The Department of Archaeology at York was founded in 1978, with Philip Rahtz of the University of Birmingham as first professor. Then based at Micklegate House, the department received its first intake of students in October 1979. The first member of staff was Tania Dickinson, shortly joined by Harold Mytum and then Steve Roskams. The students took a themed first degree devised by Philip Rahtz with topics such as 'settlement and economy', 'urbanism' and 'mortuary behaviour'. In theory, all periods were covered, but in practice the teaching was primarily drawn from the British early middle ages. Outstanding features of the course were its 12 week field courses, its open (1 day) written examinations, assessed seminar and public lecture, aspects of which are still practised.
Martin Carver arrived as Professor and Head of Department in 1986, when the undergraduate intake was 12. He recruited Lawrence Butler, Julian Richards, Richard Morris and Jane Grenville, introduced courses on world archaeology, field research procedures and pre-industrial technology and created a graduate school with new MAs in Medieval Archaeology, Heritage Management, Field Archaeology and the Archaeology of Buildings. In 1996 the Department moved from Micklegate House to specially adapted premises in King's Manor with a view to building closer relationships with the Centre for Medieval Studies and the Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies (now closed). By this time the annual intake had risen to 100 undergraduates and post-graduates.
After 1996 heads of department at York were appointed for a fixed term: Harold Mytum, Jane Grenville, Julian Richards and John Schofield each took the department forward in different ways. Jane Grenville established the department as a centre for heritage studies and the archaeology of buildings. Julian Richards introduced a wealth of digital facilities into the university, including arch-help, the help-line for students. In 1996 he established the Archaeology Data Service and the profession's first internet journal Internet Archaeology. John Schofield has pioneered the field of modern material culture studies.
A feature of the York department is its high profile within the broader archaeology profession. Harold Mytum directed the excavations at Castell Henllys, Steve Roskams those at Billingsgate and Carthage. Carver was first secretary of the Institute of Field Archaeologists, and while at York directed externally funded projects at Sutton Hoo and Portmahomack and was editor of Antiquity. The tradition of large scale field projects as primary research has continued with Julian Richards at Cottam, Ingleby and Torksey, Jon Finch at Harewood House and Breary Banks, Kevin Walsh in the French Alps, Nicky Milner at Star Carr, Stephanie Wynne Jones at Songo Mnara, and Geoff Bailey in Africa, the Red Sea and Gibraltar.
A change of direction occurred in 1997 when the Department resolved to broaden its range from specialising in Medieval Archaeology to covering the broader syllabus. Archaeological science was led by Don Browthwell and Terry O'Connor and BioArCh was established in 2003 led by Matthew Collins as a separate laboratory based facility within the bioscience complex on campus. Prehistory was esablished in with the appointment of Geoff Bailey, Nicky Milner and Penny Spikins in 2004 and Mark Edmonds, and more recently Penny Bickle in 2014. A focus on East Africa has been developed with the appointment of Paul Lane and Stephanie Wynne Jones, Daryl Stump leads an ERC project on Archaeology of Agricultural Resilience in Eastern Africa’ project (AAREA). In 2014 the Centre for Anatomical and Human Sciences lead by Paul O'Higgins joined the Department