Battlefield archaeology is a sub-discipline of archaeology that began in North America with Dr. Douglas D. Scott's, National Park Service, metal detecting of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 1983. It is not considered distinct from Military archaeology or Recceology (i.e., the recovery of surface finds and non-invasive site surveying).
Battlefield archaeology also refers to the specific study of a particular archaeological horizon in which a military action occurred. This may include both 'bounded' battlefields where troop dispositions, numbers and the order of battle are known from textual records, and also from undocumented evidence of conflict. The discipline is distinct from military history in that it seeks to answer different questions, including the experiences of ordinary soldiers in wider political frameworks. Therefore, battlefield archaeology is not concerned, primarily, with the causes of conflict but of the sites where conflict actually took place, and of the archaeology of the event.
Whilst the battlefield is a contemporary concept, the archaeology of battlefields incorporates the study of both ancient and modern military technologies, features and conflicts. It may also incorporate events such as civil unrest, including public demonstrations and riots. The discipline, therefore, applies the approaches and techniques of archaeology to military and civil conflict. Conflicts in the twentieth century in particular have been characterised by wars of ethnicity, nationality and identity, where civilians and civilian environments (i.e., domestic buildings, urban centres) have become involved in warfare, and are often inseparable from it. This is also known as 'Total War', understood by the engagement of entire populations and economies within the sphere of warfare. The archaeology of contemporary conflict, therefore, is a 'total' project, considering the impact of conflict and modern weapons systems on civilian as well as military targets.
The study of the relationships and contexts of the material by-products of war give an alternate account to the version recorded in a history book, poem, or witness account, which may be constructed though bias, or may present only a limited perspective of the events.
Battlefield archaeology was first used in England at the site of the battle of Naseby. Between 2006 and 2008 the Council for British Archaeology conducted a resource assessment for English Heritage, creating a database of more than 200 battlefields in England. According to the report, "battlefields [in England] older than 1066 are at present almost impossible to locate". By 2012 there was no comparable database for Europe, though 56 battlefields had been ascertained for Scotland. The Register of Historic Battlefields, now maintained by Historic England, was founded in 1995.
The First World War exhibited a conflict that mobilised large numbers of soldiers and a sophisticated and diverse array of material culture. Battlefield Archaeology in this arena has dealt with the battlefields of conflict, where human action and technology shaped the landscape into recognisable and extensive features. It also concerns the study of material culture associated with individuals: including 'trench art', such as engraved shells and the personal belongings of private soldiers, officers and civilian staff.
Excavations and survey work have also been conducted in southern Jordan, known for the conflict during World War One between Ottoman forces, Bedouin tribes-people and British forces commanded by T.E. Lawrence (the 'Great Arab Revolt'). The project looked for the militarised footprint of the conflict, basing its conclusions on trench systems, army camps and the refuse of forces (small-finds including coins, bullets and other military gear).