Archaeological Anthropology (A Must Read Introduction)

By Direct Knowledge

The notion that archaeology is all about studying old rocks is amusingly inaccurate, but then again, so is the misconception that all archaeological findings are as awesome as pyramids and cities. The reality is that the field is far more diverse than its misrepresentations. It’s a study of all aspects of human activity throughout the ages via looking at the artifacts people have left behind. The methods and subjects of archaeology are a subset of anthropology, but anthropology as a whole depends on it for the analysis of past culture and human behavior. Thus, archaeological anthropology looks at past human cultures, traditions, and norms by digging up artifacts. Likewise, the following discussions will help you dig into the details of the field and people who work in it.

What is Archaeological Anthropology?

Ever heard of the Ancient City of Troy? Or the Tomb of King Tut? How about the Roman City of Pompeii? All of these are just a few of the well-known discoveries in archaeological anthropology that people across the globe learn about in basic history books. These amazing findings are more than just interesting textbook discussions; they help researchers look into what life was like long before society came to be as we know it.

A tributary of the humanities and a social science, archaeology is considered as a sub-branch of anthropology in some parts of the world, such as in North America. In other parts of the world such as Europe, it’s a different discipline all together. The term archaeological anthropology specifies the focus on human prehistory and history to avoid any potential ambiguity.

What Does It Study?

To put it simply, the field is a study of human life by recovering and analyzing a past society’s material culture. There’s a concept called the archaeological record which consists of physical evidence from society in the past. It includes everything from architecture and artifacts to organic remnants and plants. These organic components of archaeological sites are called biofacts, or ecofacts. They are typically from things that people passively used, ate, or came into contact with during their life. This passivity differs from the purposeful manipulation of non-organic artifacts such as tools and building material. They can tell researchers not only about the way of life of the past people, but also about their general environment.

Archaeological Anthropology vs. Paleontology

An important distinction to take note of is the difference between archaeological anthropology and paleontology. Both involve similar techniques to learn about the past through excavation, surveying, and analysis of the ground. But the latter specifically studies fossil remains of any species without much regard for culture. Rather, it focuses on biological interactions and evolution of various organisms. The former, on the other hand, tries to explain how people lived. It involves an array of cross-disciplinary research from fields such as geology, history, art, chemistry, and more.

The Early History of Archaeological Anthropology as a Science

The science derives itself from the earlier study of antiquarianism in which the practitioners studied previous eras with a focus on manuscripts, artifacts, and architecture. This multidisciplinary science focused on the presence of empirical evidence that would help understand the past. However, it had a narrower focus than modern archaeology which has since branched out and refined its methods. This includes the formation of various sub-disciplines and advanced scientific techniques.

The science of archaeology underwent dramatic systematic organization during Europe’s enlightenment era of the 17th and 18th centuries. In the Middle Ages, Europe was developing a philosophical interest in the past Roman and Greek civilizations. This led them to begin their search for discovering classical material culture.

Some of the first excavations include Stonehenge and Pompeii, but the excavations were often haphazard. They used methods that overlooked many important methods for preserving and understanding the sites. These methods greatly improved during the 19th century with the development of stratigraphy and the idea of geological context.

Well-Known Archaeological Anthropologists 

There are plenty of notable figures who are renowned for their work in the field throughout history. For starters, the antiquarians from the 16th century, such as William Camden and John Leland, carried out surveys of monuments in the English countryside, trying to interpret and describe them along the way. Then there’s the Italian Renaissance historian, Flavio Biondo, who many know as one of the early founders of archaeology. The following are some other important figures and their contributions to archaeological anthropology.

Jacques Boucher de Crevecoeur de Perthes 

A geologist by profession, he made a notable contribution by relating time to geology. His idea was that archaeologists could trace and chart history with different periods of geological time. Born in 1788, he tried to devote time to his enthusiasm for archaeology despite his position as a customs official. 

His many discoveries include fragments of tools and hand axes that were scattered in the same site as fossilized bones from mammals, animals that de Perthes believed to be ancient. Finding the tools near the animal fossils, he implied that the makers of the tools were alive around the same time as these ancient mammals. With this idea, he proposed the findings as evidence that a primitive man did once exist. 

Howard Carter 

Everyone’s heard of the ancient Egyptian king Tutankhamun, or ‘Pharaoh’ to be specific. Howard Carter was one of the archaeologists on the team to discover it. After uncovering the tomb, the community considered him as a leading figure in the field. 

After excavating with the Archeological Survey of Egypt for eight years, the young Howard Carter discovered various noteworthy tombs of Queen Hatshepsut and Pharaoh Thutmose IV. It was much later in 1922 that he co-discovered the tomb with George Herbert. 

Mark Lehner 

With experience spanning over thirty years of excavation in Egypt, Mark Lehner is a director of Ancient Egypt Research Associates. Born in 1950, he conducts archaeological investigations with a team that creates a picture of an archaeological site by examining and analyzing excavated objects.

As of yet, he’s running the Giza Plateau Mapping Project, mapping and excavating in Egypt to find the ancient city where the builders of the Giza Pyramids lived. Some of his most interesting finds include the discovery that one of the subsidiary pyramids, G1-a, actually belonged to Hetepheres I when it was initially believed that it belonged to Queen Meritites I. 

Fascinating Archaeological Anthropology Finds

Through the years, you might have come across various texts, articles, and pieces on archaeological findings. Whether you read about them in a textbook, on the internet, or in a documentary, let’s refresh your memory with some of these fascinating discoveries. 

The Library of Ashurbanipal

This royal collection of stone tablets and fragments was filled with texts and dates back to the 7th century BC. Ashurbanipal, the king who the library is named after, was the last great ruler of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. 

There’s much debate over who discovered the library but in most cases, the credit goes to Austen H Layard. Comprising about 30 thousand tablets, this collection is quite possibly the oldest library to have survived this long. 

The Rosetta Stone

Speaking of stone tablets, this one holds the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphics. French soldiers found it in Egypt in 1799, at which point Egyptian scripts had continued to confuse scholars during the past centuries.

The stone cleared the air by containing three texts: hieroglyphics, the Egyptian common language, and Greek. Having them side by side finally showed the secrets of the hieroglyphics. The stone is considered one of the most important discoveries of all time in archaeological anthropology.

The Dead Sea Scrolls 

In the 20th century, archaeologists uncovered various religious artifacts, and the Dead Sea scrolls are one them. These were found near the Dead Sea in around eleven Qumran Caves and were discovered to be Jewish manuscripts. Researchers found that the Hebrew material written in the scrolls contained matter that was both biblical as well as non-biblical. 

The scrolls received massive coverage from the media because they held around thirty copies of the Psalms, 25 copies of the Deuteronomy, and over 15 copies of the Book of Isaiah. As the oldest discovered manuscripts of the Old Testament, these scrolls are thought to be a significant religious find. 

The Terracotta Army 

Chinese farmers uncovered the Terracotta Army in 1974 while digging a water well in Xi’an, Shaanxi province. The figures date back to the 3rd century BC and depict the armies of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. 

In the three pits that contained the Terracotta Army, archaeologists found that the army comprised over eight thousand soldiers, as well as hundreds of chariots, horses and cavalry horses.  Most of the sculptures were near the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang. Buried with the emperor around 21 BC, the army serves to protect the emperor.


These are the giant human head sculptures located in Rapa Nui, which are also known as the Easter Islands. These iconic monoliths are a common image throughout the world, but archaeologists recently discovered the bodies that these heads are associated with. 

Moreover, they found some fascinating discoveries in archaeological anthropology that increased knowledge about the civilizations living on Easter Island. Studies show that the people from Rapa Nui carved the giant monoliths around 1250 AD to 1500 AD.

The Nazca Lines

In the Nazca Desert in Peru lies a series of huge patterns drawn into the desert surface. They were only discovered in the 20th century, but created between 500 BC and 500 AD. The delay is likely due to their sheer size which makes it difficult to recognize the lines as patterns from the ground. Thus, the first report of the figures came from planes flying overhead. The intricate designs might be one of the first examples of applied geometry, but their ultimate purpose is still unknown.

Future Archaeological Anthropology Discoveries to Look Out For 

In archaeology, you can’t fully discover all the aspects of a site at a single time; you can only explore and uncover as much as the technology can allow. That being said, it’s common for archaeological experts to go back to important sites and use new technology to find out something new. 

Take the Tomb of King Tutankhamun for example. The discovery took place in 1922, but it was the DNA tests in 2010 that confirmed his lineage. They showed that his father was Akhenaten. Researchers even conducted tomography studies that came out in 2011 showing details about how the king’s daughters died stillborn. 

In 1912, after receiving an archaeology grant, Hiram Bingham went to Machu Picchu with only a Kodak panorama camera. Now, there are limitless possibilities of discovery, thanks to advanced testing, excavation techniques, and restoration technology. Fredrik Hiebert calls the 21st century a “new age of exploration”, so let’s have a look at what you’ll be seeing in the years to come. 

Discovering New Civilizations or Cities

A major factor that stopped archaeologists from discovering new sites and relics is that excavating in a potential site would damage nearby surroundings. Luckily, new Light Detection and ranging technology can help them see what’s underneath the dense foliage in jungles and other locations, in places like Belize and Honduras. This will help them locate and discover old settlements that they never even knew existed. 

Finding New Tombs 

With ground-penetrating radar (GPR) technology, archaeologists can look deeper without the need for excavation. Fredrik Hiebert’s team used satellite imagery in the ‘Valley of the Khans’ project to identify locations where Genghis Khan may have been buried. They then tested the areas with GPR to know how viable it is. 

Although the team wasn’t able to uncover the Mongol ruler’s tomb at the time, it’s the first step in the direction towards accomplishing it. Heibert argued that GPR is an effective way to survey a large portion of the area, which increases the likelihood of finding something great like the Tomb of Alexander the Great. 

Make New Archaeological Discoveries in the Qin Shi Huang Burial Anthropology Site 

Archaeologists discovered the Terracotta Army buried along with China’s first emperor quite a while ago, but they are still reluctant to go further. This is because there are high chances of damaging the preserved items on site. 

Fortunately, archaeologists can now use magnetometers and GPR to get a clearer picture of what’s inside. In the future, it’ll even be possible for tiny devices to enter the tombs and collect data without causing any disturbances. 

Decipher Ancient Texts 

Archaeologists have made fascinating discoveries of tablets and fragments that contain texts, but historians have not been able to decipher all of them. Explorers uncovered the Minoan civilization a century ago but they have yet to be able to decipher the Minoan language, Linear A.

New and powerful coding systems can help scholars with this problem. Not to mention, there’s machine learning systems and big data that can help decipher over the thousands of examples that researchers have collected of Linear A.  

Archaeology Exhumation of an Ancient Human Skeleton

Career Options in Archeological Anthropology 

So you’re interested in archaeological anthropology, but have you ever thought about what you could do if you studied it at a higher level? Sure, you don’t need to head off to unknown lands in search of relics and fossils; you can do a lot with knowledge about ancient civilizations and rulers. Let’s go through some of the career options you’d have by taking up a degree or course in archaeological anthropology. 

Field Technician 

This is the first level of work in the field that offers paying positions, and as a field tech you get a chance to travel around the world to do survey work. Field technicians can find work in academic projects and cultural resources management (CRM) projects, but in the academic field most are volunteer positions. Once you’ve had enough experience, you can become a field supervisor or crew chief, which come with extra responsibilities. Let’s not forget that you’ll need at least a bachelor’s level degree in archaeological anthropology. 

SHPO Archaeologist 

As a State Historic Preservation Officer, you’ll need to protect, interpret, register, evaluate and identify historic properties, which can be anything from shipwrecks to architecture. It’s a position one gets after plenty of experience and dedication to the field but you’ll be providing preservation communities with training and opportunities for funding. 

Project Archaeologist 

As a mid-level job, a project manager archaeologist has to supervise excavations and write reports on the conducted excavations. As a project manager, you can find paying positions in CRM and academic projects. A few years of experience as a field technician will do you some good, but a master’s degree is more important. 

Other Careers in Archaeological Anthropology

Of course, this isn’t the limit. You can work on archaeology related projects, even if you’re not looking to become Indiana Jones. There are positions in national parks, state historical societies, laboratories, and museums. Let’s not forget that you can teach archaeology as a professor or work with Geographic Information Systems on the site. 


With all this talk about archaeological sites and findings, it’s apparent that the field is growing and very interesting. The study and science itself are more than just intriguing because it has the capacity to pique anyone’s interest. So now that you’re curious, stay tuned for more spectacular archaeological finds that are soon to come. 

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