A character stumbles though a magic portal. On the other side, they are presented with ancient ruins, a necropolis of old and ancient wonders. A crew is forced to make an emergency landing on a dead world. They were warned about disturbing the ancient cities. Now, faced with a need to find shelter and resources, they have no choice.
So far we've talked about cultural and physical anthropology. Both of those connect and work together but are deeply integrated into archaeology. In a previous post, I talked about how archaeology is the study of the things people leave behind. Archaeologists search through heaps of trash, uncover ancient evidence of the fires people sat around, and put together clues about a culture or people long gone.
Sometimes these people still exist, the ancestors or history that we either wrote down and want confirmed, or whose stories weren't told. Can we know everything? No. But we can make some good guesses.
For writing, other than its use for a character or plot that specifically requires the use of archaeology, archaeology won't deliver a ton for world building purposes. So for this post, I'll focus more on the idea that maybe your character has stumbled onto ruins and that archaeology is in your story.
The Last Transform
When people throw away their trash, sometimes the raccoons will dump your trash can and drag some of your trash away. The same is true in archaeology. Over time critters will burrow through and around the site. They'll grab old bones and drag them back to their dens which later get filled in with dirt.
This is called a transform. It's also why the location of the object alone (known as provenience) isn't enough. You have to look at everything and take into calculation that those objects could have been moved by something after the fact. It messes with your data since you'll never know where that object was initially.
Nothing is more destructive a transform than grave robbing and archaeology itself. People digging up the objects, we are the last transform. We remove them, keep them from ever being found in their original provenience again. That is why preservation of archaeological sites is important.
Most of the time, unless the site is marked for destruction (like for building a road or something), archaeologists try to only sample (dig up) a small part of the site, just enough to make conclusions. Why? Because we acknowledge that maybe somewhere down the way, someone might come up with better methods to study stuff and if we destroy that, then we lose any potential data we might have uncovered.
So if in your story your characters stumble across and want to study some ruins, it might be wise to consider not uncovering the whole thing. They may decide to use other technology to study it that doesn't require digging it up, like magnetic imaging.
Who Does It Belong To?
Ah, the ethical question of, who gets the treasure? Who do these things belong to? Is it the people that found it? If there are decedents of the people that created it, does it go to them?
Believe it or not, archaeology can be very political. It has been used in the past to justify supremacy. This could add an extra element of tension in a book when ruins or ancient things are found.
One example: In the United States, the ancient mounds that were discovered in the early history of anthropology were often attributed to a lost Roman colony. They couldn't fathom that it might belong to the Native Americans. Why? It seems so obvious! Because they didn't want to acknowledge that Native Americans were there before white people. If Romans were there first, then this was white land! There's no need to feel guilty about taking it.
This is a real world example of how anthropology has been used to justify political actions. They weren't the only ones to ever do that either. Nazis used similar claims to justify their expansion. In your story, you can imagine how it might make your people feel if they found evidence that they weren't the first ones there or if evidence and fake archaeology is used to justify an aggressor.
Now, in the United States, we have a law called NAGPRA: Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It says that if there is evidence to show that the objects found belonged to ancestors of an existing Native American group, they are required to turn it in to those people. Perhaps there are laws similar to this in your universe, or this could be a stance of a character when they figure out that the treasure they discovered can be linked to people that still exist.
Analogies and Putting Together Pieces
Say there is nothing left of the people, no way to know who descended from them (if anyone). You can't find writing from the people. You find strange evidence, objects that have no clear use. How do you make a conclusion about what the things were used for or what people did?
Archaeologists will rely on comparisons of people that do have writing or currently exist to make a guess. This is partially where archaeology meets with ethnography.
Another thing that archaeologists do (and the most fun in my opinion) is experimental archaeology. They will reconstruct what they found, try to use it how those people might have, to make conclusions about why something was done that way.
For example, in the southern United States they found evidence of some of the homes of former slaves had leaning chimneys. Why did they do this? Experimental Archaeologists built houses like they did and lit the fireplaces. Their conclusion? It was a fire prevention practice. If the fire in the fireplace got out of control, they could knock the chimney down and just lose the chimney as opposed to the whole house burning down. Want to know why a medieval soldier wore an arming cap under a chainmail coif? Ask any historical reenactor, people who do experimental archaeology for fun, and they'll tell you that chainmail sucks when it gets tangled in your hair and it wicks away sweat under those stifling helms.
If your characters find themselves stumped on how to put together the clues, have them look at existing cultures, even if they're vastly different, and see if there's some similarities. Have them try to use it like the people might have, although, when dealing with magic and old tech, this can be dangerous. Of course, maybe that's a plot point too. (Oops! Didn't know that armor would fuse with my DNA and now I can't get it off!)
Using Archaeology to Build Realistic Native Cultures
This is similar to using ethnography and existing cultures as analogs to creating realistic cultures. Only archaeology might give you ideas for cultures that may not have as much technology. Of course, there are existing people at every societal level to draw ideas from now but maybe you want to look at how a hunter-gather group turned into a kingdom level society and what cultural changes took place. What spurred them to change? (hint: look at the consumption of resources and growth.) What are some of the distinguishing differences between nomadic and sedentary people? (hint: one sign a people have become sedentary is square houses.)
Although every culture is different, you'll find that there are some common themes within different levels of society. It's important to state that one form of society isn't better or worse than another. They all have draw backs and bonuses. There's always exceptions. But as a rule, the more complex a society, the more stratified and divided. Who's the odd man out? Who gets to be at the bottom? Why them? Why are the people at the top at the top? (hint: in a lot of the larger empires in history, Aztecs, Roman, Egyptian, colonial Europe, he or she who controls the water, controls the people.)
In conclusion, archaeology is a lot more political than most people realize. Ethics can become blurred and spur strong debates with everyone clamoring to get the riches, to justify that they came first, or to reclaim a part of their past. While archaeology might not help you in developing characters or cultures per se, it can add another element to the world and bring in questions when your characters stumble onto something old. When they do, they have to have that debate in their head, is this mine? Do I destroy the evidence by messing with it? What do I do if the original owners or decedents come to ask me for what I've found?