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It wasn't until the 19th century that archaeology became an established discipline. The subjects of study in the field range from fossils of humans of 4.5 million years ago to the concerns of contemporary city-dwellers. The excavation of archaeological sites has provided information about the Ice Age, the development of agriculture, the civilizations of the ancient Egyptians and the Anasazi, and other historical cultures and events. In the 1870s, Heinrich Schliemann did some early work, excavating sites in Greece and Turkey that he believed to be the city of Troy described in Homer's Iliad. (It was later determined that the artifacts of the area were actually 1,000 years too old to have been part of Troy.) Arguably the most famous archeological excavation involved the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun (King Tut), which was discovered by British archeologist Howard Carter in 1922.

These excavations, and others before the 1960s, were large in scale. Archaeologists preferred to clear as much land as possible, hoping to uncover more artifacts. But today's archaeologists understand that much can be lost in an excavation, and they limit their studies to smaller areas. With radar, sensors, and other technologies, archaeologists can discover a great deal about a site without any actual digging.

One noteworthy trend is the emergence of cultural resources management (CRM) archaeology, in which archaeologists are hired by CRM firms; large companies that provide engineering, environmental impact, or planning services; colleges and universities; nonprofit organizations; tribal governments; museums; and federal, state, and municipal agencies to determine if cultural resources are present at proposed construction and land use sites and document and/or recover these resources before the project begins. An increasing number of government- and private-funded construction projects has created strong demand for archaeologists in this specialty. It is estimated that cultural resources management (CRM) archaeology is now a $1 billion industry annually in the United States, and CRM projects make up at least 90 percent of all field archaeology that is conducted in the United States.