History lovers aren't limited to learning more about the past through genealogy groups or regional historical societies that focus on local community history. They also have access to information from archaeological research. Archaeology involves the study of humans and their activities throughout all history or contemporary history. Unlike movies that portray archaeologists as treasure hunters and adventurers, archaeologists are scientists, researchers and history enthusiasts who explore the past. Students of archaeology and professional archaeologists find and analyze the bones and materials left behind by humans at prehistoric, historic and recently inhabited sites. Although they can experience sudden surprise discoveries, they usually achieve results via meticulous work and careful analysis over long periods of time. Some people have difficulty imagining what working in this field entails. The following guide provides a basic understanding of archaeology and offers tips about finding more information and participating in this exciting and interesting area of study.
Some confusion occurs when people first start learning about archaeology because of its relation to anthropology. Anthropology focuses primarily on the study of the development of human cultures and societies. In the United States, archaeology is considered a subfield of anthropology along with biological anthropology, cultural anthropology and linguistic anthropology. In other areas of the world, archaeology is considered a separate equal field to anthropology with the former dedicated to the study of humans who can't be directly observed and the latter to the study of current societies. That said, archaeologists often study current living peoples to better understand physical evidence left behind by past humans and anthropologists often use historical data to better understand humanity as a whole and current cultures. Archaeologists rely on a wide range of tools to "dig up the past," including trowels, shovels, buckets, wheelbarrows and heavy excavators. Since they can accidentally destroy physical evidence easily during a dig, they also use delicate brushes, dental-style picks and sieves. To find and explore sites before digging or prevent the need to dig at all, archaeologists also use ground penetrating radar and global positioning equipment.
Sometimes people experience confusion about the differences between archaeology and paleontology. The latter is the study of life that existed before modern human activities started to have an increased impact on geology and life on Earth roughly 10,000 to 11,700 years ago after the last glacial retreat. Paleontology focuses on the geologic time before the Holocene Epoch or "wholly recent" warm period between ice ages since the last great ice age during the Pleistocene or "most recent" epoch. The current time is also commonly known as the Anthropocene Epoch or Age of Humans. Unlike archaeology, which focuses on all human activities, paleontology focuses on every type of life, including other animals and plants. For example, a student of paleontology or professional paleontologist might study dinosaur bones or an ammonite fossil. Subsets of this field include paleobotany (the study of fossilized plants), micropaleontology (the study of microscopic fossils) and paleoecology (the study of relationships between ancient plants, animals and their environments). A sub-field of paleontology devoted entirely to prehistoric- and proto-human study and related fossils also exists. It's known as human paleontology or paleoanthropology. Researchers in this field explore many areas, including prehistoric- and proto-human lineages, migration patterns and cultures.
How to Get Started
Many people incorrectly believe that the only way they can learn more about archaeology or other related areas like anthropology and human paleontology is to take paid academic courses at a university. The fact is that history lovers don't need to earn college credits to acquire a strong education or learn about recent and upcoming archaeological digs and opportunities to play an active role in exploring the past at dig sites and museums. Plenty of free related courses offered by universities and non-profit organizations can be found online with a simple search using keywords "archaeology," "free" and "classes" or "courses." A wide range of related offline and online books and articles are also available. The key to gaining the most valuable information is by focusing on content released by the media, publishers, libraries, universities and museums. Social sharing sites that focus on photos and videos or links to articles are another resource. To gain direct knowledge and hands-on experience through fieldwork, people who have an interest in this area usually join local and national history and archaeology groups or volunteer in related programs offered by universities, museums and the National Park Service. Lastly, it's important to note that if someone has an interest in paleontology without the human focus, they can still use all of these resources to get started, explore, learn and make discoveries.