Choosing a field: specialisms in archaeology

The field of archaeology covers the full extent of human existence, through time and across the world. Small wonder it has spawned so many sub-disciplines, theoretical and practical. We look at some of the choices.

This article was originally published in Current Archaeology issue 235 in 2009.

There is more to archaeology than scraping away with a trowel or brushing dust from ancient hieroglyphs. The word ‘archaeology’ (derived from the Greek archaiologia) means the study of ancient people through their material remains, or, as Paul Bahn succinctly puts it in his book Archaeology, A Very Short Introduction: ‘nosing around in dead people’s left-overs and trying to guess how they lived their lives’. Since its inception as a newly-named discipline in the late 19th century, archaeological methods have developed, evolved and diversified.

The increasing sophistication of scientific techniques in the field and in the laboratory means archaeologists are not only discovering more evidence, but are able to interpret it with greater confidence. Yet, it is not all lab coats and flickering computers: archaeologists can still be found up to their knees in mud, or ploughing through ancient texts and excavation data.

For the student thinking about studying archaeology, this may all appear daunting: which direction should they take? Indeed, are they even aware of what is available to study, let alone what would most appeal? Universities usually offer a general introduction to archaeology for undergraduates, covering a broad range of topics that includes general theory and practice, and an overview of human history. The second and third years will be the time to investigate areas of interest in more detail, and to consider specialising in a particular discipline. For those wishing to go into field archaeology or pursue a career in commercial archaeology usually no further degree is required; rather, these students should focus on getting as much field experience as possible, through university or volunteer excavations. Graduates who want to concentrate on a chosen speciality can invariably find a suitable post-graduate degree course.

The following pages provide a snapshot guide to some of the many sub-disciplines.


There are many areas of the world and periods in the story of the human race to which archaeologists can devote themselves through research and excavation. From Roman coins to Egyptian hieroglyphs, from the Maya pyramids to the megaliths of Stonehenge, there is something to intrigue, obsess and satisfy everyone with imagination, dedication and enthusiasm for research. This is, perhaps, one of the more traditional pathways in archaeology, and one which will appeal to a student who has a clear idea of a specific topic that interests them.

Normally, pursuing research will lead to an MA and PhD. A likely career path will be to stay in academia, but other opportunities include becoming a museum curator or a consultant in either the private or public sectors. A PhD is usually a pre-requisite for an academic career as a university researcher or lecturer and it is common to hold a series of short-term postdoctoral positions before securing a permanent tenure.

Archaeological Science

Scientific investigative techniques are constantly changing, improving and significantly enhancing our archaeological knowledge. Archaeological science, also known as Archaeometry, comprises many further sub-divisions which often overlap. Broadly, it involves the dating and the detailed scientific analysis of artefacts.

Dating techniques include: Thermoluminescence (for inorganic material), Radiocarbon dating (for organic material), the use of Bayesian statistics (CA 209), and Dendrochronology (using tree-rings).

Artefact and material analysis includes lithic analysis (stone tools), archaeometallurgy, geophysical survey and methods employed in forensic, environmental and conservation archaeology (see below).

Forensic archaeology and Osteoarchaeology

A relative newcomer to the world of archaeology, forensic techniques have been responsible for startling revelations – such as that Napoleon Bonaparte suffered arsenic poisoning, with significant traces of the toxin found in his hair – and is increasingly being employed to solve modern criminal investigations.

Osteoarchaeology is the detailed study of human bones, determining not only how, when and why a subject died, but also how they lived and what diseases or injuries they suffered – as with Oxford Archaeology’s project at Greenwich Naval Cemetery earlier this year (see CA 227).

Zooarchaeology concentrates on animal remains found within an archaeological context.

Environmental Archaeology

Environmental archaeology is the study of the long-term relationship between humans and their environments. It has emerged as a formal sub-discipline within the last 30 years, and become firmly established as an essential component to most excavation projects. The subject is, itself, broken down into further specialisms, including:

Archaeobotany (also known as paleoethnobotany) is the study of plant remains, providing information on dietary habits, on the emergence of agriculture in prehistoric societies, and in determining the season in which a burial or other activity took place. Archaeobotany frequently overlaps with forensic archaeology and has been used in modern criminal investigations.

Landscape archaeology looks at the material traces of past peoples, with regard to how they interacted with their natural environment. The key feature that makes landscape archaeology different from site-based approaches is that areas of investigation are not limited to the boundaries of an excavation, but can instead stretch for many miles. Excavation is usually impractical for such a big area, so landscape archaeologists look at visible features such as: earthworks, cropmarks, soilmarks, standing buildings and other evidence of human activity. Survey of these sorts of features across large areas can produce a new perspective on the archaeological record.

Conservation in Archaeology

Conservators work on archaeological finds and structures, using a knowledge of the cultural background of the subject matter as well as scientific methods to document, examine, analyse and preserve the material. It is often painstaking but extremely rewarding work, and requires an understanding of the environmental conditions in which the archaeological material has been preserved and in which it will be kept, so as to manage those conditions in the future. Conservators have three main areas of responsibility:

• on-site conservation: preserving the materials that form the basis of our knowledge about past cultures, when they are newly excavated and at their most vulnerable.

• educational outreach: bringing together the perspectives and priorities of both conservators and archaeologists, to improve our practices of excavation, curation and study.

• collaborative and multi-disciplinary research on the materials of the past.

A degree in Archaeological Conservation can lead to a position in commercial archaeology, with a university department or at a museum, many of which run robust conservation institutes and programmes.


Ethnoarchaeology is the study of past societies, focusing on material remains, rather than culture. Sometimes known as anthropological archaeology, it can provide insight into how people in the past may have lived, especially with regard to their social structures and religious beliefs. By looking at the way in which different social groups live and behave today, archaeologists can better interpret the significance of materials left behind by previous societies and infer how they were used, and why.

Experimental archaeology

In experimental archaeology, archaeological theories are put to the test in a practical way by recreating lost structures or artefacts using the same techniques as would have been employed for the originals. The Iron Age farm at Butser (CA 188) and the Ferriby Bronze Age boat (CA 191) are two examples.

Industrial archaeology

The archaeology of the industrialised world is gaining popularity (see Preserving Britain’s Industrial Glories, CA 216)

Although its roots can been seen as far back as the 16th century, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries was a time of great change in this country and around the world. Its architecture, the emergent technology and the physical remains of the industrial process, are proving it to be a fascinating area of study in its own right.

Maritime and Coastal Archaeology

The dramatic emergence of the Mary Rose from the bottom of the sea off Portsmouth in 1982 inspired many an archaeologist to enroll in diving lessons (see CA 218). However, maritime archaeologists also study submerged cultural environments and coastal settlements, as well as ships, ports and harbours, to set them within the relevant socio-political context.

Despite potentially hazardous working conditions, the same rigorous survey and recording techniques are expected as for any land excavation. Artefacts and structures are often well preserved due to water-logging and the subsequent lack of oxygen, which inhibits the bacteria that causes deterioration; but specialist handling is required during the recovery and conserving process.

Battlefield Archaeology

Initially, this area came under the auspices of general field archaeology, but battlefield experts have rapidly developed it into a specialist subject which, due to its very nature, is often a sensitive one, especially – especially when dealing with World War I and II sites, which still affect people living today. Because battles invariably took place over a short period of time – sometimes a matter of only hours – and because contemporary looters tended to scavenge objects from the field, there is often little artefact evidence to be collected, especially from conflicts that took place centuries ago. Battlefield archaeologists, therefore, rely heavily on topographical study, as well as excavation, to understand the course of events before, during and after a battle.

Modern Conflict Archaeology is profiled in this issue. Bristol University is launching the first-ever degree programme (UPDATE: no longer running) in this brand new discipline, which specifically concentrates on fields of battle around the world solely from the 20th century onwards. It looks at all elements of modern conflict: from the militarised landscape, the sophisticated technology of modern warfare, the dead and their personal items, to artworks taken from or made in the battlefield.

Cognitive Archaeology

This specialism looks at ideologies and belief systems of previous civilisations through their religious structures, art and practices and covers a broad spectrum of sub-disciplines.

Archaeoastronomy comes under this heading. Since time immemorial, humans have looked to the skies. Archaeoastronomy concentrates on how ancient cultures traced the movements of the planets and the subsequent significance of their influence in the design, construction and decoration of ceremonial monuments.

Further Study
For information on where to study particular specialisms, visit the websites of the universities published in this Educational Supplement.
Further reading
Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice by Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, Thames & Hudson (ISBN: 0500287198) £29.95.
The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology, by Barry Cunliffe, Chris Gosden, and Rosemary Joyce (eds), Oxford University Press, (ISBN: 0199271011) £85.
Practical Archaeology: a step by step guide to uncovering the past by Christopher Catling, Lorenz Books (ISBN: 0754817474 ) £17.99.