Greeks, in which people for some reason actually tried to leap over bulls! No, we don’t think Aristotle ever wrote about it, but thanks to the work of archaeological anthropology we have some pretty cool artifacts that seem to sort of prove it!

Historical Archaeology

Moving further up in modern times, there’s a specialty within archaeological anthropology known as historical archaeology. Unlike archaeologists, who study prehistoric times, our historical archaeologists enjoy the study of the remains of recent cultures, including written records. Sort of as if history and archaeology got married and had a baby, historical archaeology enjoys using artifacts as well as written record to understand how past peoples lived.

For instance, a great day for historical archaeologists would be to find an ancient Roman farming journal along with one of the farming tools mentioned in it. Not only would they have written proof of ancient farming techniques, they’d have the tool used to do it! From these two great finds our historical archaeologist could have a heyday answering questions like ‘How did agriculture develop in the culture?’ or ‘How long have farming tools been in use?’

Reliance on Other Disciplines

Like most sciences, it’s important to note that archaeological anthropology, whether prehistoric or historic, does not exist in a vacuum. It relies on other sciences in order to get its job done. For instance, in order to know where to safely excavate, or systematically dig for objects, archaeological anthropology relies ongeology, the study of the Earth’s physical structure and substance.

Once these artifacts are safely unearthed, archaeological anthropology relies on modern chemistry techniques to do their datings. With the help of these and many other disciplines, archaeological anthropology has given the world some rather amazing information about our prehistoric, distant, and even recent past!

Lesson Summary

As a subfield of anthropology, the study of humankind, archaeological anthropology studies the material remains of past cultures. Using things left behind, like tools, weapons, and even artwork, which has been carefully excavated, or systematically dug up, archaeological anthropologists seek to answer questions about cultures from prehistory, or time before written record.

Also using artifacts, or objects made by human beings, which are of cultural or historical interest, historical archaeology, a specialty within archaeological anthropology, combines them with the written records of past cultures. In doing this, and in teaming up with many other scientific disciplines, archaeological anthropology helps us to better understand not only where we’ve been but how we’ve gotten to where we are.