Archaeology in the 20th Century: The Fourth Phase of the History of Archaeology

The 20th century was the fourth phase of the history of archaeology and it was the era in which archaeology underwent drastic changes, especially in theories. So, to understand archaeology, this era should be carefully studied. This article provides a comprehensive understanding of the topic.

What Happened in Archaeology in the 20th Century? – A Brief Introduction to Archaeology in the 20th Century

As mentioned in the previous article, at the end of the 19th century, archaeology emerged as a scientific discipline. In the 20th century, it developed further as a scientific discipline. So, it was in the 20th century that the archaeology we know came into practice. As we discussed earlier, starting in the 19th century, scholars introduced, tested, and practiced numerous theories in archaeology.

Therefore, unlike in the Renaissance era, archaeology in the 19th and 20th centuries was about changes in theories. Those changes were more significant than the discoveries in the eyes of scholars. In other words, before the 19th century, archaeology was more about “what antiquities we found”. Then, after the 19th century, it was more about “how to find antiquities”. Then, after the 20th century, it was more about “why we find antiquities” and “what we do with found antiquities”. Accordingly, due to those changes, we can see three divisions in the timeline of archaeology in the 20th century, such as:

  1. the period before 1960,
  2. the period of New Archaeology after 1960 till 1980,
  3. the period of post-processual archaeology after 1980.

Each of those has unique characteristics and a background story. Studying them may help you understand the development of archaeology in history. Thus, you may understand what archaeology is. Additionally, understanding this era of the history of archaeology will help you understand archaeological thought or archaeological theory.

Here, it’s best if we just skim over these three time frames for the sake of clarity and easy understanding. Because there are many complex subjects to simplify, I intend to discuss the last two periods in separate articles. So, this article will provide you with some knowledge about each of these periods. However, you will have a vast understanding of 20th-century archaeology by reading this article. And, finally, by the end of it, you will have a complete understanding of archaeology as well as its history.

1. What Happened in Archaeology Before 1960?

Archaeology before 1960 was an extension of the same archaeology that existed in the 19th century. As is obvious, starting from the beginning of the 19th century, there were changes and improvements in every field of study. Archaeology itself evolved from what was already there. And it evolved with the enormous impact it had in other fields. And this happened to both theories and practices. So, how can we find the answer to the question, “What happened in archaeology before 1960?”? Well, to do that, we need to look into several historical events and trends in the world. And we also need to look into several characteristics of archaeology itself. You can look through all those events, trends, and characteristics by following the list below:

  • extensive use of a multidisciplinary approach
  • impact of warfare on archaeology
  • extensive use of technology
  • emergence of underwater archaeology
  • introduction of new chronological dating methods
  • the discoveries for evidence of the oldest human ancestors

We can examine each of these to understand how and why they shaped the history of archaeology.

1.1 The Extensive Use of Multidisciplinary Approaches in Archaeology

As we discussed earlier, by the end of the 19th century, not only archaeology but many other fields of study had transformed into scientific disciplines. Also, during that era, those scientific disciplines showed interactions with each other. That means that when one discovery or a new theory in a discipline extended the common understanding of something, it benefited other disciplines. For example, we can take geology and archaeology as described in the previous article. When geologists introduced stratification in geology, archaeology benefited from it. From that point forward, archaeologists utilised geology’s theory of stratification to conduct archaeological studies. In other words, archaeologists approach their studies with more than one discipline in mind. Hence, it was multi-disciplinary. And this continued and became a thing in every discipline in the period before 1960 in the 20th century.

In this multidisciplinary approach, archaeologists considered the theories and methods developed in other disciplines to conduct studies. This made archaeological studies more accurate, scientific, and widely spread. As an example, we can point out how chemistry helps provide absolute dates for artefacts. Without chemistry, there will be no carbon dates, no thermoluminescence dates, and no potassium-argon dates. Now you can see how the trend towards a multidisciplinary approach has shaped archaeology.

1.2 The Impact of Warfare on Archaeology

As a result of the World Wars, we humans developed advanced technology. War engineers and scientists introduced technologies like radar, sonar, and aerial photography. Also, they introduced new tools and techniques for planning, mapping, drawing, recording, and measuring. Most importantly, the war produced some individuals who had the knowledge of how to utilise these new technologies, tools, and techniques. All of these war products had a huge impact on archaeology, making it more accurate and expanding it. In archaeological explorations, radar, sonar, and aerial photography played major roles. Techniques and tools for planning, mapping, etc. made archaeological explorations and excavations more accurate. And the military personnel with knowledge of this technology and technique led the studies. So, overall, all of these developed archaeology as a discipline and expanded it around the world.

1.3 The Extensive Use of Technology in Archaeology

Archaeologists began to make use of technology in the 20th century. As mentioned above, warfare played a major role in that. Regarding this, archaeology itself had changed into a subject that needed more technological applications. It was not a field in which we studied antiquities anymore. It had changed into a discipline in which we study complex topics such as human evolution. Hence, there was a place for new technology in archaeology. However, the extensive use of technology caused an upgrade in certain areas of archaeology, such as data gathering and analysis. Archaeologists conducted archaeological explorations using aerial photography. Because of that, they could discover archaeological sites easily. And they could also recognise the large structures and patterns on the ground, which they had not recognised earlier.

Additionally, electricity had a huge impact on archaeology. It made archaeological exploration more effective and efficient. Because of that, archaeologists were able to discover material hidden in the ground without conducting excavations. Therefore, archaeologists could reduce the destruction that usually happens with excavations. And also, archaeologists could use the saved time and energy.

1.4 Emergence of Underwater Archaeology

As you know, colonisation expanded during the Renaissance and the centuries that followed. And all colonialists in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America brought valuable raw materials, antiques, and priceless items back to their home countries. As you may have heard, hundreds of those shipments went down in the sea over the centuries. Therefore, exploring shipwrecks and finding lost treasures became an adventurous field of work starting in the Renaissance Era. Further, adventurous individuals wanted to explore the legendary underwater cities. The adventure of discovering treasures in the sea became a field with all of these goals and practices. This gave archaeology a push to be more adventurous. As a result, during the time before 1960 in the 20th century, maritime archaeology, or underwater archaeology, evolved, allowing access to systematic and scientific underwater explorations.

1.5 Introduction of New Chronological Dating Methods

As mentioned earlier, the development of natural sciences such as chemistry had a huge impact on the development of dating methods in archaeology. Accordingly, scientists introduced new methods of chronological dating such as dendrochronology, C14 dating, potassium-argon dating, thermoluminescence dating, etc. So, archaeologists began to have more accurate absolute dates for discoveries. Moreover, they began to receive dates for antiques for which they had never had absolute dates before. The discovery of the carbon-14 molecule by Willard Libby during this time was one of the major turning points in archaeological dating methods. With more dates and more accurate dates, archaeologists had the opportunity to interpret their discoveries like never before.

1.6 Discovery of the Evidence for the Oldest Human Ancestors

One of the most significant events that happened before 1960 was the discovery of evidence for the oldest human ancestor. Researchers found human bone remains with stone tools in Olduwai Gorge, Tanzania. They dated those bones and used those bones to get dates for the ancestors who lived there. Accordingly, the stone tools found and the bones found with them date back to approximately 2 million years ago. That is the oldest known evidence for human ancestors using stone tools. This event encouraged prehistoric studies in archaeology.

As you can see now, the time before 1960 in the 20th century was more focused on developing archaeological methods. In other words, this time period marked advancements in “how we practically do things in archaeology with the use of new technology and knowledge“.

2. What Happened in Archaeology in the 20th Century After 1960?

As mentioned earlier, during the time before 1960 in the 20th century, the focus was on methodological improvements in archaeology. From 1960 on, the focus was on theoretical improvements in archaeology. This does not mean that the 1960s marked a clear line between methodological and theoretical development in archaeology. This means the majority of events and concerns in the discipline were slightly different before and after 1960. From 1960 on, archaeology transformed into a new version of itself. We refer to it as “New Archaeology”. So, the birth of new archaeology is the main thing that happened in archaeology after 1960.

2.1 What is New Archaeology? – A Brief Introduction to New Archaeology

In new archaeology, the main focus is on studying the cultural processes of past human societies. As you may remember, in the background era of archaeology, the focus was to discover the legendary cities of the past. In the Renaissance era, the focus was to collect antiquities and study the history of antiquity. Then, in the 19th century, the focus was on studying the history of humans and their culture. Again, in the 20th century before 1960, the focus was the same. Then, only after 1960, scholars started to study how human cultures were born, evolved, and changed.

In simple words, before this new archaeology, what archaeologists studied were random and independent events in the past related to humans. But with new archaeology, they studied how those events in history connected with each other. They studied how both intentional and accidental acts of human ancestors have shaped their culture. How did the things that past humans did as well as the things that happened to past humans shape the cultures of past humans? They examined. So, as archaeologists focused on this process of birth and evolution of cultures, we call this processual archaeology.

Read the full article on New Archaeology: Processual Archaeology>>

2.2 What Happened in Archaeology After 1960? – A Brief Introduction to Key Events in Archaeology After 1960

Other than the birth of New Archaeology, there were a few important events and trends that occurred after the 1960s, as listed below:

  • Scholars like Lewis Binford introduced new theories.
  • Gordon Childe introduced his theory of the Neolithic Revolution, explaining how human ancestors domesticated animals and plants. He said that after the domestication of animals and plants, establishing settlements and making pottery took place in order.
  • The extensive use of technology to analyse and interpret data
  • Studies transformed into problem-oriented studies. Scholars began to conduct studies to find answers to research questions.
  • The studies focused on providing more rational conclusions than ever.
  • Archaeologists introduced rescue archaeology, or salvage archaeology, to save archaeological monuments and sites as warfare and development projects were causing huge destruction to them. Soon, archaeological impact assessments became a necessity before development projects.
  • In 1970, scholars introduced cultural resource management to protect valuable archaeological sites and monuments. Then, they introduced archaeological heritage management and cultural heritage management too.

So, the new archaeology is an upgrade of archaeology that emerged in the 1960s with better theories and methods, focusing on studying the cultural processes of the human past through material data.

3. What Happened in Archaeology in the 20th Century After 1980?

After 1980, the new archaeology was questioned, and a new version emerged, named post-processual archaeology. Scholars like Ian Hodder introduced new theories for archaeology. This age was literally a period of theoretical reform in archaeology. In order to understand archaeology in this age, the characteristics of new archaeology and post-processual archaeology can be compared.

  • The new archaeology focused on quantitative results. Post-processual archaeology focuses on qualitative results.
  • The new archaeology was pessimistic. Post-processual archaeology was optimistic. In new archaeology, it was believed that past human cultures were never able to be reconstructed with the limited data found in archaeology. In post-processual archaeology, the approach was optimistic regarding the matter.
  • New archaeology focused on the processes that were behind creating antiquities. Post-processual archaeology focuses on the culture behind antiquities.
  • The new archaeology focused on explaining past landscapes as cultural processes. Post-processual archaeology focuses on cultural or cognitive aspects of past human beings.
  • New archaeology considered that past incidents happened that way because of external factors such as environmental conditions, and things only changed when the environment changed. But post-processual archaeology considers the choices made by humans in the formation of history.
  • New archaeology looks into the past from the same point of view as we look into the present. But post-processual archaeology looked at the past from different perspectives.
  • New archaeology tried to understand the past as patterns of social, economic, and political anomalies, but post-processual archaeology tries to understand the past as a collection of individual anomalies. As an example, in new archaeology, it will be said that the Stone Age is followed by the Bronze Age, and the Bronze Age is followed by the Iron Age as a pattern, with some minor exceptions, due to the nature of the impact from the environment. But, in post-processual archaeology, it will be specific with the place and time where and when the Stone Age was followed by which, either bronze, copper, or iron, considering the individuality of incidents and trends that occurred in the history of mankind due to the cognition of mankind, not the environment.

Read the full article on Post-Processual Archaeology>>


As discussed above, the discipline of archaeology, which had already emerged in the 19th century, was developed further as a science in the 20th century. In the first six decades of the 20th century, the use of technology extensively developed archaeology as a science in practical ways, such as chemical dating methods.

Then, in the 1960s, the theoretical evolution of archaeology took place. Rather than explaining the story behind antiquities, the past human cultural process was studied with the use of antiquities, marking the first origin of the form of archaeology we have today, which is “studying through material data”. And also, archaeological heritage management was introduced to have standards for dealing with archaeologically important heritage.

Then, in the 1980s, with post-processual archaeology, the approach to archaeological studies changed. Earlier, mankind’s cognition was neglected when recreating the past through material remains. There, the environment was considered the force of evolution. Simply put, it said that human culture had changed due to environmental changes. But, in post-processual archaeology, it was said that human culture changed mainly due to the intelligence humans had. As humans, we could choose whatever we wanted with our intelligence. Further, it emphasised that the past is not a pattern but a collection of various occurrences that happened at various times and in various places individually.

As of today, the archaeology we refer to is this post-processual archaeology. However, it is important to understand that only UK-style archaeology shows a distinction between new archaeology and post-processual archaeology. In the US, the distinction is not recognisable and both theories in new archaeology and post-processual archaeology coexist in research.

This is the long process of the origin of archaeology. At this point, if you read all seven articles, I am sure you probably get the same image in your head as I do when I hear “History of Archaeology”. And now, most probably, you have your own idea of the origin of archaeology too.