More than Just Bullwhips and Fedoras: The Diverse World of Specialisms in Archaeology
It may surprise you, but one of the first questions I get asked as an archaeologist is still, “So is it as exciting as Indiana Jones?”
(The second question is usually, “so what kind of dinosaurs have you found?”)
Popular culture would have you believe that all archaeologists are adventure-seeking, tomb-raiding, fedora-wearing, bullwhip-wielding world travellers that spend most of their time knee deep in sandy Egyptian pyramids. In reality, most archaeologists can be found trowelling in a field, mixing chemicals in a lab, or in my case, half asleep over a pile of sheep bones at 10pm.
Within archaeology are many different types of subfields or specialisms – archaeologists may choose to specialise by region (British archaeology, North American archaeology), time period (prehistoric archaeology, classical archaeology), or by specific disciplines. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be focusing on the latter.
Most archaeologists will probably identify their speciality by discipline. For example, I’m a zooarchaeologist – this means I specifically work with animal remains in the archaeological record. Osteoarchaeologists, on the other hand, focus on human remains. Additionally, paleoentomologists study insects and arthropods in archaeology.
Paleoentomology and zooarchaeology may also be considered part of environmental archaeology, which focuses on analysis and sometimes recreation of past environments. Other specialisms in this broader discipline include landscape archaeology (study of past landscapes and how they were utilized) and archaeobotany (study of archaeological plants).
Some specialisms are based on the way archaeology is used for analysis and interpretation – for example, experimental archaeologists may attempt to recreate methods of tool production (such as flint knapping) to better understand how it was used in the past. Marine archaeologists often utilize scuba diving to excavate sites that are now underwater due to the changes in modern coastlines.
More recently, advances in archaeological sciences have led to the specialisation in specific methodologies – this includes lab techniques such as radio carbon dating (used for dating organic material) and stable isotope analysis (uses isotopes from elements like carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen to investigate things like diet).
As long as technology and theory continue to evolve over time, so too will more subfields be developed into their own disciplines of research. A recent example of this is “archaeogaming” – archaeologists in this field use archaeological frameworks and theories to examine the virtual worlds of video games. We have certainly moved a long way from Indiana Jones…who knows what kind of research will be developed next? After all, archaeology only needs a past record to thrive – and the world doesn’t seem to be running out of that.
This article only covers a very small portion of the many subfields in archaeology. For further information, Current Archaeology has a section dedicated to specialisms in archaeology here.