Archaeology vs. Archeology: Which Is the Correct Spelling?

by Tracy C. Brown

Far Side Cartoon

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog now takes up a very old and perpetually unresolved question in American archaeology.  Which is the correct spelling of the discipline: archaeology or archeology?

To the best of my recollection, this question first confronted me way back in 1974 while doing research for my first archaeology term paper in an undergraduate course entitled “Archaeology of the Southeastern United States,” which was taught in extraordinary depth and with excellence by Dr. Charles H. Faulkner in the Department of Anthropology at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK). My personal spelling had always been archaeology, and I was supremely confident in that spelling.  As part of my term paper research, I took a short hike to the Frank H. McClung Museum on campus and trotted downstairs to their library. While perusing the books, my eye caught this huge, thick volume I had never seen before. It looked something like the Holy Bible. I quickly took it down from the shelf, thumbed through it, and found some useful information. The title page said the author was some guy by the name of James B. Griffin. However, I did not really notice the title of the book that closely until I flipped it over and saw Archeology of Eastern United States on the spine. The first thoughts that came to mind were as follows:

Geez!!!  This guy Griffin must be spelling challenged, and he left out the word “the.”

Little did I know that this book really was the bible, that Griffin was a god in American archaeology, and that he had already fathered another god by the name of Binford.  (An apparition calling itself Spaulding the Mathematical just misted into my upstairs study and remarked, “B-B-B-But.  I always thought of myself as Lew’s academic dad!”)

We UTK anthropology students spelled it primarily as archaeology throughout undergraduate and graduate school. Occasionally, some student who was deeply concerned about the spelling difference would ask someone why the two spellings exist. Several different answers would crop up from time to time—none with any real air of certainty.  One answer was that some American archaeologists always spell it archeology to differentiate our anthropological (social science-based) archaeological orientation from the older and more inferior archaeology of Europe, which developed woefully as the red-headed stepchild of the history discipline. (I mentioned that to momentarily upset the many British archaeologists who visit the blog, just to see if they are really paying attention.  We love you guys!)  The other typical answer in those days was that archeology is the way the federal government of the United States spells it.  I never liked either of those answers and was always suspicious of them because numerous and notable exceptions could be easily identified.

Fortunately, archaeologist Barbara J. Little has taken some time to research this spelling issue for the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), and the results of her inquiries are presented in a short paper at the following safe link:

Article by Barbara J. Little

With that bit of reading done, I can now inform you that Dr. James B. Griffin received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, which readily explains the “eo” spelling that I encountered on the spine of his famous book so many years ago.

Some people wonder if archaeology is the long-time and fully accepted British spelling of this word, and they simultaneously wonder if archeology is the long-time and fully accepted American spelling of this word. The spelling archaeology is indeed the long-time and fully accepted British spelling. However, the spelling archeology is not now—and never has been—the long-time and fully accepted American spelling of this word. By far, by far, by far, and by far, the spelling archaeology has been the long-time and most fully accepted spelling used by American archaeologists. In the history of American archaeology, the archeology spelling has been and still is an aberration—one that deserves to be in the freak show of some traveling carnival.

Most archaeologists spend their lives with boots on the ground. However, between 1992 and 1995, a lot of my life was spent on airplanes between Tennessee and Texas. The large, not-for-profit organization I worked for at that time was a federal prime contractor, and I had just written up a report chapter that included a lot of cultural resources subject matter. I had submitted it to the on-site federal facility environmental compliance manager, who had a Ph.D. in anthropology (American archaeology) from The Ohio State University. He had requested that I come over to his office so we could discuss the chapter. As it turned out, he was pleased with the contents of the chapter and the overall quality of the writing.  His primary concern was that I had used the spelling archaeology, and he proceeded to lecture me on how all federal archaeology for all federal agencies is always spelled archeology.  Of course, I knew that was not true, and it was not even true of the federal agency for which he was doing work. However, because it was so important to him personally, I graciously offered to revise the spelling to suit his taste.

The only federal agency I know about that insists on an across-the-board spelling of archeology is the U.S. National Park Service. This concrete requirement appears to hearken back to the U.S. Government Printing Office (USGPO) change mentioned in the above article by Barbara J. Little. The other federal agencies I have completed work for over the past 30 years have been happy and accepting of the spelling archaeology.

The baseline fact of the matter is this.  From the dictionary standpoint, both spellings are technically correct. However, as a matter of day-to-day practice and contrary to what you might have heard, there is no universally required U.S. Government spelling of the word as archeology. This is an off-the-cuff myth born of a confusing etymological history. It is really a matter of personal preference that will vary from one federal agency to another and (really far more so) from one federal program manager or project manager to another—even within the same federal agency.  It is really sort of like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates. You may never know which spelling you are going to end up using.

The SAA, the lead professional organization for all practicing professional archaeologists throughout North America, Mesoamerica, and South America, spells it as archaeology—as a matter of longstanding policy. Taking their cue from the SAA, most practicing professional archaeologists in the United States do the same. Because of this, I would recommend that you go ahead and spell it that way for any federal agency except the U.S. National Park Service or any federal agency that you already know requires a different spelling. If you think there might be a federal agency, program manager, or project manager preference, ask about it at the beginning of your project. If your federal program manager or project manager later asks you to change the spelling to archeology, be prepared to comply graciously. If they ask about the difference in the two spellings and how they developed over time, be prepared to explain it to them. Most federal program managers and project managers are not aware of the detailed history surrounding these two spellings. Sometimes one must educate the client.  After reading this blog article and the addendum below, you should be able to do that.

Addendum: Some Additional and More Personal Thoughts on This Spelling Matter

It has been 44 years since I wrote my first archaeology term paper in college, and I still have a personal policy of using the spelling archaeology. Outside of U.S. National Park Service literature, I only rarely see the spelling archeology. If I were to go to my local public library or university library this afternoon to investigate the archaeology bookshelves, I could pull down and flip through numerous books on American archaeology and world archaeology without ever seeing the spelling archeology. That is how little it is used in the English-speaking world today. In my honest opinion, the spelling archeology looks truncated and just plain goofus. It grates on my eyes like fingernails on a slate blackboard grate on my ears.

Moreover, the archeology spelling abberation leads to the unnecessary waste of federal tax dollars. Federal program managers and project managers are often unsure of which spelling to use. As a result of this, they will ask one of their federal employees or their subcontract archaeologist on a project to chase down—–from scratch—–why there are two different spellings and determine which one is correct or best to use. They may even request a formal, written justification for a selected spelling, which can be two or more pages long in single-spaced text. (Been there. Seen that.)  Tracking down this kind of esoteric minutia from scratch is a very challenging task for a first-timer—-and it takes quite a bit of time to thoroughly research. Ultimately, it independently reinvents the wheel with regard to the rather obscure research paper Barbara J. Little wrote for the SAA. It also recapitulates from scratch the somewhat less obscure presentation I am making here. The time it takes to do this extra research and writing translates into wasted federal tax dollars on contract archaeological projects.

As mentioned earlier, a federal project manager will sometimes request a change in the spelling of the word archaeology or archeology in a huge document. Unfortunately, this requires a manual electronic search and a true manual search through portions of a document rather than a quick one-word search and replace. Why? This word has numerous permutations, and editorially speaking, it is very difficult to make sure all of the spelling variations have been found and changed without a manual electronic search and a true manual search. For example, if you are going to change archaeology to archeology, then you must find and change words like archaeometric to archeometric—-or archaeomagnetic to archeomagnetic. When such words occur on figures in a report, all the figures must be manually eyeballed for these permutations. When all the instances of use have been found, the figures must be sent back to the GIS specialist, graphic artist, and/or cartographer for revisions. Finding all of these instances of use and permutations—and actually revising them in a huge archaeological report takes extra project time and wastes federal tax dollars.

Out of the 200+ main blog articles on the Archaeology in Tennessee blog, this is one of the Top 5 in terms of overall reader visits and views. It gets heavy American and worldwide web traffic throughout every year. From what I have seen here at the blog over the past five years, archaeology students all over the world torture themselves over which English spelling they should use and feel compelled to go on-line to research the matter. Inevitably, they end up on this blog page.

I often wonder how many of these visitations and views are prompted by confused U.S. Government program managers or project managers who send a federal employee or their subcontract archaeologist on a wild goose chase to research in detail and justify in writing a selected spelling for the word archaeology vs. archeology. This spelling issue and the many federal tax dollars it wastes must come to an end. The best way to do that is for everyone to use the spelling archaeology—as do the vast majority of professional archaeologists, professional archaeological organizations, and most other people in the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world today.

Cartoon Credit:  Gary Larson on The Far Side

2 thoughts on “Archaeology vs. Archeology: Which Is the Correct Spelling?

  1. Dave

    For what it’s worth, a senior federal archaeologist (with BLM) has always said that the feds developed policy to leave the “a” out as a cost saving measure — i.e., to save ink. Anybody but the feds, and I probably wouldn’t believe it.

  2. Pingback: Open Enrollment for the 2018 Programs at the Center for American Archeology Begins Now | Archaeology in Tennessee

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