Where Archaeology Meets Anthropology: Understanding the Differences, Similarities, and Intersectionality of Two Disciplines

“Archaeology is anthropology, or it is nothing.” – Gordon Willey and Phillip Phillips

What is anthropology? This question repeatedly comes up for archaeologists and anthropologists alike, and it never gets any easier to explain. In my experience as a student who studies both archaeology and sociocultural anthropology, people are often unsure of what exactly my field of study entails, and interpretations are often colored by pop cultural portrayals ranging from Tomb Raider to the TV series Bones.

But when I tell people that I study archaeology and anthropology, the most frequent response that I receive is “so you study bones?” Not exactly. In actuality, I study humanity; bones and artifacts are merely a means to an end to tell me something about who left them behind. Understanding the complex world of archaeology requires a foundation of ethical anthropology, and it has for more to do with grasping the depth of the human experience than with unearthing objects themselves.

Definition of Anthropology

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Anthropology is the study of humankind though various sub-fields with intersecting relationships.

 Defining anthropology is in and of itself an intellectual endeavor. I have personally heard debates over the abstract nature of the concept of things like culture and identity. Anthropology is also diverse, with its sub-fields–archaeology, sociocultural, medical, biological, and linguistic—covering both the social and hard sciences.

Simply put, anthropology is the study of the holistic human experience. Archaeology is not about finding buried treasure, linguistics is not about learning how to speak a new language, and sociocultural anthropology is about far more than observing cultural differences. These sub-fields, all classified under the umbrella word of anthropology, really show what it means to be a human being, and how we express our humanity through things like language, religion, artifacts, and cultural practices.

Archaeology without Anthropology

Archaeology is not the study of artifacts; archaeology is the study of humankind’s past as determined by material remains such as stone tools, pottery, and other items that people used in the past. Prior to archaeology becoming an anthropological discipline, its earliest roots were found in antiquarianism—or grave robbing. Without the anthropological context, archaeology runs a high risk of taking a turn for the unethical.

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Going beyond digging in the dirt: Archaeology is more about people than it is about artifacts alone.

The Intersection Between Anthropology and Archaeology

To conduct archaeological research in a principled way, there must be an relationship between the methodological practices of archaeology and the ethos of anthropology. As a student of both archaeology and sociocultural anthropology, one of the first things that I learned was how to think about an artifact in terms of the people who made it and what kind of significance it may hold for people today, especially those with ancestral ties to the artifact. In other words, I learned how to see an artifact as being more than an object.

In sociocultural anthropology, or the study of living people and cultures, there is an entirely different connotation to the word ‘object’ that carries a similar principle in archaeology. Sociocultural anthropologists, like myself, are constantly encouraged not to view the people they study as ‘objects,’ or nothing more than a material being whose body and culture is reduced to a proverbial sponge, made to soak up my own ideas and romantic fetishes.

The same holds true for artifacts. It is problematic to think of an artifact as a mere object meant for personal gain. When I see the remains of a house structure, I remember that someone called that place home. When I see pottery, I think of the hands that made it. When I see an artifact, I think of the stories that give it significance. I attempt to look beyond the object itself and into the anthropology that encompasses it. I move beyond—remove myself—from the limits of the word ‘object.’

This applied critical thinking is a crucial component to understanding why anthropology is an important aspect of archaeology that cannot be divorced. Through understanding that archaeology is really about people, and not artifacts alone, academics and private collectors alike can experience a more meaningful context behind the remnants of the past left to be discovered.

Until next time,

Chelsy

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