In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Historical Archaeology

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Assessments
  • Landscape Archaeology
  • Industrial Archaeology
  • Urban Archaeology
  • Heritage
  • Collaborative and Community-Based Archaeology

Anthropology Historical Archaeology
Charles E. Orser, Jr.
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0097


Historical archaeology is a relatively new field, having been professionalized only since the 1960s. Some historical archaeology was practiced before this date but generally not by professionally trained scholars. Archaeologists use “historical archaeology” in two ways. They use the term in a general sense to refer to any archaeological research that employs both archaeological materials and historical (textual, oral, visual, architectural) sources of information. They also use the term in a more restricted way to refer to the archaeological and historical study of sites, properties, and issues related specifically to post-Columbian history (dating after approximately 1492). Both definitions are correct, but archaeologists generally mean the second definition when they use the term. This usage means that while classical archaeology is technically historical archaeology (because of its method), classical archaeologists usually do not think of themselves as historical archaeologists per se. The close association of historical archaeology with the discipline of history has meant that the profession has had some difficulty defining itself. Historical archaeology is today practiced throughout the globe, with historical archaeologists examining many kinds of sites (e.g., missions, indigenous villages, fortifications, abandoned towns, mining camps, and even still-occupied sites). The recent date of many sites means that historical archaeologists often interact with a site’s descendants or past actual residents.


The first textbook published in historical archaeology is Noël Hume 1969. It mostly details the author’s research in colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, but provides information about how archaeologists design archaeological excavations, how they learn to read the layers of the soil, and how they interpret artifacts. Deetz 1996, first published in 1977, though not a true textbook, is widely read throughout the world. The author’s examples derive from his work with colonial American sites in New England. Barber 1994 provides a series of exercises designed to help students of historical archaeology learn to use and interpret documentary, oral, and archaeological evidence. Orser 2017, first published in 1995 with co-author Brian Fagan, explains historical archaeology, beginning with its definition. Little 2007 consists of a collection of short essays that explain why historical archaeology is an important field of anthropological and historical scholarship. Historical archaeologists working in the United Kingdom usually investigate a much longer history than do historical archaeologists studying those parts of the world that Europeans colonized beginning in the late 15th century. Newman, et al. 2001 explores the practice of the field in the United Kingdom, beginning in the mid-16th century and extending up to 1900, by concentrating specifically on religious and secular buildings, landscapes, and industrial sites. Also focused on the United Kingdom is Morriss 2000. Though also not a true textbook, the author explains the full range of analytical techniques archaeologists use to interpret and document standing buildings.

  • Barber, Russell J. 1994. Doing historical archaeology: Exercises using documentary, oral, and material evidence. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Provides twenty-one exercises covering the entire range of activities that historical archaeologists encounter, including studies of gravestones, probate inventories, ceramics, animal bones, and clay pipe stems.

  • Deetz, James. 1996. In small things forgotten: An archaeology of early American life. Rev. ed. New York: Anchor.

    This is an expanded book by one of the discipline’s premier historical archaeologists. Uses archaeological research in colonial New England and Virginia to provide vignettes of daily life in the 17th and 18th centuries. This edition includes information about African American archaeology.

  • Little, Barbara J. 2007. Historical archaeology: Why the past matters. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast.

    In thirty-one short essays, Little explains why people do historical archaeology and why their research is relevant to people living today.

  • Morriss, Richard K. 2000. The archaeology of buildings. Stroud, UK: Tempus.

    The author uses sites in the United Kingdom to introduce and explain “buildings archaeology,” or the study of standing buildings using the techniques and interpretations of historical archaeology.

  • Newman, Richard, David Cranstone, and Christine Howard-Davis. 2001. The historical archaeology of Britain, c. 1540–1900. Stroud, UK: Sutton.

    Not a true textbook but an informative and useful overview of many different subjects pursued by historical archaeologists in Britain.

  • Noël Hume, Ivor. 1969. Historical archaeology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

    In this early book in the history of historical archaeology, the author, known for his excavations in colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, explains the discipline as it appeared in the late 1960s.

  • Orser, Charles E., Jr. 2017. Historical archaeology. 3d ed. London: Routledge.

    Originally published in 1995. This textbook presents the theories, methods, and materials studied in historical archaeology.

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