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Defining Archaeology - 34 Definitions of Archaeology

A Collection of Archaeology Definitions


Ruins of Delphi, Greece

Ruins of Delphi, home of the most famous oracle of ancient times, with the Phocis Valley in the background

Ed Freeman / Stone Collection / Getty Images

Archaeology has been defined by many people in many different ways in the 150 years of the study. Of course, some of the differences reflect the history of archaeology and how it has changed over time, becoming more of a science, and becoming more involved with human behaviors. But mostly the definitions reflect how people look at and feel about archaeology. Archaeologists speak from their varied experiences in the field and in the lab. Non-archaeologists speak from their vision of the archaeology, as filtered by what archaeologists say, and by what the popular media presents the study as. In my opinion, all of these definitions are valid expressions of what archaeology is.

Define Archaeology

"[Archaeology is] the discipline with the theory and practice for the recovery of unobservable hominid behavior patterns from indirect traces in bad samples." David Clarke.

"Archaeology is the scientific study of peoples of the past... their culture and their relationship with their environment. The purpose of archaeology is to understand how humans in the past interacted with their environment, and to preserve this history for present and future learning." Larry J. Zimmerman

"Historical archaeology is more than just a treasure hunt. It is a challenging search for clues to the people, events, and places of the past." Society for Historical Archaeology

"Archaeology is our way of reading that message and understanding how these peoples lived. Archaeologists take the clues left behind by the people of the past, and, like detectives, work to reconstruct how long ago they lived, what they ate, what their tools and homes were like, and what became of them." State Historical Society of South Dakota

"Archaeology is the scientific study of past cultures and the way people lived based on the things they left behind." Alabama Archaeology

"Archaeology is not a science because it does not apply any recognised model has no validity: each science studies a different subject and therefore uses, or could use, a different model." Merilee Salmon, as quoted by Andrea Vianello

Archaeology Definition: A Mind-Numbing Job

"[Archaeology is] the most mind-numbing job on the planet" Bill Watterson

"Archeology is... the most fun you can have with your pants on." Kent V. Flannery

"[Archaeology] seeks to discover how we became human beings endowed with minds and souls before we had learned to write." Grahame Clarke

"Archaeology puts all human societies on an equal footing." Brian Fagan

"Archeology is the only branch of anthropology where we kill our informants in the process of studying them." Kent Flannery

"The archaeologist partakes of, contributes to, is validated by, and dutifully records present-day social and political structures in the identification of research problems and in the interpretation of findings." Joan Gero

"Archaeology is not simply the finite body of artefactual evidence uncovered in excavations. Rather, archaeology is what archaeologists say about that evidence. It is the ongoing process of discussing the past which is, in itself, an ongoing process. Only recently have we begun to realise the complexity of that discourse. ... [T]he discipline of archaeology is a site of disputation--a dynamic, fluid, multidimensional engagement of voices bearing upon both past and present." John C. McEnroe

"[Archaeology] is not what you find, it’s what you find out." David Hurst Thomas

"Indeed, archaeology is only really delightful when transfused into some form of art." Oscar Wilde

Archaeology Definition: The Search for Fact

"Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth." Indiana Jones

"An aware, responsible and engaged global archaeology might be a relevant, positive force which recognizes and celebrates difference, diversity and real multivocality. Under common skies and before divided horizons, exposure to global difference and alterity prompts us all to seek responses and responsibility." Lynn Meskell

"Archaeology is the study of humanity itself, and unless that attitude towards the subject is kept in mind archaeology will be overwhelmed by impossible theories or a welter of flint chips." Margaret Murray

"Archaeology is the only discipline that seeks to study human behavior and thought without having any direct contact with either." Bruce G. Trigger

Archaeology Definition: A Voyage to the Past

"Archaeology is our voyage to the past, where we discover who we were and therefore who we are." Camille Paglia

"New World archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing." Philip Phillips.


Geoff Carver has collected numerous quotations from archaeologists trying to define whatever it is we study. He was kind enough to supply us with the goods, and you'll find his collection on the next page.

More Definitions

This feature is part of the About.com Guide to Field Definitions of Archaeology and Related Disciplines.

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