What is archaeology?

Balerno Main Shelter, photograph by B van Doornum, Natal Museum

The word archaeology means “the study of ancient things” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology by T Darvill, 2002).

Archaeology is the study of the people of the past: how they lived, where they lived, what they ate, and what their environment was like. Archaeologists use tools, houses, plant and animal remains, pollen, shells, and other evidence that they dig up in excavations to understand what the people of the deeper past were like and how they lived.

Archaeology is different from history in that history uses documents, letters and drawings to understand how people lived in the more recent past. Sometimes archaeologists use written historical records together with the artefacts that they have dug up to create a picture or story of what the past was like. This is called historical archaeology.

When did archaeology become a science?

(From An Introduction to Archaeology by Lesley and Roy Adkins, 1998)

In the mid-16th century, people in Britain working for King Henry VIII started making lists of old buildings and the history of the places that they visited. Later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, people started to collect old things, taking them home and displaying them in their homes. Some people were curious about these objects and started to study where they came from and what they meant, and so they started to dig into burial mounds to look for treasures.

By the late 19th century, many of these treasure hunters were digging all over Britain and Europe, for example, Heinrich Schliemann, a German archaeologist who excavated at Troy. These treasure hunters were mostly men who were quite rich and had the money to pursue their hobby of collecting antiquities.

At the end of the 1900s, General Pitt-Rivers (who now has a museum named after him in Oxford, United Kingdom), was the first person properly to excavate archaeological sites. He laid out grid patterns and carefully mapped and collected all the artefacts that he found. He realised that once you have dug something up, you can never get back the information that gets lost as you dig through the site.

General Pitt-Rivers also wrote about the things that he found, so that people other than his friends and family would know what he had discovered about the past. Slowly but surely, other people started to follow his example and record what they had found. After the First World War, all sorts of inventions helped people to learn about the past, and finally, people (both men and women) started to pursue archaeology as a job, rather than as a hobby. Nowadays, most archaeologists work in museums and universities across the world.

Why do people study archaeology?

Daga flooring at the Balerno Main Shelter, photograph by B van Doornum, Natal Museum

People study archaeology to learn about the past and how people used to live long ago. This helps us understand how the world came to be the way it is today, and also helps us understand other people and their different cultures.

The past is the key to the present and the future. Everybody wants to know where they come from; they want to know about their heritage and the heritage of other people.

How do archaeological sites become buried?

Archaeological sites are sometimes not buried and we can see them on the landscape, for example: Stonehenge in England, the pyramids in Egypt, the Parthenon in Greece and the city of Great Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe. Other sites were buried either by sand being blown over them for thousands of years, or by ash from a volcano, like Pompeii, or buried deliberately by people.

How are archaeological sites found?

The first way that sites are found is by people going out and looking for them. For example, archaeologists will decide to look for Bushman rock art in the Drakensberg, and they will hike up and down until they find a rock shelter with art in it. They then record where the site is by taking a GPS (global positioning system) reading. Using these co-ordinates, the site can be plotted on a map.

The second way archaeological sites are found is by accident. They are discovered by people walking on their farms, digging to make a highway, or clearing away vegetation and soil to build an office block.

When people find archaeological sites, they must always tell an archaeologist about it. They are not allowed to dig at the site themselves or take away artefacts – only an archaeologist with a permit from the Government is allowed to do that.

Contributed by Bronwen van Doornum, Natal Museum


What do archaeologists do?

Mapungubwe, photograph courtesy Mapungubwe Museum, University of Pretoria

Archaeologists excavate

Once archaeologists find a site that they want to excavate to answer questions about the past, they need to get a permit from the relevant government agency. Archaeologists make a grid of squares with string on the ground and each square is excavated very carefully with a trowel, brush, dustpan and bucket.

Archaeologists record and draw everything that they find on a sheet of paper. They sieve the dirt that they dig up and pick out objects that the people of the past made, used, and threw away, such as pottery, bones from animals that they ate, stone tools, beads and lots of other things. These are put in packets, which are labelled with the date, name of the site, the square and the layer of dirt that the object (artefact) comes from, and what it is. For example:


Little Rhebuck Shelter
Square 2
Dark brown soil layer
Stone tools

Gold bowl found at Mapungubwe, photograph courtesy Mapungubwe Museum, University of Pretoria

Archaeologists record rock art

Some archaeologists don’t excavate archaeological sites. They study the rock art painted or engraved in the past by ancestors of the San, Khoekhoen and African farmers in Southern Africa.

These archaeologists trace the rock art with special techniques and take photographs. Stories that the San used to tell about their past and their beliefs can be useful in understanding what the rock art may have meant to the people who made it.

Archaeologists work in laboratories

When all the artefacts from a site are brought back to the university or the museum where the archaeologist works, he or she sorts the artefacts into different categories (stone, metal, bone, charcoal, beads etc.) and counts how many there are in each group. They write down what each one is made of, and sometimes they measure and label them. Once this is done, different archaeologists study each type of artefact.

  • Some study stone tools: how they were made, what they were made of, and how they were used
  • Some study the bones of animals to see what kinds of animals the people of the past ate
  • Some study plants to see what people ate and what the vegetation and environment of the past were like
  • Some study pottery to find out how it was made and decorated, what the decorations mean and what the pottery might have been used for

Cowries found at Mapungubwe, photograph courtesy Mapungubwe Museum, University of Pretoria

Archaeologists and recent history

Historical archaeology is about more recent historical societies and their settlements. Material culture and archived documents are important sources of information for this period of archaeology. Historical archaeology is thus concerned with the material remains of the modern period.

Archaeologists write about the past

Archaeologists take all their findings and write about the people and places of the past that they are studying. Then other people can read about the past, in books and museums, and find out where ancient people lived, how they lived, what their homes looked like, what they ate, what they wore and so on.

The archaeological enquiry goes back many thousands of years and thus archaeologists often specialise either in different periods or in certain kinds of archaeological evidence. Specialisation starts at postgraduate level. Among these could be human evolution, rock art, stone tools and the archaeology of African farming communities. Archaeological evidence includes human and animal bone, beads, stone artefacts, charcoal, pollen, rock paintings and engravings, buildings, and archival documents. These may require different scientific techniques such as isotope studies and archaeometry.

Contributed by Bronwen van Doornum, Natal Museum