Archaeology vs. Archeology: Which Is the Correct Spelling?

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 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, “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, and that he had already fathered another god by the name of Binford.  (An apparition calling himself 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 government of the United States spells it.  I never liked either of those answers and was always a bit suspicious of them because numerous and notable exceptions could be easily identified.

Fortunately, Barbara J. Little has taken some time to research this spelling issue for the Society for American Archaeology, and the results of her inquiries are presented in a short paper at the URL link below.  (Note:  After you click on the link, 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 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 a very large southwestern state.  One of my former companies at that time was a federal prime contractor, and I had just written up a rather nice paper that included some cultural resources subject matter.  I had submitted it to the project manager, who had a Ph.D. in anthropology (archaeology) from a large university back east.  He had requested that I come over to his office so we could discuss the paper.  As it turned out, he was pleased with the contents of the paper 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 for 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 Little.  The other federal agencies I have done work for over the past 31 years have all been happy and accepting of the spelling archaeology.

The baseline fact is this.  As a matter of day-to-day practice and contrary to what you might have heard, there is no universally required federal 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 Society for American Archaeology, the lead professional organization for all practicing American archaeologists in the United States, spells it archaeology as a matter of longstanding policy, and 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 the 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.  Sometimes one must educate the client.


One thought 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.


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