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.
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.