Within the anthropology program at VCU, there is a focus on archaeology. Anthropological archaeology (as distinguished from classical archaeology or traditional history-based archaeology) concerns itself with the social, political, and economic development of ancient cultures. It stands out within anthropology by its focus on material objects and the environments and contexts from which they have been obtained. Anthropological archaeology in its modern form is a socio-natural science that relies upon the disciplines of chemistry, geology, soil science, and statistics for scientific investigations which examine the dynamics of past cultural systems.
Thanks in large part to federal and state legislation enacted in the 1970s and 1980s, archaeology in the United States has seen strong growth in recent decades, a trend which continues today in the forms of contract and applied archaeologies. Contract archaeology exists largely to meet the demands of private, state, and federal agencies involved in construction and land management. Contract archaeologists develop and implement archaeological impact statements, outlining the effects of development activities on material culture resources within a development zone. Applied archaeologies include forensic work, consultation on issues of material identification and conservation, and historical research. Students focusing their studies in archaeology find jobs in other professional sectors as well. These positions may focus on historic objects (museum curator), the social analysis of objects (film documentaries, journalism), and the relationships between people and their material world (historic preservation, community planning, environmental studies).
Field archaeology at VCU occurs at both international and Virginia locations. International summer field schools are being developed in the Canary Islands. Local archaeological excavations have been held at George Washington’s Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg and at the Rice Center along the James River. Cultural groups along this waterway have included mobile hunter-gatherers, later prehistoric groups who engaged in agriculture and extensive trade, European colonists, enslaved African Americans, and Union troops. Each of these has represented distinct cultural traditions, and left behind correspondingly distinctive material goods and marks on the landscape. Consequently, the methods and models used to research and interpret these disparate groups are varied and flexible, providing students an excellent opportunity to learn about a wide range of cultural traditions and archaeological approaches, while having the opportunity to focus their own research on a topic or time period of particular interest.
Archaeology at VCU offers two analytical facilities for student research and learning. The 3D Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL) generates a scanned three dimensional digital record of valuable prehistoric and historic artifacts suitable for detailed analyses. Instruments for artifact chemical analysis by X-ray fluorescence and infrared spectroscopy are located at the department's partner institution, Richard Bland College, Petersburg, VA.
At VCU, archaeology courses expose students to the methods and theories of archaeology as commonly practiced. In all archaeology courses, students are expected to participate actively in research activities. Archaeology courses include:
- ANTH 105 Introduction to Archaeology, which introduces the methods and theories of archaeology as practiced across the globe. Particular attention is paid to the ways in which material and technology are reflective of and influential in culture, as well as to the ways in which objects can be used to understand past societies.
- ANTH 302 Archaeological Theory, which discusses in detail the basic theoretical perspectives and tools of archaeology, including analysis and interpretation of archaeological materials. Students review the intellectual history of archaeology by reading important scholarly works and discuss the application of theoretical approaches to archaeological data sets and sites. (A Writing-Intensive Course)
- ANTH 303 Archaeological Field Methods and Research Design, in which students learn and practice the basic methods of archaeology, including planning, excavation, artifact analysis, documentary research, mapping, dating of sites and artifacts, and interpretation and presentation of findings. (A Writing-Intensive Course)
- ANTH 355 Death and Burial, explores beliefs about the dead across time and space, the transformations physical bodies undergo after death, and how archaeologists investigate human remains to interpret the beliefs and social practices of past cultures.
- ANTH 380 World Archaeology, examines the diversity and evolution of human cultures through archaeological practices and techniques.
- ANTH 394 Historical Archaeology, which focuses on archaeology in the United States, Europe, and Africa as it informs scholars about the spread of European cultures across the globe beginning in the 15th century. Special emphasis is placed on the study of documents and artifacts as they relate to the emergence and present state of the modern world.
- ANTH 493 Anthropology Internship on the Virtual Curation Laboratory, a course which is designed for the advanced student to gain experience in instrumentation and information management relevant to archaeological data analysis.
- ANTH 556 Historical and Cultural Landscapes, a graduate-level course in which students study historical and contemporary landscapes as the products of and the producers of human culture. Focus is on the ways in which humans shape and respond to their ecosystems. Particular attention is paid to the archaeological recovery and analysis of historical landscapes.
In addition to these regularly taught courses, other relevant courses—including human bone analysis and Pacific archaeology—are occasionally offered. Students may also earn credits and gain valuable experience by participation in field and laboratory practica. Students anticipating a possible career in archaeology are strongly encouraged to participate in a credit-bearing archaeological field school—a summer course in which students spend four to six weeks excavating full-time under the supervision of a team of professional archaeologists. Students are also encouraged to take advantage of opportunities to intern at local institutions, including the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and contract archaeology firms.