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One role of anthropology is the explanation of cultural similarities and differences. An important goal of anthropological archaeology is to explain the similarities and differences in ancient societies. Archaeology is our only source of information about societies and cultures that existed before written history.  

Over the years, our archaeological faculty has uncovered many of the differences that made each ancient society unique, as well as widespread regularities in the way societies grow, develop, and change. These discoveries have made it possible to generate hypotheses about ancient cultural and social behavior.

Our Museum has investigated the behavioral differences between Neanderthals and archaic modern humans; the social and economic strategies of hunters and gatherers; the transition from foraging to agriculture and animal domestication; the establishment of village life; the shift from egalitarian societies to those based on hereditary differences in rank; the creation of archaic states and empires; and the impact of Western colonialism on non-Western societies.

One product of our Museum’s research is a series of collections of artifacts, plant and animal remains, geological and radiocarbon samples, and other objects. While we are committed to curating these materials, we do not see them as ends in themselves. Rather, they serve as (1) the forensic evidence of past societies; (2) teaching aids for the education of students and the training of future archaeologists; and (3) sources of data for primary research on issues pertaining to anthropological archaeology.

Student Training in the Museum

The Anthropological Archaeology Program of the University of Michigan trains students for careers in research and teaching. More than 100 professional archaeologists currently employed at universities and museums in the U.S. and abroad are products of the Michigan program.

The Program’s Philosophy

The Michigan faculty considers anthropological archaeology to be a social science—one that relies on logic, methods, models, and theoretical frameworks just as other social sciences do. Our program therefore includes courses on archaeological systematics, analytical methods, and the relationships between archaeological data and anthropological theory.

We further believe in a four-field approach to anthropology and expect our students to be anthropologists first and archaeologists second. Our core courses are designed to make sure that students know social anthropology, linguistics, and biological anthropology as well as archaeology.

While we believe that archaeology should contribute to anthropological theory, we also know that theory divorced from empirical data runs the risk of being sterile. Our program attempts to counteract this by several means.  

First, we offer classroom instruction on the archaeological records of several world regions—North America, Mesoamerica, the Andes, Europe, the Near East, Madagascar, and India—each taught by a faculty member who has conducted fieldwork in the region and knows the areas firsthand.  

Second, we require that our students gain field experience by participating in archaeological surveys and excavations, followed by analysis of the materials recovered. Because our network of professional colleagues is extensive we can even, at times, send our students to areas well beyond those where our own faculty works.  

Michigan is committed to a comparative approach, since one goal of our program is to produce archaeologists who are generalists. We therefore encourage our students to participate in the widest possible range of field experiences before specializing. For example, students who plan to specialize in New World archaeology may be encouraged to get some field experience in the Old World as well. Those who plan to specialize on hunter-gatherers or simple farming societies may be encouraged to spend some time working on stratified societies. Those committed to studying urbanism in the Old World may be encouraged to spend a field season at an urban site in the New World.  

Michigan encourages students to develop skills that will make them more valued as project members, such as faunal or floral identification, or the analysis of soils, ceramics, chipped stone, or ethnohistoric texts. At the same time, we do not want our students to be perceived as technicians. We expect them to become principal investigators, directing their own excavations or regional surveys.  

Finally, we do not believe that students are the intellectual property of any one faculty member. Students at Michigan are encouraged to take a wide range of courses and draw on all faculty members. Only by doing so will students gain an appreciation of archaeology’s intellectual diversity.