JAIC 1993, Volume 32, Number 3, Article 4 (pp. 249 to 269)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1993, Volume 32, Number 3, Article 4 (pp. 249 to 269)




Archaeology in Britain and the United States is a very broad academic discipline with different theoretical orientations used by different groups of practitioners. The different subdisciplines can be organized variously but can include classical archaeology, Mesopotamian archaeology, Biblical archaeology, Middle Eastern archaeology, Egyptology, Asian studies, prehistoric Old and New World archaeology, Mesoamerican archaeology, medieval, post-medieval, and historical archaeology, industrial and urban archaeology, underwater, wet-site, and maritime archaeology, and even environmental archaeology. Other categories could be added to this list, and there is much overlap among the categories. Nevertheless, this list shows the long temporal perspective and the geographic range that archaeology studies.

Each group of archaeologists has a wide variation in interest and experience. In some areas of the world (e.g., around the Mediterranean), American and British excavators' acquaintance with conservation may be quite similar. However, it cannot be denied that while archaeological conservation has an established role in British archaeology, U.S. conservators have a much more peripheral responsibility, if any.


The above list of archaeology disciplines can be organized into two broad categories that have developed separately since the late 1800s: classical and prehistoric archaeology. These two groups are distinguished by their basic differences in theoretical perspective. In its broadest sense, classical archaeology studies the early civilizations in the classical world as well as Anatolia and the Middle East. It has a coherent body of interest, founded in classical scholarship since the Renaissance (Renfrew 1980). It developed out of this humanistic tradition and has been allied to art historical and epigraphic disciplines (Trigger 1986). This humanistic archaeology differs considerably from the more scientifically allied prehistory in often having extant written texts from the civilization being studied as well as emphasizing “high art” objects and the culture of elite groups in ancient society.

According to one classical archaeologist, his discipline is at the bottom of a strict hierarchical structure within classical scholarship. The job of classical archaeology has been “to illustrate the world already known from written sources …and to add to the repertoire of beautiful objects in museums” (Dyson 1981, 8). While this is a rather controversial and depressing description for the scope of classical archaeology, it illustrates a concern for each object as a separate entity with intrinsic worth that requires attention to preserve it and restore its former beauty.

In contrast, prehistoric archaeology, which sees itself as having a more scientific perspective, tends to view its finds as data, sources of information about human activity that must be manipulated in various ways before being of any use. According to Glyn Daniel, this type of archaeologist “long ago ceased to be a connoisseur: indeed so much so that it may sometimes be complained justifiably of the prehistoric archaeologist that he has entirely set aside aesthetic judgments” (Daniel 1975, 288). This difference in perspective between classical and prehistoric archaeology may not be generally recognized in the conservation community. However, it can make a great deal of difference to the conservator interacting with archaeologists and deciding on the proper course of treatment for archaeological material.

Copyright 1993 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works