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Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets

Admit it — you wanted to be an archaeologist when you grew up... This course builds on that enthusiasm, while radically expanding your notions about just what archaeology is and just what archaeologists do.


Course at a Glance

About the Course

In this class, we will ask and answer a series of questions about the role and practice of archaeology in the world today. If archaeologists are trained to investigate the past, what is left for us to study?  Who gets to be an archaeologist?  How and why do archaeologists hunt for “treasures”, and what do we do once we’ve discovered them?  What can we know, and not know, about people in the past?  What do archaeologists know about the past that most people would never guess – and why aren’t we telling you?  Why are people entirely willing to murder each other over the fate of archaeological sites?  Are Real Men alone capable of discovering the truth behind all this?

Archaeology famously involves getting dirty in the line of duty.  Students will experience its hands-on nature, through the use of numerous exercises and archaeological case studies.  But there are other ‘dirty little secrets’ to learn about the field: not least how the stories archaeologists tell about the past have been used and abused, for purposes both good and bad.  Our goal by the end of the course is to have you ‘thinking like an archaeologist’ and fully aware of the often-fraught politics of doing archaeology around the globe.    

Course Syllabus

Unit #1:  Just what are these secrets anyway?

Unit #2:  What has survived for us to find?  And what have we lost?

Unit #3:  So how do you find things?  Archaeology ≠ just digging

Unit #4:  How do you get a date? (And why are dates so important?)

Unit #5:  What do you do with what you find?

Unit #6:  What is involved in the archaeology of people?

Unit #7:  Where does archaeology happen?   Who can play?

Unit #8:  Who owns the past?

Recommended Background

Absolutely no prerequisites.  Just be curious.

Suggested Readings

While there will be a small number of required readings for each unit, all of these will be available on line without charge.  But if you want something that will take you further, I recommend Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice (6th edition, Thames & Hudson 2012).  All you might want to know and then some!  If you want something a little more introductory and streamlined, the same authors have produced Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods and Practice (Thames & Hudson 2011).


  • Will I get a statement of accomplishment after completing this class?

Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a statement of accomplishment signed by the instructor.

  • What resources will I need for this class?

Computer, internet connection and a willingness to do some odd things.

  • What is the coolest thing I'll learn if I take this class?

You will never look at the ground in the same way again.