A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Archaeology is the study of people, of past human societies. For many, this simple and obvious fact makes the subject a humanity or social science and distinguishes it sharply from hard sciences such as physics or chemistry. Yet modern archaeology uses a wide range of scientific aids, and a great deal of what we discover about the past comes directly from the application of technology. Here as much as anywhere, the last 50 years have seen enormous changes. Archaeology has benefited from the growing computerization of society; advances in nuclear physics, like electron microscopes and particle accelerators; and the development of laser technology used in sophisticated and highly accurate surveying equipment. Meanwhile, DNA analysis is opening up possibilities for studying relationships among people buried in ancient cemeteries, detecting the arrival of immigrant groups, and more. This, in turn, links directly with ideas of ethnicity and identity, among the hottest topics in politics today. It is all part of the great transformation of archaeology from an amateur pursuit with relatively few salaried full-timers to a highly professional discipline employing thousands of university-trained specialists. Men and women in white coats, toiling away in their laboratories, have become as important as rugged fieldworkers slogging away under the hot sun.
The introduction of new techniques of many and varied kinds is perhaps archaeology's greatest success of the past 50 years. The discipline remains at heart a humanity or social science, but the new techniques allow archaeologists to ask new questions and to get new answers to old ones, squeezing ever more information out of a dwindling number of sites, as growing numbers of them are lost to development, looting, and natural processes such as erosion. But this technology doesn't come cheap. As archaeology becomes more and more sophisticated and better tooled, it also becomes more expensive, and as the quest for adequate funding becomes more intense, so does the need to convince the world at large that it is worth the cost.
Chris Scarre is Deputy Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge and editor of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal. A specialist in French prehistory, he has written widely on archaeology and ancient history.