Archaeologists study the material remains (the buildings, tools, pottery, and other artifacts) of societies in order to understand cultures and to infer the processes of cultural change. Anthropological archaeologists are usually, but not exclusively, concerned with the prehistoric cultures (those without written records) of our early ancestors, people who existed before the emergence of agriculture, the domestication of animals, and the use of metals.

From fragmentary material remains, archaeologists determine:

* The social organization of the culture.
* What type of contact it had with other groups in the area.
* The conditions of the physical environment; the animal and plant resources;
and whether the culture had domesticated plants and animals.
* The technology, the religion, population size, and the general health of the people.
* The causes for cultural change and/or collapse.