Archaeology is the study of the origin, development, and evolution of human culture, as exhibited in the material record—evidence of "fossilized" cultural behavior as recovered from lost tools, collapsed and abandoned living structures, accidentally preserved food remains, caches of sacred items, cave paintings, and the like.
The focus of archaeology ranges from reconstructing the rudimentary institutions of the individuals responsible for making the very first stone tools (some 2.5 million years ago), through rather complex constructs of industrial archaeology in the current century.
Some archaeologists focus upon particular topics or processes, such as the origins of animal domestication or the development of writing. Other archaeologists may study particular regions or civilizations, and hence may be Egyptologists, Mayanists, First American specialists, or Greco-Roman experts.
Why Major in Archaeology?
The Big Questions
Archaeologists possess insatiable curiosity about the basic questions surrounding human existence—what, when and where, how and why, and who. To answer these questions, researchers draw almost literally on every academic field.
The Challenge of Linking Diverse Fields
The challenge of integrating concepts from diverse fields makes archaeology one of the potentially most exciting and rewarding disciplines. Regardless of your interest, there is a branch of archaeology that depends heavily upon that topic. Linking the different aspects of archaeology provides new insight.
Archaeology at Washington University
A Wide-Ranging Program
We are proud to be one of the few institutions in the entire country to offer you a separate major in Archaeology. In our program we seek to integrate a wide range of directions:
- from paleoanthropology to historic and industrial archaeology
- from classical archaeology to specialties such as paleoethno-botany, zooarchaeology, or geoarchaeology
Breadth of Staff
We emphasize an interdepartmental and interdisciplinary approach that can be tailored to your needs. You will be exposed to the widest possible range of opportunities by working with specialists from several different departments.
Research and Field Work Opportunities
There are several ways for you to become directly involved in research and field work while you are here:
- The major requires at least one "hands-on" season of field work.
- Our professors routinely include research opportunities for undergraduate students in their ongoing laboratory projects or field expeditions.
- Professors encourage well-designed student projects run as independent studies, should you have a special interest not included in the research currently in progress.
- A number of contract archaeology firms in the St. Louis area recruit our students for projects and provide opportunities for summer employment.
Access to Specialized Laboratories
- Paleoethnobotany Laboratory—This laboratory houses extensive comparative collections you can employ when identifying plants utilized by humans in prehistoric periods and when conducting modern "action archaeology" or ethnoarchaeology.
- Zooarchaeology Laboratory—The zooarchaeology laboratory is the place for analyzing animal remains from both prehistoric and historic archaeological sites. The lab has good comparative specimens from the Americas, Africa, and Europe.
- Lithic and Ceramic Analysis Laboratory—This lab almost always has several ongoing undergraduate projects. The studies here usually focus on material evidences of lifeways (how people lived), the basis for beginning to understand cultural history reconstructions. Comparative materials are borrowed from museum collections in the region.
- Geoarchaeology Laboratory—This lab focuses on geoarchaeological research. Projects involve studying the influence of landforms and climate upon the development of complex societies along the Mississippi River, along the Nile, and early cultures in China.
- Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Laboratory—A just-developed lab focusing on GIS research and imaging. Research has been focused on re-creating past vegetational zones for settlement pattern analyses. This lab is linked to the larger W.U. GIS system.
Summer Excavation Opportunities
Depending on your schedule, you may be able to engage in field excavation projects for two or three summers before you graduate. By January 15, the complete list of excavation opportunities in the United States and around the world is posted on the Internet. If you plan to participate, this is an intense period. Together with your professors, you’ll pore over that list to decide what excavation program fits best with your career plans. Recent faculty excavation projects have included:
- Professor Kelly's continuing excavations at Cahokia Mounds, Illinois
- Professor Fritz's work on Mississippian period mounds in Louisiana and in pueblo sites in New Mexico
- Professor Marshall's work with the Okiek hunter-gatherer sites in Kenya
- Professor Rotroff's work on Greek sites in the Mediterranean
- Professor Browman's work on early American historical archaeology and on Bolivian South American sites
- Professor Kidder's work on the development of Woodland and Mississippian cultures along the Mississippi River in Louisiana
- Professor Freidel's work delimiting the classic Maya kingdoms in Central America
- Professor Franchetti's work on Bronze Age sites in the steppe region of central Asia
- Professor Smith's work on the Egyptian palaeolithic.
Study Abroad Opportunities
You'll have the opportunity to study abroad, spending a semester or year away. As an archaeology major, we'll help you select a school abroad where one or more of the professors is engaged in a field excavation project in which you are interested. If the actual excavation is in the summer, you would work with your foreign instructor for a semester or year before taking part in the excavation. This has proven to be an excellent way for students to develop a research project for their senior honors thesis.
Should you achieve a strong academic record, the department will invite you to work toward honors. Frequently your honors thesis can be based upon analysis of field data recovered from your own excavation experience. Forms and details are available from the chairman’s office.
Academic Honorary Sponsors Guest Speakers
Archaeology students inducted into the national honorary society, Lambda Alpha, run an annual program with guest speakers and field trips to Cahokia Mounds, Graham Cave, and other local archaeological sites. The honorary provides you a way to explore areas in the field.
Each Friday afternoon at 4:00 p.m. during the semester, the archaeology majors and graduate students meet to hear presentations on archaeological research by juniors and seniors, graduate students, professors, or outside visitors.
The archaeology major is designed to ensure that you receive breadth as well as focus. Of the 21 advanced course credits required for the major, no more than 15 can be taken in any one department whose members staff archaeology (Anthropology, Art History, Classics, or Earth & Planetary Sciences). The major also requires you to participate in an approved field school or excavation project, usually during your sophomore or junior year. Examples of field schools elected by recent students have been:
- a Neanderthal site in France
- work on the world's oldest mummies in Chile
- studying the spread of agriculture in neolithic Romania
- Byzantine church archaeology in Syria
The minor in archaeology requires 15 course credits, 12 of which are to be selected from advanced courses. Otherwise, you will receive considerable latitude in terms of the courses you elect from Anthropology, Archaeology, Art History, Classics, or Earth & Planetary Sciences. The department chair has the current listings.
Careers for Archaeology Majors
- Archaeological Chemistry
- Art Historian
- Cultural Resource Management
- Federal Compliance
- GIS Analysis
- Historic Site Curator
- Museum Director
- Regional Studies
- Native American