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Methodology of Archeology

Relationship to History



Laboratory Analysis

Dating Methods



Archeologists employ a number of different methods. They broadly include research, fieldwork, laboratory analysis, and dating methods. However understanding these methods requires not only understanding the relationship of Archeology to History but the problems with the methodology and their assumptions. The problems and assumptions of the methodology being used in Archeology can and do affect results. This is one reason why understanding the methodology being used in Archeology is important. Understanding the methodology that is being used in Archeology makes it possible to analysize individual claims rather than just assuming they are accurate.

Relationship to History

Archeology is an historical science but not the same as history. Archeology and history are two different disciplines that use different types of evidence to interpret the past. Archeologists use artifacts and historians use documents. Both approaches are equally valid but each has advantages and disadvantages.

Relating artifacts to people's can be difficult and most artifacts can be interpreted in different ways. Documents can not always be taken at face value because accounts can be exaggerations, misrepresentations and even out and out lies such as History revisionism. Studying both documents and artifacts is often useful, but interpreting artifacts only through written evidence is considered bad practice. Discounting an historical document based on an apparent disagreement with archeological evidence is also bad practice because such disagreement could result from an erroneous interpretation of one or the other.


Contrary to what you see in movies and video games archeologist do not spend their time dodging traps in ancient temples and tombs looking for artifacts. In reality before doing field work they spend a lot of time doing research about a site and the culture being studied.

Also field work seldom involves dodging traps in ancient temples and tombs but usually involves excavating at the site being investigate. Since excavating at a site is some what destructive preliminary research helps an archeologist decide where to dig and even if digging is needed since avoiding actually digging at a site preserves it in intact for future work.


Despite what is seen in movies and video games fieldwork usually does not involve archeologists dodging traps in ancient temples and tombs. Nor do archeologists just go about digging at a site with shoves or backhoes though they do some times use such tools depending on how deep they go. There are several ways archeologists do fieldwork some are non-invasive, other are mildly invasive, while others are heavily invasive.

 Some non-invasive methods include aerial photography, ground-penetrating radar, contour survey, physical survey, and field walking. Aerial photography looks for patterns on the surface that indicate possible buried ruins and other artifacts. Ground-penetrating radar is use to find possible buried artifacts by looking at radio wave patterns created by changes in materials and density. A contour survey measures height lines to locate buried structures and earthworks. A physical survey locates standing buildings and earthworks detectable from the surface. Field walking involves looking over a site to locate artifacts for the purpose of collecting and plotting their positions to study distribution patterns.

Excavation is usually proceeded by surveying and marking off a grid on the ground so as to be able to record where holes are made. While digging archeologists keep careful records of where artifacts are found and when dealing with layers where artifacts are they do the work carefully so as not to destroy artifacts. This can involve shifting dirt through screens to find small artifacts. Excavations are some times done by small round holes and other time by larger square well marked holes.
The process of digging often involves not just looking for artifacts but actual stratigraphic layers that are not only used to help date a site but can indicate things such as fires and other events. Fieldwork is at the heart of archeology but it is more than digging holes and exploring ruins.

Laboratory Analysis

Laboratory analysis begins with cleaning artifacts, a process that needs to be done carefully because many artifacts are fragile. Next it is labeled with information about where it was found, including the level and location at the site. They are then grouped in to groups of similar artifacts. It includes comparing styles of artifacts for dating purposes. It further includes chemical and isotopic analysis to tell what the artifact is made of a well as various dating methods.

Dating Methods

Radiocarbon dating

Radiocarbon dating uses the decay of Carbon 14 to date organic samples. Carbon 14 has a half-life of 5730 years limiting it's potential dating to at most 100,000 years. Any organic sample a million years or older would have no Carbon 14, yet Carbon 14 had been found in coal, oil and even diamonds.


Dendrochronology, uses tree rings to date wooden samples. It is most accurate when dating living or recently dead trees. Theoretically tree rings can be matched to those of living trees projecting back even further However the matching of tree rings can be some what subjective. Not only can trees near each other have differences in their ring thickness but the ring thickness can even vary within the same tree.

Thermoluminescence dating

Thermoluminescence dating is used to date crystalline material like pottery. It uses a weak light signal produced by trapped electrons resulting from ionizing radiation such that it is proportional to the does of radiation.

Age = total dose / dose per year

Thermoluminescence dating requires a zeroing out event such as heating above 500c which is why it is useful for dating pottery In some cases Thermoluminescence dating can be as accurate as being with in 7-10% but in other cases it can be as high as 40%. In any case it requires making assumptions about the dose rate such that any unaccounted for change in the dose rate will affect he accuracy of the results.

Archaeomagnetic dating

Archaeomagnetic dating uses a comparison of the magnetic orientation of iron particles with past locations of the Earth's magnetic poles to date a sample that has been heated to over 650 degrees Celsius. To date a sample by this method required knowing where the Earth's magnetic poles were in the past this means that it is not an independent dating method but that it must be calibrated by other methods. Archaeomagnetic dating also requires that the sample not have been disturbed since the sample was heated because the physical orientation is critical. So archaeomagnetic dating can only be accurate when the sample has not moved since being heated and a date can be only determined for the orientation of the Earth's field by samples of know dates that have also not moved since being heated.


Rehydroxylation dates ceramics by the amount of water absorbed by the pottery since it was fired. When ceramics are fired the heat drives out the water and reheating it removes water absorbed since it was fired. The rate at which it absorbs water can measured so as to calculate how long it took to absorb the water. The main problem with this method is that it requires knowing the average temperature of the ceramics, if that estimate is wrong so is the resulting date.

Seriation dating

Seriation dating is the process of dating artifacts based on how they change over time. The idea is that different sites can be seen as dating from about the same time based on similarities in the styles of artifacts. This method provides only a method of relative dating and needs a reliable chronology to get an absolute date. The obvious difficulty here is that if you try to apply an absolute date to seriation dating by way of an erroneous chronology, the resulting age will be wrong. Seriation dating seems to ignore the fact that pottery from earlier periods could be found at a younger site, and that potters or other artists could reproduce earlier styles. In both cases unless such artifacts are surrounded by contemporary artifacts a site could be miss-dated.


Stratigraphy dates artifact based on the layers they are found in. This system of relative dating is highly dependent on other methods of dating to get an absolute date. It assumes the artifacts in lower layers are older than those in higher layers. While some times artifacts in lower layers are older than those in higher layers this is not always the case. In flowing water several layers form as the same time such that down stream artifacts in lower layers are younger than up steam artifacts in higher layers. This means that in some cases such relative dates are erroneous.


The methodology of Archeology is clearly not without its problems. One problem they all face is the fact that the further in time you look the less evidence has been preserved. This is a natural part not only of normal decay processes, but of the accidental and even deliberate destruction of artifacts and archeological sites. Not only that but in all cases there are simply variable that cannot always be accounted for. Further more all of archeology's methods rely on other theories to produce results. While this theoretical interdependency is not always a problem, it means that the accuracy of results are dependent on the accuracy of the other theories.


The methodology of Archeology is important to the accuracy of results. Being an historical science Archeology and it's methodology are highly influenced by philosophical assumptions. The methodology of Archeology also has to deal with the fact that time destroys evidence such that the further back you look the less evidence survives and the more it is influenced by philosophical assumptions. Most of the methods used by Archeology have flaws that can harm the accuracy of the results. In evaluating claims made by archeologists it is necessary to understand the methodology and assumptions used. Understanding the methodology and assumptions used by archeologists helps one to avoid accepting claims made by an archeologist on blind faith.

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