Archaeology is the study of past societies through physical objects that they have left behind such as their houses, their tools, the remains of the meals that they ate, and much more.

Many archaeologists study the distant past, up to five million years ago when our earliest ancestors appeared on the African continent. Others work on more recent remains, including those of precolonial era communities in southern Africa.

Archaeology is closely linked to history. But historians study mostly written documents, an appraoch that is limited to societies with writing – and writing was only recently invented. In fact, people have lived on earth since long before the invention of writing. In Africa, we have very few written records, so archaeology is the principal means of finding out about the African past.

The Department of Archaeology at the University of Cape Town (UCT) offers courses in human evolution. This is a particularly appropriate topic in South Africa since humans evolved in Africa.

South Africa preserves a rich fossil record of humankind’s early ancestors, and also of the remains of some of the world’s first modern humans – people like us. This material is of international interest and significance and attracts archaeologists from all over the world to come and work here.

Why study Archaeology?

Have you ever wondered…

  • How and when did our earliest ancestors evolve?
  • Where did South Africans come from?
  • What exactly is South African heritage?
  • How can we reconstruct past diets and environments?
  • What role did South Africa play in the emergence of modern humans?
students at work

Archaeologists are curious about what happened in the past, about the events and processes that led to the world we live in today. All the reasons why one might study history apply archaeology to too. The methods of archaeology are, however, very different.

What do Archaeologists do?

Archaeologists do fieldwork, like exploring coastlines, caves, rock shelters, and natural exposures such as dongas and river courses, to find sites where people lived or carried out particular activities.

Suitable sites may be excavated - a highly skilled process involving the careful 3D recording of the sediments and their contents. Excavations yield large quantities of finds including pottery, tools (stone, bone or metal), animal bones, plant remains, and much more.

Archaeologists spend much of their time identifying and interpreting their finds, in the process drawing on related disciplines such as geology, anthropology, zoology, anatomy, chemistry and others. Our department also has specialists in the laboratory analysis of archaeological finds. All this information enables the archaeologists to reconstruct a picture of what life was like in the past community he or she is investigating.

What can I do with Archaeology?

Archaeology is very much an interdisciplinary subject, and a degree with archaeology as a major offers many opportunities. Some of our graduates become professional archaeologists based in museums or universities around the world. Some work in cultural resource management. Others pursue careers in education, tourism, heritage conservation, and training, or park management.

Do you like:

  • Working hands-on?
  • Spending time outdoors?
  • Using cutting-edge technologies?
  • Combining the rigors of science with the creativity of the humanities?
  • Solving complex puzzles?

If so Archaeology may be for you!