Addressing Misconceptions of Archaeology

One of the biggest issues archaeologists face are the misconceptions developed around our discipline.  Therefore, it seemed only fitting, that Unearthing Detroit’s first bi-weekly Topic post is a discussion on archaeology.  If you have questions or want to learn more about the specific archaeological methods the Unearthing Detroit team uses please add a comment below.  We would love to hear from you.

Take a moment.

What do you think of when you think about archaeology?

Common answers are often enveloped around Indiana Jones, dinosaurs, and/or shows like Diggers, but these are extremely inaccurate.

If these are not true representations of archaeology, then what is archaeology?

With such a variety of subdisciplines- a simple black and white definition of archaeology is impossible.  While a large amount of archaeologists dig per the common perception, some in remote places and some locally, there remains a large amount that do not.  These archaeologists that are “not out in the field” do a variety of other research including reanalysis of a previous excavations, laboratory analysis of artifacts, historic research, and can even apply archaeologically derived skills in innovative ways outside of the discipline.

The following are some definitions of archaeology to explore what archaeology means.  At the end of this blog, I will also include a selection of articles that illustrate the wide breadth and depth of the discipline at current.

The Society for Historical archaeology (SHA-

“Historical Archaeology is the study of the ancient and recent human past through material remains. It is a subfield of anthropology, the study of all human culture.”

American Anthropological Association (AAA-

“Archaeologists study past peoples and cultures, from the deepest prehistory to the recent past, through the analysis of material remains, ranging from artifacts and evidence of past environments to architecture and landscapes.”

America Institute of Archaeology (AIA-

“[Archaeology is] The scientific excavation and study of ancient human material remains.”

There is a common thread in these definitions: the study of the past through remains (artifacts). These remains can be animal bones, metal objects, building foundations, historical writings, photographs, etc. These artifacts do not all come from the ground, and they do not necessarily come from remote lands remnants of temporally distant cultures.  Lastly, archaeology is a science that goes beyond the artifacts to look at the changing landscapes of past lifeways to help us reevaluate history.  Questions we ask can revolve around many topics including but certainly not limited to food, socioeconomic status, identity, rituals, and climate change.  Here I will address some common misconceptions and explain how we explore more than you would think.

Common Misconception #1 Artifacts must come from the ground.  This is not true Archaeologists use many tools other than digging to retrieve information about the past.  While we are all excavators, some of us excavate large amounts of archival information, maps, digital information, word-of-mouth, photographs, etc.  These can be unearthed from places other than the ground, such as basements, underwater, and through personal communications.

Common Misconception #2 Archaeology takes place on remote islands and studies cultures many centuries past.  Archaeology can and does take place where you live as well as such remote places. Excavations are often done alongside construction projects collecting cultural material from recent times.  In the case of Unearthing Detroit, such excavations provided us with the collections we are reanalyzing today objects of the recent past (ca. 1800-1920).

Common Misconception #3 Archaeology is just about artifacts.

Archaeology is science pulling from natural science, social science, and the humanities. Archaeology can enlist an endless list of disciplines for example: geology with soil analysis; chemistry for analysis of bones, metals, and other compositions; computer engineering to develop the documenting software and photographing technology.  Archaeology is an imperatively interdisciplinary approach that aims to reconstruct and analyze the changing landscapes of an area.

In conclusion, Archaeology does not offer a simple snapshot of a remote far distant culture through a single artifact.  Archaeology utilizes an interdisciplinary approach, which may or may not include an excavation, to discover how an area altered throughout a period in time. The Unearthing Detroit team uses this information, in turn, to help communities rediscover their past and invest in preservation and cultural heritage.


Examples of Archaeology

Cornell University based archaeologists use wooden artifacts from ancient Egypt and laboratory techniques to analyze the effect of climate change on culture (ca 2200 C.E.)

Archaeologists from University of Wroclaw excavates mortuary site in Peru as part of the Tambo Project.  Using cross cultural and artifact analysis discovers it may be a previously unknown culture (ca 600- 900 C.E).

Archaeologist contracted by Connecticut Department of Transportation discover historic homestead during a survey for upcoming road construction.  By examining historical documents and artifacts determined the home was 40 acre farm rented from the Justice of Peace by Thomas Daniels and family during the early 1700s.



2014. “What is Anthropology”. Accessed 7/10/14.


2014. “Introduction to Archaeology- Glossary”. Accessed 7/10/14.

Lepper, B.T.

6/15/2014. “Archaeology | Ancient cultures affected by climate change, too”. The Columbus Dispatch. Accessed 7/10/14.

Past Horizons.

7/4/2014. “Unknown Culture Discovered in Peru”. Past Horizons Blog. Accessed 7/10/14.


2014. “What is Historical Archaeology”. Accessed 7/10/14.

Tess Townsend.

6/12/2014. “Archaeological Dig reveals 18th Century Homestead”. The Day. Accessed 7/10/14.


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