Archaeology vs. Archeology: Which Is the Correct Spelling?

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 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, Dr. 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 safe link shown below.  (Note:  After you click on the link below, hold down the “Control Button” on your keyboard and push the + key about five or six times.  That will bring the paper into clearly legible view.)

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.

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 Dr. Barbara J. Little. The other federal agencies I have done 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. 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 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 or project manager preference, ask about it at the beginning of your project. If your federal 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 project managers are not aware of the detailed history surrounding these two spellings. Sometimes one must educate the client.  After reading this blog article, you should be able to do that.

Some Additional and More Personal Thoughts on This Matter

It has been 44 years since I wrote my first archaeology term paper, 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. In my honest opinion, the spelling archeology looks truncated and just plain goofus. It grates on my eyes like fingernails on a blackboard grate on my ears.

The federal government agencies and managers who use the spelling archeology need to quit using this spelling and come into compliance with the spelling used by most people in the English-speaking world today. Moreover, this archeology spelling abberation leads to the unnecessary waste of federal tax dollars. Federal 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 why there are two different spellings and determine which one is correct or best to use. They may even request a 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 challenging for a first-timer—and it takes time to research. Ultimately, it independently reinvents the wheel with regard to the rather obscure research paper Dr. Barbara J. Little did 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 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 report—takes extra project time and wastes federal tax dollars.

Out of the 150+ 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. Apparently, 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 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 or archeology. This spelling issue and the federal tax dollars it wastes must come to an end. The best way to do that is for everyone to use the spelling archaeology—like the vast majority of professional archaeologists, archaeological organizations, and most other people in the English-speaking world.

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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