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What is Archaeology?

Archaeology is the study of the human past through investigation of material remains (artifacts, food remains, features, structures, etc.) and their relationships in space and time. We use archaeological records of past activities to better understand human technological, economic, social, and cultural evolution from the deep past (up to 6 million years ago!) to recent centuries.

Archaeology Myths
Can you tell archaeology fact from fiction? Try your hand at answering these questions!

Learn what goes on behind the scenes in the Burke Museum Archaeology Department.

Careers in Archaeology
Learn about different careers in archaeology and how to become an archaeologist.

Participate in Archaeology
Find links to educational and volunteer opportunities in archaeology.

Suggested Readings
Here are some books and websites we recommend to help you learn more about local archaeology in the Pacific Northwest.

Links for Teachers
Let the archaeological community help you teach archaeology. Follow these links to find teaching resources provided by archaeologists.

Links for Kids
Check out these websites that provide a fun way to learn about archaeology

The Burke Museum’s Egyptian Mummy on exhibit.

Student working in the Archaeology Collections.

Archaeology Myths

Can you tell archaeology fact from fiction? Try your hand at answering the questions below!

"Archaeologists dig up dinosaurs."
"It's okay to pick up artifacts."
"Archaeologists get to keep the artifacts that they find."
"Archaeologists dig to find ancient treasure."
"Archaeologists spend all of their time digging."
"People used to hunt dinosaurs."
"Archaeologists prefer to excavate graves."


Behind the exhibits and the security of locked doors the Burke Museum Archaeology Department houses over a million artifacts. The majority of these artifacts are from the Pacific Rim, the area surrounding the Pacific Ocean and the islands within, with an emphasis on the Pacific Northwest Coast of the Americas. The Archaeology Department has particular strengths in collections from Native American sites in Washington State, but also has collections from other parts of the Northwest United States and Alaska, the Pacific, the Middle East, and Mexico. We also have an extensive library and archives and access to Washington State site geographic databases.

You might wonder what we do with all of these artifacts. The Archaeology Department at the Burke Museum has numerous goals for the preservation and use of its collections including curation, research, and education. Read more about each of these goals below to find out the important work that is being done every day.

Curation: Our collections contain more than one million artifacts plus related documents, photographs, and maps. Our mission is to preserve these collections for future generations through documentation, cataloging, and careful storage. To learn more about the Archaeology Department holdings visit our collections page. We also prepare materials for exhibition and provide archaeological curation and research services for government agencies and Native American tribes. To learn more about how the Archaeology Department serves the community visit our professional services page.

Research: The Burke Museum Archaeology Department has more than a million artifacts, ranging from soil samples to Clovis points, and thus only a small percentage of our artifacts can be displayed at a given time. However, this does not mean that our collections sit unused. The Burke Museum archaeological collections are known worldwide, and are used by researchers from within and outside of the University to investigate past Pacific Rim cultures. To learn about research projects taking place at the Burke Museum visit our research page.

Public Education: Our staff teaches courses on archaeological curation, and we offer research assistantships and internships to graduate and undergraduate students at UW. We also work with the Burke Education Department to offer a wide variety of K-12 educational activities (tours, summer camps, traveling study collections, etc.) and public programs (lectures, public excavations, and volunteer opportunities). We also provide an artifact identification service for the public and are happy to answer general archaeology questions as well. 

Careers in Archaeology

Many archaeologists work in museums and universities. Others may work for government agencies, Native American tribes, or as private contractors. These occupations encompass multiple facets of archaeology, including protection of known sites, locating and recording new sites, excavation and analysis, and artifact curation and preservation. Specific information relating to each field is detailed below. 

Museum: There are numerous careers relating to archaeology or other disciplines one could choose in a museum or historical society.  At the Burke Museum, archaeology curators and collections managers are responsible for the maintenance and long-term care of archaeological collections. To ensure archaeological objects, including stone, bone, shell, wood, ceramics, and metal objects are maintained in good condition over time, museum personnel are responsible for evaluating and storing objects in a stable and accessible environment. In addition to collections management, preservation, and exhibition museum personnel facilitate research of collections by providing access and expertise to students, archaeology professionals and interested members of the community. The Archaeology Department also takes part in the UW Museology Program that trains students to pursue professional careers in museum work.

Collections Manager Laura Phillips in the Burke Archaeology Collections.

Curator Peter Lape excavating a site in Indonesia.

Academic: Academic archaeology is motivated by a specific research goal or question and is sanctioned by an educational institution, usually a College or University.  Excavation locations and methodologies are developed in accordance with this research design, often utilizing specialized equipment and resources available through the educational institution.  Archaeological findings must be published and are subject to peer review, the process whereby multiple experts in a field scrutinize an author’s scholarly work to ensure that their conclusions are consistent with the evidence provided. Peter Lape, Curator of Archaeology at the Burke, conducts academic research in Indonesia along with several graduate students enrolled in the UW Anthropology Program. To learn more about pursuing an academic career in archaeology visit the Society for American Archaeology Academic Programs page.

Government Agency: State and Federal laws prohibit the destruction of cultural resources, including archaeological sites. These laws necessitate the hiring of archaeologists by local (e.g., King County Roads), state (e.g., Washington State Department of Transportation) and federal (e.g., National Park Service) agencies to monitor and identify archaeological resources on public lands. Government archaeologists have varying duties including protecting known archaeological sites, identifying unknown archaeological sites, performing or overseeing full scale excavations, promoting research on government lands, as well as public education and outreach. 

Cultural Resource Management: Cultural Resource Management (CRM), or contract archaeology firms are private companies that perform archaeological evaluations, surveys, and excavations under contract with government agencies and private individuals or companies. CRM archaeology is motivated by state and federal laws which prohibit the destruction of cultural resources, including archaeological sites. Construction projects often encounter previously documented archaeological sites and unearth unknown sites. These sites must be evaluated and possibly systematically excavated prior to destruction by the development. Upon completion of excavation a project report is written, sometimes published, and supplied to the contractor and Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. Collections resulting from these projects are often curated at museums like the Burke. CRM archaeology is the fastest growing field within archaeology today. For a list of archaeological consultants in the state of Washington visit the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation Consultants page.

To learn more about Careers in Archaeology visit these organizations:


Participate in Archaeology

There are many opportunities available to those interested in pursuing archaeology professionally or just interested in learning more about the discipline. In addition to pursing educational programs, it is possible to gain experience in archaeology through field schools and other volunteer programs. Although most people think of archaeologists digging all of the time, the majority of an archaeologist’s time is actually spent working in the lab analyzing the materials found in archaeological sites. In consideration of this, if you are interested in becoming an archaeologist do not limit your opportunities by only looking at field related activities. Even in a field school the participants will spend a percentage of their time taking part in lab analysis.


Students sampling an archaeological site.

Field Schools: Field schools are typically open to college students, but there are some available to high school students. This is a great in-depth way to discover the world of archaeology. There are several field school listings available, and links to these are provided below. Another great way to learn about field schools is to contact local research institutions, universities and museums to find out what opportunities are available.


Volunteer Programs: There are a wide array of volunteer possibilities through the Burke Museum and National Agencies and Institutions. Here are a few examples of opportunities for people of all ages to participate in archaeology and cultural resource projects.


Suggested Readings

Here are some books and websites we recommend to help you learn more about archaeology in the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle Area
Thrush, Coll (2007) Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

King County
Stein, Julie K. and Laura S. Phillips (editors) (2002) Vashon Island Archaeology: A View from Burton Acres Shell Midden. Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture Research Report No. 8, University of Washington Press, Seattle.

4 Culture: King County Cultural Resources Agency, Historical Publications

San Juan Islands
Stein, Julie K. (2000) Exploring Coast Salish Prehistory: The Archaeology of San Juan Island. Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture Monograph No. 8, University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Washington State
Kirk, Ruth and Richard D. Daugherty (2007) Archaeology in Washington. University of Washington Press, Seattle. 

General Northwest Coast
Ames, Kenneth M. and Herbert D.G. Maschner (1999) Peoples of the Northwest Coast:Their Archaeology and
. Thames and Hudson Inc., New York.

Stewart, Hilary (1984) Cedar: Tree of Life to the Northwest Coast Indians. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Stewart, Hilary (1977) Indian Fishing: Early Methods on the Northwest Coast. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Archaeology: Fact versus Fiction
Feder, Kenneth L. (2006) Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. McGraw-Hill,
Boston, Massachusetts.

Museums & Curation
Sullivan, Lynne P. and S. Terry Childs (2003) Curating Archaeology Collections: From the Field to the Repository.
Archaeologist’s Toolkit Volume 6, Altamira Press, New York.


Links for Teachers


Links for Kids