Nicole’s Definition of Archaeology

So, here is how this blog came about. My friend, Karen Stevens and I share the sentiment that one of the most important things archaeologists should do is to share our passion and knowledge with the public. To learn better how to do this, we recently attended a Public Archaeology Symposium at Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Indiana University, Bloomington. The keynote speaker was Dr. Anne Pyburn. When asked to tell us what we could do better as archaeologists to engage the public, she gave us some ideas. She pointed out that people might find the time travel aspect of archaeology pretty interesting. Since I wrote a piece touching on time travel last year , I decided to focus on another idea we got from Dr. Pyburn, telling it like it is without all the jargon. This year, I will focus on straight talk.


Drs. April Sievert and Anne Pyburn, Indiana University


On the drive home, Karen and I had a long discussion about what we learned during our trip to Indiana. The resulting notion was to use this year’s Kentucky Archaeology Month blog to provide some basic definitions for words commonly used in archaeology. Starting with, “archaeology.”


Karen Stevens, University of Kentucky and Dr. Henry, Professional Archaeologist (#DrHenryDHPA)

So, here is how “archaeology” is defined in some popular dictionaries:


Merriam-Webster Dictionary – Archaeology

the scientific study of material remains (such as tools, pottery, jewelry, stone walls, and monuments) of past human life and activities

remains of the culture of a people


Cambridge Dictionary – Archaeology

the study of ancient cultures through examination of their buildings, tools, and other objects


After reading these definitions of archaeology, I have to say, these just really do not provide an adequate definition. Neither definition mentions the crucial aspects of context or preservation. Let’s build on the archaeology definition by looking at definitions of “context” and “preservation.”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary – Context

the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs


Cambridge Dictionary – Context

the influences and events related to a particular event or situation

Of these two “context” definitions, I prefer Merriam-Webster’s for use in the archaeology perspective. “Interrelated conditions” sums up what context means to archaeology quite nicely. Archaeologists do study material remains (artifacts), but we study them within context. That is to say, we often can get as much information from where an artifact is found and what it is found with, as from the artifact itself. “The more information we have about the relationships between things in an archaeological site, the more we can say about them,” (Sutton and Arkush 1996)

All professional archaeologists are also preservationists. So, let’s look at that definition in the general dictionaries.


Merriam-Webster Dictionary – Preservation

the act, process, or result of preserving something

the activity or process of keeping something valued alive, intact, or free from damage or decay


Cambridge Dictionary – Preservation

the act of keeping something as it is, esp. in order to prevent it from decaying or to protect it from being damaged or destroyed


Well, now here is a conundrum. When archaeologists dig at sites, they are destroying the context of what they are studying. From the first artifact removed, or even the first turn of dirt, the context of an archaeological site is altered forever. There is no way to get that context back. So, how can archaeologists be preservationists???

First, professional archaeologists tend to do as much as possible NOT to dig in known archaeological sites.

Second, if the site is in danger of being destroyed by construction, looting, or natural causes, archaeologists go out to dig and document, Document, DOCUMENT.

I have heard from members of the public who are very frustrated with archaeologists. Some people believe that the attention archaeologists give to adequately documenting and preserving information about the context of artifacts, is done to hide things from people. Actually, the truth is the complete opposite. We work meticulously to record information and properly curate artifacts in order to preserve as much information as possible from an archaeological site. The artifacts, along with documentation on context, are documented and preserved for everyone who may be interested in the information in the future.


Nicole.jpgNicole Konkol, Kentucky Heritage Council

So, what is Nicole’s definition of archaeology?

Archaeology – the study of people who lived before us through documentation of artifacts within context with the goal of preservation of information for the future.


Stay tuned to 30 Days of Kentucky Archaeology for tomorrow’s blog on Why Archaeology is Important


Sincere thanks to folks at the Glenn Black Lab and the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology in Indiana.


Reference cited

1996  Sutton, Mark Q. and Brooke S. Arkush, Archaeological Laboratory Methods. Dubuque, Iowa.

By: Nicole Konkol, Archaeologist