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Relationship between archaeology and history

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Archaeology: “the study of the ancient” (Bahn, 1999). The study of prehistoric and historic civilizations as seen through what they have left behind in our earth, both the tangible and the intangible: artifacts, settlements, monuments, rubbish dumps, cultural behaviorisms, religions, legacies, and other remains.

This definition alone already shows the bringing together and intertwining of archaeology, history and anthropology in order to piece together the scattered pieces of our past, hidden in our earth. It is the fact that we – the peoples of the today – are a result of the past, that gives our “back looking curiositie” as the great archaeologist William Camden defines it (Bahn, 2000)

However that definition alone is not enough to show how these three areas of discovery are related. In order to do this we must first look at what each discipline entails then looked at the interrelations between them.

“Back looking curiositie” would also be a good definition of the word ‘history’. Coming from the Greek word ‘historia’, literally meaning ‘inquiry’, one may conclude that history is an inquiry into man’s past, sparked off by curiosity. This inquiry may be carried out through many means, amongst them, written history, oral history and superstition. In fact, the Oxford Dictionary defines history as “continuous methodical record of public events”. Yet these alone will not provide us with a chronologically clear picture of our past that we all yearn for, as writing only came about in the 8th century BC, oral history is rare and flaky due to bias, and the word superstition speaks for itself. Surely our curiosity wills us further back in time than that? This is where prehistory comes in, that is, the time in our past before writing came about, which we would not even be aware of had archaeology not existed.

Although archaeology started out as a mere ‘hobby’ (an expensive one too), a “scramble for curiosities” (Bahn, 1999), taken up by the eccentric and the rich – it has resulted in filling in the blank and blurry phases of our history. After all, history is written on a basis of what we discover. Archaeology has now become the groundwork of our history both literally and metaphorically!

Unfortunately the fact that history could be pieced together from remains left behind in this earth only became realised in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it was then that “formal” investigation into the past began (Bahn, 2000). Before then many treasures could have been discarded lost or stolen. Thanks to archaeological excavations we are now able to understand our origins.

The link between archaeology and history can also be shown linguistically with the term ‘historical archaeology’, which is a branch of archaeology and history based on the text aided study of archaeological questions. Seeking answers to questions put forward by archaeology in written history.

Archaeology and history work hand in hand in order to provide the study of man’s past from the “very first artifact all the way to yesterday’s garbage” (Bahn, 1999). Therefore whilst archaeology backs up history by providing physical proof, history helps archaeologists ‘place’ their artifacts within the chronological jigsaw puzzle of our past.

Although not seemingly obvious, the alliance of archaeology and anthropology also looks to the same goals as that of archaeology and history. Anthropology is defined as the examination of culture – how humanity and culture developed together and changed over time and space and the inquiry into the essence of diversity. It is sub-divided into three sections: biological, cultural and archaeological anthropology. Although archaeology is only mentioned in one of the subsections it is actually linked with all three of these sections.

Biological anthropology refers to the study of evolution, more specifically, the study of human bones – what is left of the physical features of our ancestors. It is obvious that without the excavation of the bones from the earth by archaeologists, this area of study would not even exist, resulting in one link between archaeology and anthropology.

The other two sub-sections, cultural and archaeological, are both referring to the study of human culture and society however, the latter being the former’s past tense. This can be said because, cultural anthropology involves living with and observing surviving cultures of today (called ethnographic studies), and archaeological anthropology involves using those ethnographic studies to get insight on how ancient civilizations lived and worked when trying to interpret objects excavated.

In other words archaeologists must understand the fundamental of society and culture and its control over us in order to understand archaeological artifacts. After all, even such an abstract thing as culture may be left behind. Egyptian archaeologist Zaki Y. Saad recalled his childhood games and was amazed to discover scenes of small boys playing the same games inscribed in hieroglyphs on a monument dating 2500 BC. (Garden, 1980)

The link between archaeology and anthropology is so deeply intertwined that it becomes a vicious circle where excavated artifacts provide archaeologists with hints and clues to the existence of cultures in the past (archaeology assisting anthropology)

Whilst archaeologists can only interpret these artifacts by ethnographic studies on today’s cultures (anthropology assisting archaeology).

One may therefore conclude that archaeology and anthropology work hand in hand to better each other. This has resulted in such terms as: ethnoarchaeology and ethnographic analogy. The latter began in the 19th century where living tribes at the time were seen as “living fossils”, trapped in the primitive lifestyle, representative of prehistoric peoples. Studying these tribes (using ethnographic studies) would lead to forming assumptions against which archaeological finds and hypotheses could be tested.

Ethnoarchaeology is similar in the sense that it came about in the 1970s when ethnographic studies of the time were not providing archaeologists with the specific details they needed to reconstruct a particular civilization; thus resulting in them setting off on their own specialized expeditions. They would observe what kind of archaeological data different types of human cultural behavior would provide.

An example of this type of this in action could be taken from the Inuit people who were once rudely looked upon as “primitive people” but are now recognised as an example of the “living fossils” previously mentioned. Thus, through ethnoarchaeology, this tribe proved to be a rich source for observations, which helped to form archaeological hypotheses and reconstructions. (Bahn, 1999)

Being a fan of the CSI television series, I realised that the relationship between archaeology and anthropology may be compared to a crime scene investigation where archaeology provides us with the cold hard facts (the murder scene), brought to life by technology; whilst anthropology provides us with empathy, leading to the interpretations of these facts (possible suspects and scenarios, murder weapons and motives). By putting these two together, the puzzle is pieced together too and the archaeologist/criminalist finally gets the full picture (case solved). After all, “the archaeologist dreams only of the moment when he (or she) can re-create the picture, reassemble the pieces to bring it back to life.” Christian Nugue (Blot, 1996)

On a concluding note, there is one word which brigs all three areas of study, solely in its definition. Historic ethnography brings all these fields together as it is defined as incorporating archaeology, oral history, written sources and ethnography to develop a rich cultural reconstruction of a location. In this way, blank or fuzzy areas in the past are being filled in and lost worlds are “being given histories” (Bahn, 2000), being given identities, in this ever growing world of change.


Bahn, Paul G. ed.

2000 The Atlas of World Archaeology, Oxfordshire; Andromeda Oxford Ltd.

Bahn, Paul G.

1999 The Cambridge Illustrated History of Archaeology, Cambridge; Cambridge University Press

Blot, Jean-Yves

1996 Underwater Archaeology, tr. Alexandra Campbell, New York; Harry N. Abrams Inc. (first published in French 1995)

Garden, Glen

1980 Life B.C., London; Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.

Renfrew, Colin; Bahn, Paul

2004 Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice, 4th edn., London; Thames and Hudson Ltd.

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