Archaeological science

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For the journal, see Archaeometry (journal).

Archaeological science, also known as archaeometry, consists of the application of scientific techniques to the analysis of archaeological materials. Archaeometry is now considered its own scientific field. The UK's Natural and Environmental Research Council provides funding for archaeometry separate from the funding provided for archaeology.[1] Archaeological science involves dating and studying ancient materials. It is related to methodologies of archaeology.

Types of archaeological science[edit]

Archaeological science can be divided into the following areas:[2]

  • physical and chemical dating methods which provide archaeologists with absolute and relative chronologies
  • artifact studies
  • environmental approaches which provide information on past landscapes, climates, flora, and fauna; as well as the diet, nutrition, health, and pathology of people
  • mathematical methods for data treatment (also encompassing the role of computers in handling, analyzing, and modeling the vast sources of data)
  • remote-sensing and geophysical-survey applications comprising a battery of non-destructive techniques for the location and characterization of buried features at the regional, micro-regional, and intra-site levels
  • conservation sciences, involving the study of decay processes and the development of new methods of conservation

Techniques such as lithic analysis, archaeometallurgy, paleoethnobotany, palynology and zooarchaeology also form sub-disciplines of archaeological science.

Influence of archaeometry[edit]

Archaeometry has greatly influenced modern archaeology. Archaeologists can obtain significant additional data and information using these techniques, and archaeometry has the potential to alter the understanding of the past. The so-called "Second radiocarbon revolution" provides a good example of such alteration: it significantly re-dated European prehistory in the 1960s (the first radiocarbon revolution involved the original introduction of the method to archaeology from 1949). Some scholars are pressing all graduate programs in archaeology to include a survey course in archaeometry.

Dating techniques[edit]

Archaeological science has particular value when it can provide absolute dates for archaeological strata and artifacts. Some of the most important dating techniques include:

  • radiocarbon dating — especially for dating organic materials
  • dendrochronology — for dating trees; also very important for calibrating radiocarbon dates
  • thermoluminescence dating — for dating inorganic material (including ceramics)
  • optically stimulated luminescence (OSL)/optical dating — for absolutely dating and relatively profiling buried land-surfaces in vertical and horizontal stratigraphic sections, most often by measuring photons discharged from grains of quartz within sedimentary bodies (although this technique can also measure feldspars, complications caused by internally induced dose-rates often favor the use of quartz-based analyzes in archaeological applications)
  • electron spin resonance, as used (for example) in dating teeth
  • potassium-argon dating — for dating (for example) fossilized hominid remains by association with volcanic sediments (the fossils themselves are not directly dated)

Artifact studies[edit]

Another important subdiscipline of archaeometry is the study of artifacts. Archaeometrists have used a variety of methods to analyze artifacts, either to determine more about their composition, or to determine their provenance. These techniques include:

Lead, strontium and oxygen isotope analysis can also test human remains to estimate the diets and even the birthplaces of a study's subjects.

Provenance analysis has the potential to determine the original source of the materials used, for example, to make a particular artifact. This can show how far the artifact has traveled and can indicate the existence of systems of exchange.[3]

Locating Archaeological Sites[edit]

Archaeometry is also very helpful in finding potential dig sites. The use of remote sensing has enabled archaeologists to identify many more archaeological sites than they could have otherwise. The use of aerial photography remains the most widespread remote-sensing technique, but archaeologists have supplemented it with the use of satellite imagery, especially with the declassification of images from military satellites. Ground-based geophysical surveys often help to identify and map archaeological features within identified sites.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Killick, D; Young, SMM (1997). Archaeology and Archaeometry: From Casual Dating to a Meaningful Relationship?. Antiquity. 
  2. ^ Tite, M.S. (1991) Archaeological Science - past achievements and future prospects. Archaeometry 31 139-151.
  3. ^ Lambert, JB (1997). Traces of the Past: Unraveling the Secrets of Archaeology Through Chemistry. Addison-Wesley. 
  4. ^ Aitken, MJ (1961). Physics and Archaeology. Interscience Publishers.