UCL Museums & Collections Blog
  • Categories

  • Tags

  • Archives

  • How to tell an archaeologist from a palaeontologist

    By Mark Carnall, on 18 September 2012

    This post is something of a PSA to address a pet peeve of mine, the general confusion in the media about the difference between scientists working in biology and archaeology. Here’s a recent example of ‘archaeologists’ puzzling over Paleocene mammal remains. Puzzle they may because they’re literally 50 million years out of their depth. I doubt this post will really change anything and archaeologists will be digging up dinosaurs in press releases and science articles for many years to come particularly seeing as others have already covered this annoying and lazy habit that journalists, presumably covering the science desk vacation period, can’t seem to shake.

    So, as you might expect a joke to go, what is the difference between an archaeologist and palaeontologist?

    Well, down here after the jump I’m happy to concede that the reason why there may be confusion is because the guilds of archaeologists, palaeontologists, palaeobiologists and zoologists never got together and agreed who does what. Partly because these guilds are fictitious and partly because at times archaeologists have to be zoologists and sometimes palaeontologists have to be archaeologists. If only there was a nice venn diagram to clear it up….

    ..there isn’t. Well not here anyway. So instead we’ll go for a discipline by discipline breakdown.


    Anthropologists, very broadly, study all aspects of humanity, yes much the same as archaeologists. Social anthropologists study human culture and society with a tendency to restrict this study to recent and living cultures with reference to ancient cultures as studied by archaeologists. Bioanthropologists (or physical anthropologists) study the anatomy and evolution of humans and our ancestors using biology, anthropology, archaeology, zoology and palaeontology. Simple no?

    Spotting an anthropologist in the field is quite tough. They look just like us! However if this ultra-authoratative study is to be believed it looks like they have a tendency to take their work home with them.

    This is an archaeologist. Note the trowel, neck scarf and the look of pure joy whilst being intrenched.


    Archaeology is quite simply the study of human history and prehistory through the examination of sites and artifacts. The dictionary uses the word excavation but this is misleading as not all archaeologists sit in trenches and wonder over pottery fragments. Some archaeologists look at buildings and monuments and with today’s technology some archaeologists, trowel unused, study data on a computer screen captured from aerial photography and various scanning techniques. The key point about archaeology is that it is the study of human history which gives us a pretty good starting point if only there was a consensus on what a human is- see palaeoanthropology. Archaeologists who go diving to study sunken civilisations and ships and the like are marine archaeologists and archaeologists who study zoological remains at archaeological sites are zooarchaeologists.

    Spotting the difference between archaeologists and palaeontologists in the field is tricky, both have the tendency to wear shorts, sandals with socks and a bumbag all year round. If you listen carefully you can tell the difference as archaeologists talk about the palaeolithic, mesolithic and use words like alabaster which are offensive to anyone with geological training.


    Biology is the study of life across all the known Universes, so far our one and as luck would have it our galaxy has been the most fruitful but astrobiologists are keeping their eyes peeled. As you can see this is getting silly now but zoology, botany, bioantrhopology, zooarchaeology, ecology and palaeontology are all branches of biology. They all use the same skill sets, techniques and fundamental principles but applied to different groups of organisms or their interactions within an ecosystem.

    Biologists are far easier to identify by their specific discipline (see below).


    Botany is the biological study of ‘plant life’ which sounds fairly straight forward but it is also has many sub branches. Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between plants and humans. Palynology is the study of pollen and spores (and other small things in the air…). Traditionally, and this is still reflected in the structure of universities and museums. botany also includes the study of algae and fungi even though neither of those are plants. Except algae which sometimes are. The study of ‘fossil’ plants is palaeobotany.

    Botanists are easy to detect if you take them to the fresh produce aisle of a supermarket. They can’t resist referring to the produce by the scientific names.


    Palaeoanthropology is the study of the evolution of humans and really ancient human cultures. In practice this includes the study of all fossil primates and is part anthropology, palaeobiology, archaeology and zoology.

    Palaeoanthropologists are the ones who suspiciously only find men in the fossil record- Hobbit man, Peking man, Upright man, Java man etc.

    A geologist

    This is a palaeontologist. Note the hammer, hand lense, whistle and rainbow string to tether them together..


    Palaeobiology is somewhat confusingly a combination of palaeontology and biology and is synonymous with geobiology and actuopalaeontology. Supposedly, palaeobiology is a synthesis of palaeontological and biological research but this distinction implies that palaeontologists work in complete ignorance of the biology of modern organisms and that biologists work in ignorance of the fossil record. Which is only partially true.


    Palaeontology is the study of dinosaurs* most normally through the study of fossils but much like archaeology palaeontology doesn’t necessarily mean standing in a trench with a mattock. In some parts of the world fossil hunting requires picking up fossils from the ground, out of tar pits or by defrosting large chunks of ice. Palaeontologists not only have to be biologists but they also need to be geologists to get the most from the rock record.

    In society palaeontologists are easy to detect if you shout phrases like “I think Jurassic Park could happen” and “My favourite dinosaur is a pterodactyl” and see who turns purple.

    A zoologist holding a monitor lizard with a very silly hat on

    A zoologist- note the t-shirt, big hat and the holding of an animal


    Zoology is the biological  study of animals but any zoologist worth their salt wouldn’t ignore the entirety of the fossil record so most are also aware of palaeontology. Also animals can’t be examined in isolation so geology, ecology and botany are also neccessary when studying living animals and their environment. Like botany, zoology has many sub branches for scientist who work on different groups; entomologists work on insects (and other invertebrates), malacologists study molluscs and gibbonologists study gibbons.

    A zoologist can be spotted in society by their witty animal t-shirts and will probably be carrying nets and a pair of binoculars.

    So you see, it isn’t all that confusing at all!


    * and the other three people who work on brachiopods, gastropod molluscs and dinosaur footprints.


    Bookmark and Share

    23 Responses to “How to tell an archaeologist from a palaeontologist”

    • 1
      Russell Dornan wrote on 18 September 2012:

      This is hilarious. The amount of times I’ve had to explain the above to people… Now I have a handy blog post to direct them to!

    • 2
      Dave Hone wrote on 18 September 2012:

      I once sent out a press release about an upcoming paper on my research dinosaurs. One outlet republished it in it’s entirety (uncredited, of course) with only two changes: in one case they replaced ‘palaeontologist’ with ‘archaeologist’ and the in the other, changed ‘palaeontologist’ for ‘anthropologist’.

      Thanks. For. That.

    • 3
      Claire wrote on 18 September 2012:

      Hah hah yes. Also there’s writing. Archaeologists tend to encounter it at some point or other in time.

    • 4
      Rachael T E Sparks wrote on 18 September 2012:

      And here’s what a palaeontologist looks like – according to Barbie (http://s.ecrater.com/stores/266409/5042f56486d2c_266409b.jpg). Note the super-sparkly fossils and predominance of pink. Which goes so well with khaki.

    • 5
      Helen Hales wrote on 19 September 2012:

      Great post.I do so wish you had a photo of an anthropologist though! I LOVE PaleoBarbie – there’s my niece’s Christmas gift sorted. One must always blow-dry before conducting biostratigraphic analysis.

    • 6
      Tiffany Brownell wrote on 21 September 2012:

      This is great!! I work with schools as a community archaoelogist and am often dismayed and discouraged by the many Science teachers who tell the students who are digging with me that we may find a bl”&*y dinosaur!! I will send the link to the blog to all schools on my database!!

    • 7
      Aidan Karley wrote on 25 September 2012:

      I recognise the grounds for exasperation in the original post and the comments … but the truth is also that many of the disciplines discussed share a core of fundamental subjects which the general public conflate, because they [b]are [/b]closely related. Geologists (that’s what my business card says, giving my GSL Fellowship number), paleontologists, archaeologists, palaeoanthropologists all have to have a visceral feel for stratigraphy, superposition, cross-cutting relationships, “A cannot be before B” and “B cannot be after A” relations (I’ve forgotten the Latin). Correlation through incidental intermediates (I have layers of beetles ; over there are layers of beetles and snails ; and over THERE are snails in many think layers of lava ; I can correlate my beetles!) is an accepted tool.
      Gould made a case – a good case – for grouping all these sciences as being “historical sciences” ; I’m not too comfortable with his choice of words, but I do think that he’s articulated a real point. Even if their subject matters differ, many of their techniques are mutually familiar.
      I have to be careful to distinguish between the various groups of doctors, anatomists and heid-shrinkers. So I’m not too stressed over them (or Joe Soap, in the bar) only having a vague idea of where the boundaries of our fields lay.

    • 8
      Chris Langeluddecke wrote on 25 September 2012:

      A quick correction – palaeontologists study extinct animals, not exclusively dinosaurs. This includes those who specialise in invertebrate palaeontology (shellsfish, etc) and those who study megafauna (such as mastodons and so on). It can also include those who study more recently extinct species, such as the Thylocene (Tasmanian Tiger) or Dodo.

    • 9
      Mark Carnall wrote on 25 September 2012:

      Chris- I was hoping that from the asterisk that it was clear that I was being flippant with regards to the definition of what a palaeontologist studies, although a quick census of universities and museums will probably confirm that vertebrate palaeontologists outnumber those who specialise in shellfish etc.

    • 10
      Ben Brooks wrote on 25 September 2012:

      Hi Mark,

      I noted the flippancy and suspect that Chris did too, but I also think you’d be surprised if you did indeed take a fully inclusive census.

      Given the huge reliance on oil/gas in the modern world, I suspect that the micropalaeontologists (diatoms, coccolithophores, radiolaria etc.) would probably outnumber invertebrate palaeontologists who in turn would out-number vertebrate palaeontologists.

      The preponderance of vert-palaeo in museums and universities is because that’s pretty much the only place you can do vert-palaeo research – it being one of those “blue skies” subjects with little “economic benefit”.

    • 11
      Mark Carnall wrote on 25 September 2012:

      Hi Ben, thanks for the comment

      Well let’s get that census going although I imagine that pulling it together may be problematic as many of the palaeontologists who work in the fossil fuel industry are invisible. Particularly, where science feeds into public life.

      They don’t write the popular science books, appear on TV (to talk about Loch Ness monsters, Super volcanoes etc.), grab headlines with the latest discovery of inevitably the first/oldest/largest chicken-sized dinosaurs or publish as many/any papers in the palaeo journals.

      Not only does this mean that they are invisible but also the less sexy disciplines stagnate, invertebrate palaeontology systematics is a mess for example. In addition Web and school resources are poor on the subject too.

      This came up at a conference I was at two weeks ago during a discussion about scientists as public intellectuals and unfortunately, practical palaeontologists don’t make up a lot of the public face of science.

      Do you think this is a rum state of affairs or inevitable given how blue sky science can be significantly more appealing in the media and in society?

    • 12
      Lorna Steel wrote on 25 September 2012:

      It’s true about the bumbag- does anyone else here know a certain Portsmouth-based palaeontologist that is never seen without one? Those jackets with lots of pockets also appear occasionally, but they are usually worn by people who are trying very hard to look like field palaeontologists.

    • 13
      Ben Brooks wrote on 25 September 2012:

      Hi Mark,

      Honestly haven’t a clue how you’d go about getting such a census completed by *as many palaeontologists as possible* as for one a large proportion are as you say “invisible”, and two you’d have to make some form of defining line as to who could place themselves where. Or if you let people self-identify, where’s the line between amateur and professional?

      You’re dead right on the practical palaeontologists not making up the public face of the science, but equally, the non-vertebrate material is fascinating too, in some cases more-so than the vertebrate material (and I would self-identify as a Vert. Palaeo Avocaitonist). Perhaps it’s just that no-one has really tried to get the stuff out there in a big way? or maybe the media just doesn’t pick it up because they think it’s less interesting?

      As for whether or not this is inevitable, I can’t really say I know. I suspect that it’s partly because blue-skies subjects rely on public exposure and interest to help get or guarantee funding, especially in economically driven times such as those we are in now? It could also be that the media is shooting for the lowest common denominator of what they know they can “sell” – or SpaceDinos as twitter would have it?

    • 14
      David Holmes wrote on 26 September 2012:

      Thank you for making that so clear

    • 15
      Aristotelis Koskinas wrote on 1 October 2012:

      Loved it! Laughed out loud through all the descriptions. I especially liked the “look of pure joy while entrenched” for the archaeologists. Sooo familiar…

    • 16
      thanatocoenosis wrote on 1 October 2012:

      * and the other three people who work on brachiopods, gastropod molluscs and dinosaur footprints.

      Meh… dinosaurs are the prostitutes of the fossil world! And, what about the rest of the molluscs? For 100ma, cephalopods were the top predator! ;-)

    • 17
      Kimberley wrote on 1 October 2012:

      Loved this! I was once invited to a local county council ‘party’ to celebrate the archaeological excavation work we had done on a nearby Roman bath house complex. A man came over and introduced himself as the man responsible for funding archaeological work in the county… and then asked me if we had found any dinosaurs yet….

    • 18
      Clive Trueman wrote on 1 October 2012:

      I think the simplest way to distinguish between guilds is the minimum number of samples ususally needed before considering publication:

      Ecologists/biologists: 100s-1000s
      Anthropologists/Archaeologists: 10s-100s

      Palaeoanthropologists / Palaeontologists: <1

    • 19
      All The Different ‘ologies’… « These Bones Of Mine wrote on 5 October 2012:

      [...] is a handy little guide to other specialisms often clumped within the field of Anthropology/Archaeology etc… Visiting journalists please [...]

    • 20
      How To Tell an Archaeologist From a Palaeontologist « Peabody's Lament wrote on 16 October 2012:

      [...] Source Editor’s Warning: The author uses the superfluous “a” throughout this post in words such as archeology and paleontology. [...]

    • 21
      UCL Museums & Collections Blog » Blog Archive » Should the title Curator be used outside a Museum? wrote on 31 October 2012:

      [...] Mark’s excellent blog ‘How to tell an archaeologist from a palaeontologist’ (read it here) I thought I’d dedicate my blog to my own particular bug bear: The use of the word ‘curate’ [...]

    • 22
      Ben G wrote on 14 January 2013:

      Great post Mark.
      As I’m myself somewhat in the grey zone in between palaeontology, zooarchaeology and palaeoanthropology I’ve often tried to explain this to people too. It becomes for example especially difficult when dealing with quaternary vertebrate (cave) assemblages. It is both the realm of palaeontology as well as zooarchaeology. Both disciplines are interested in what these remains can tell us and they often use a similar methodology to analyse them. The biggest difference is probably the kind of questions they want to answer with it. While the palaeontologist is mostly interested in answering questions of geological and zoological relevance, the zooarchaeologist will rather try to use them as a proxy to infer data about human behaviour and ecology. But these two approaches are again not mutually exclusive as humans were (and of course still are) part of the ecosystem!

      P.s. also a small correction to Chris Langeluddecke’s comment: I wouldn’t neccesarily say palaeontology exclusively deals with extinct organisms, but rather more generally with organisms in that lived in the past. As a quaternary palaeontologist one would for example also study animals that have not gone extinct (yet), but were found in geological deposits nonetheless.

    • 23
      Dave Martill wrote on 28 February 2013:

      See, I knew I was a palaeontologist.. I as I have a bumbag (as you well know Mark)

    Leave a Reply