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Historian vs. Archaeologist: What's the Difference?

Edited by Janet White || By Harlon Moss || Updated on October 16, 2023
A historian studies and writes about the past using written records, while an archaeologist examines ancient sites and objects to learn about prehistoric and historic societies.

Key Differences

Historians delve into the study of past events, cultures, and civilizations primarily through written records. Archaeologists, on the other hand, physically excavate and study material remains to reconstruct past human activities and societies.
While a historian might rely on letters, manuscripts, or diaries to decipher past events, an archaeologist might depend on tools, pottery, or buildings left behind by earlier civilizations to gather information.
Historians predominantly work with textual data, analyzing its authenticity and relevance. In contrast, archaeologists often work in the field, unearthing artifacts and employing scientific methods to determine their age and origin.
The work of historians typically revolves around interpretation and contextualization of written records. Archaeologists, however, combine a mix of fieldwork and lab analysis, piecing together a physical timeline of human history.
Both historians and archaeologists aim to understand and present the story of human history, but they approach this task with different methodologies and perspectives, with historians focusing on narratives and archaeologists emphasizing tangible evidence.

Comparison Chart

Primary Source

Written records (e.g., letters, diaries, manuscripts)
Physical artifacts (e.g., tools, pottery, bones)

Work Setting

Libraries, archives, universities
Excavation sites, labs

Main Focus

Interpretation of textual data
Analysis of material remains

Research Method

Textual analysis
Excavation and scientific dating

End Goal

Construct narratives about the past
Reconstruct human activities based on tangible evidence

Historian and Archaeologist Definitions


A person who studies and writes about the past.
The historian spent years researching the Civil War.


A researcher who uses scientific methods to date and analyze ancient objects.
The archaeologist used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the fossil.


An expert in or student of history.
As a historian, she had a vast knowledge of ancient civilizations.


Someone who reconstructs past societies based on physical evidence.
Through bones and tools, the archaeologist deduced the site was once a hunting ground.


Someone who interprets historical records.
The historian analyzed the old manuscripts for insights into medieval society.


A person who studies human history through excavation of sites and analysis of artifacts.
The archaeologist discovered an ancient pottery shard at the dig site.


An individual who seeks to understand the past through narratives.
The historian's new book offered a fresh perspective on the Renaissance era.


An expert in the study of ancient cultures through their material remains.
The archaeologist pieced together the daily life of the ancient tribe.


A chronicler of events or times.
The court historian meticulously recorded the king's reign.


An individual engaged in the systematic recovery and study of material evidence.
The archaeologist carefully documented each artifact found during the excavation.


A scholar or writer of history.


The systematic study of past human life and culture by the recovery and examination of remaining material evidence, such as graves, buildings, tools, and pottery.


One who writes or compiles a chronological record of events; a chronicler.


Someone who studies or practises archaeology.


One versed in archæology; an antiquary.


An anthropologist who studies prehistoric people and their culture


Can a historian also be an archaeologist?

Yes, while they have distinct focuses, one can be trained in both fields.

Do historians and archaeologists ever collaborate?

Yes, often historians and archaeologists collaborate to gain a comprehensive understanding of the past.

What tools does an archaeologist typically use?

Archaeologists use tools like trowels, brushes, and shovels, as well as advanced technology like ground-penetrating radar.

Are oral histories important to historians?

Yes, oral histories provide valuable firsthand accounts and perspectives for historians.

Do historians only study ancient times?

No, historians study all periods, including recent times.

What's the most challenging aspect of archaeology?

Many challenges exist, but interpreting incomplete or damaged evidence and ensuring preservation can be especially demanding.

Do archaeologists only study ancient civilizations?

No, archaeologists also study more recent societies and their material culture.

Can anyone become an archaeologist?

While anyone can study archaeology, becoming a professional usually requires formal education and field training.

What's the most rewarding part of being an archaeologist?

Many archaeologists find uncovering lost histories and contributing to our understanding of human civilization most rewarding.

How do archaeologists know where to dig?

Archaeologists use surveys, historical records, and sometimes technology like satellite imagery to choose dig sites.

Can historians predict the future?

While historians can provide insights based on past patterns, they don't predict the future.

Are all ancient objects considered artifacts?

In archaeology, artifacts are typically human-made objects, so not all ancient objects qualify.

Why do historians use primary and secondary sources?

Primary sources offer firsthand accounts, while secondary sources provide interpretations, allowing historians a broader perspective.

Are historical movies accurate according to historians?

While some historical movies strive for accuracy, many take creative liberties for entertainment purposes.

Do historians only study wars and leaders?

No, historians study all facets of society, including everyday life, culture, and more.

How long does an archaeological dig typically last?

Digs can last from a few weeks to several months, depending on the site and objectives.

Can archaeologists determine what ancient people ate?

Yes, through studying remains like animal bones or plant residues, archaeologists can infer dietary habits.

What is the most significant discovery an archaeologist can make?

Significance varies, but finding intact sites or artifacts that reshape our understanding of history is always notable.

How do historians decide what events are significant?

Historians consider the impact, scale, and long-term consequences of events to gauge their significance.

How do historians handle biases in historical records?

Historians critically analyze sources, cross-reference them, and acknowledge potential biases in their interpretations.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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