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The Classificatory-Descriptive Period: Explorers and Romance

Written by MOA Exhibition Intern Joel Wodhams

What do you think of when you think “archaeologist?” Don’t try to be too correct. Have some fun. When I think of an archaeologist I cannot help but imagine an Indiana Jones-like figure: someone exploring jungles and deserts in search of mysteries from the ancient world. This isn’t what archaeology is today, but it is part of the undeniable charm and romance of archaeology.

From the mid-1800s to the First World War, archaeology was in the Classificatory-Descriptive Period. In this period, archaeologists described sites and artifacts and organized them into categories, such as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age.

Imagine that you were an archaeologist during this time period. You are a person fascinated with the past, and scientists like Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell have laid out a sketch of the world that puts the age of the Earth at being billions of years old instead of just over 6000. With this huge amount of time to explore, it is no wonder that expeditions were undertaken to discover the past.

Rough Plan of Earthwork by David Boyle, showing the earthworks at the Lawson Site. From Anderson, The Lawson Site: An Early Sixteenth Century Neutral Iroquoian Fortress, originally from Ontario Earthworks by David Boyle.

During this time period the “Great Civilizations” were researched by archaeologists. Expeditions such as John Lloyd Stephens’ to Yucatán in Mexico revealed the Maya to the European and North American public. The Minoans, Mycenaeans, Sumerians, Mayans, Peruvians, and the Indus—to name just a few—are described by archaeologists during this time. This research isn’t just limited to the ivory tower: archaeological books become best sellers during this time.

Working in the Classificatory-Descriptive tradition, the archaeologist David Boyle visited the Lawson Site in 1894. He made sketches and described the earthworks of the Lawson Site as part of his job with Provincial Museum (now the Royal Ontario Museum). Boyle was the first professional archaeologist in Ontario (Anderson 2009:25) and wrote the first report of the Lawson site.

Archaeology has become more interdisciplinary and understanding since those adventurous days. By being careful and more scientific, we learn much more about the past than we could during the Classificatory-Descriptive Period. But we should always remember that part of the joy of archaeology is that sense of discovery that drove archaeologists during this time period.



Anderson, J. (2009). The Lawson Site: an Early Sixteenth Century Iroquoian Fortress. London: Museum of Ontario Archaeology.

Boyle, D. (1894). Ontario Earthworks. Annual Archaeological Report, Ontario , 33-40.

Renfrew, C., & Bahn, P. (2008). Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice (5 ed.). London: Thames & Hudson.

Willey, G., & Sabloff, J. (1974). A History of American Archaeology. London: Thames and Hudson.

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