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Historical archaeology
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Historical archaeology

Historical archaeology is a branch of archaeology that concerns itself with "historical" societies, i.e. those that had systems of writing. It is distinguished from prehistoric archaeology (also called 'ancient archaeology'), which studies societies with no writing, and protohistoric archaeology, which studies societies with very little writing.

Perhaps the most visible branch of historical archaeology is Egyptology, the study of ancient Egypt, but other sub-disciplines recognized in their own right are Classical archaeology and Assyriology, which study the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, respectively. Archaeological research has been done on societies as recent as the United States circa 1800.

While the science of history has uncovered much information on historic societies by studying the written records that they have left behind, historical archaeology remains an indispensable method of inquiry to supplement, corroborate, and at times overturn documentary evidence. The written record is often biased, for a number of reasons.

One problem is that ancient records do not cover all topics equally. Literacy was often the preserve of the upper classes, such as the clergy and aristocracy. The general population made few records of its own, those that it did make were less likely to be preserved. The literate classes were, understandably, primarily concerned with recording their own interests. Many topics of interest to modern scholars, such as economic history and religious history, were widely taken for granted and not described in records.

Not all records that were written in antiquity have been preserved. Much of the knowledge of the Roman Empire was lost during the early Middle Ages, before Europe took a renewed interest in its ancestors. In addition, many of the ancient records that have survived are not primary sources. For example, the works of Aristobulus, the historian who accompanied Alexander the Great on his campaigns, were mostly destroyed within a few centuries and supplanted by the writings of later scholars who used him as a source.

Finally, written sources are not always trustworthy. Those who write about history usually have some personal involvement in it, and they may to distort the truth to cast themselves in a more positive light. On the other hand, it is practically impossible to systematically distort the archaeological record so as to imply events that never occurred.