History of archaeology  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The history of archaeology has been one of increasing professionalism, and the use of an increasing range of techniques, to obtain as much data on the site being examined as possible.


Origins (antiquities collection era)

See also: Antiquarian, Farnese Collection, classic archaeology

The exact origins of archaeology as a discipline are uncertain. Excavations of ancient monuments and the collection of antiquities have been taking place for thousands of years. Tentative steps towards archaeology as a science took place during the Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Archeology in the Middle East began with the study of the ancient Near East by Muslim historians in the medieval Islamic world who developed an interest in learning about pre-Islamic cultures. In particular, they most often concentrated on the archeology and history of pre-Islamic Arabia, Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. In Egyptology, the first known attempts at deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs were made in Islamic Egypt by Dhul-Nun al-Misri and Ibn Wahshiyya in the 9th century. It has recently been argued by Okasha El Daly that these Arab scholars at least partly understand what was written in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, by relating them to the contemporary Coptic language used by Coptic priests in their time. However, El Daly's claims are considered over-reaching by other scholars.

Abdul Latif al-Baghdadi, a teacher at Cairo's Al-Azhar University in the 13th century, wrote detailed descriptions on ancient Egyptian monuments. Al-Baghdadi and other Muslim historians such as Abu al-Hassan al-Hamadani of Yemen (d. 945) and Al-Idrisi of Egypt (d. 1251) developed elaborate archeological methods which they employed in their excavations and research of ancient archeological sites. The 15th-century Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi also wrote detailed accounts of Egyptian antiquities.

During the Song Dynasty (960–1279) of China, educated gentry were interested in antiquarian pursuits of art collecting while Neo-Confucian scholar-officials were concerned with archaeological pursuits in order to revive the use of ancient relics in state rituals. This was criticized by the polymath official Shen Kuo (1031–1095), who endorsed the idea that materials, technologies, and objects of antiquity should be studied for their functionality and for the discovery of ancient manufacturing techniques. In his Dream Pool Essays of 1088, Shen Kuo took an interdisciplinary approach to archaeology, fusing that subject with his work in optics, metallurgy, music, and geometry. Yet there were others who took the discipline as seriously as Shen did; the official, historian, poet, and essayist Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072) compiled an analytical catalogue of ancient rubbings on stone and bronze which pioneered ideas in early epigraphy and archaeology.

Flavio Biondo an Italian Renaissance humanist historian created a systematic and documented guide to the ruins and topography of ancient Rome in the early 15th century for which he has been called an early founder of archaeology. The itinerant scholar Ciriaco de' Pizzicolli (1391–1453) also traveled throughout Greece to record his findings on ancient buildings and objects.

It was only in the 18th century, however, that the systematic study of the past through its physical remains began to be carried out in a manner recognisable to modern students of archaeology. This work was built on the more theoretical work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Winckelmann was a founder of scientific archaeology by first applying empirical categories of style on a large, systematic basis to the classical (Greek and Roman) history of art and architecture. His original approach was based on detailed empirical examinations of artefacts from which reasoned conclusions could be drawn and theories developed about ancient societies. This is the archaeological method in practice.

Prior to the development of modern techniques, however, excavation tended to be haphazard; the importance of concepts such as stratification and context was completely overlooked. In 1803, there was widespread criticism of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin for removing the "Elgin Marbles" from their rightful place on the Parthenon in Athens; but the marble sculptures themselves were valued by his critics only for their aesthetic qualities, not for the information they might supply about Greek civilization.

Britain was one of the first countries to develop a systematic approach to archaeology and to recognise it as a discipline in its own right (though the debate over whether it is an "art" or a "science" continues). The first individuals to take a serious interest in the subject were clergymen. Many vicars recorded local landmarks within their parishes, and these might include details of the landscape, as well as ancient monuments such as standing stones -- even where they did not recognise the significance of what they were seeing. It is thanks to them that we know about many archaeological features that have since disappeared or been moved. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries antiquarians such as John Leland, John Aubrey and William Stukeley conducted surveys of the country, drawing, describing and interpreting the monuments they encountered.

In America, Thomas Jefferson, possibly inspired by his experiences in Europe, supervised the systematic excavation of an Native American burial mound on his land in Virginia in 1784. Although Jefferson's investigative methods were ahead of his time (and have earned him the nickname from some of the "father of archaeology"), they were primitive by today's standards. He did not simply dig down into the mound in the hope of "finding something"; he cut a wedge out of it in order to examine the stratigraphy. The results did not inspire his contemporaries to do likewise, and they generally continued to hack away indiscriminately at tell sites in the Middle East, barrows in Europe and mounds in North America, destroying valuable archaeological material in the process.

A little later, Napoleon's army carried out excavations during its Egyptian campaign. The emperor had taken with him a force of 500 civilian scientists, specialists in fields such as biology, chemistry and languages, in order to carry out a full study of the ancient civilisation. The work of Jean-François Champollion in deciphering the Rosetta stone to discover the hidden meaning of hieroglyphics proved the key to the study of Egyptology.

Development of archaeological method

Attempts at developing an archeological methedology date back to the Middle Ages. Abu al-Hassan al-Hamadani of Yemen (d. 945) made an early attempt in his encyclopaedic work Al-Iklil for the archaeology and history of pre-Islamic South Arabia. The archaeological method he employed can be summarized as follows: "observing and describing the site; excavating and recording of finds with exact provenance, descriptions and measurements; using knowledge of ancient writings to read Himyarite inscriptions; analysing the finds in light of religious and historical texts and oral history."

The Egyptian historian Al-Idrisi (d. 1251) developed another archeological methodology in his book Anwar for Egyptology, which included: "reasons for the study of the importance of the pyramids; description of the route to the site; description of the pyramids and their inscriptions; measuring, and checking previous measurements; analysis of the form of the pyramid and reasons for building, with a critical review of literature (more than 22 authorities quoted) on the subject; study of sediments as an indication of the flood level; chemical analysis of clay in building material, by studying its mineral content in order to check place of origin; regular visits to the site to see it in different conditions, and to recheck measurements; noting stones reused at Jeremias Monastery, Saqqara as evidence of earlier dates, an observation confirmed by modern research."

One of the earliest modern archaeologists was Richard Colt Hoare (1758–1838). He was an extremely wealthy man, having inherited the Stourhead estate from his grandfather in 1785. He turned his attention to recording the past of the surrounding countryside which he published in a book entitled Ancient Historie of Wiltshire in 1812, a copy of which is kept at Stourhead. Colt Hoare made meticulous recordings of mainly neolithic barrows, such as Silbury Hill[1], and the terms he used to categorise and describe them are still used by archaeologists today. He was possibly the first to use a trowel for careful excavation[2].

A major figure in the development of archaeological method was the Victorian Augustus Pitt Rivers. Archaeology was still an amateur pastime, but Britain's colonial period had provided the opportunity to study antiquities in many other countries. Pitt Rivers himself, having caught the bug during his military career, brought many artefacts back from overseas and, having inherited a large estate with numerous prehistoric features, collected more artefacts off his own land. From his personal collection (the nucleus of the museum named after him, in Oxford), he developed a typology, something few had thought of doing but which would be of enormous significance for dating purposes.

William Flinders Petrie is another man who may legitimately be called the Father of Archaeology. His work in Egypt developed the concept of seriation, which permitted accurate dating long before scientific methods were available to corroborate his chronologies. He was also a meticulous excavator and scrupulous record keeper and laid down many of the ideas behind modern archaeological recording.

The next major figure in the development of archaeology in the UK was Mortimer Wheeler, whose highly disciplined approach to excavation and systematic coverage of much of the country in the 1920s and 1930s brought the science on swiftly. It was not until the introduction of modern technology from the 1950s onwards that a similar leap forward would be made in field archaeology. Wheeler's method of excavation, laying out the site on a grid pattern, though gradually abandoned in favour of the open-area method, still forms the basis of excavation technique.

Meanwhile, the work of Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos in Crete had shed light on the Minoan civilisation. Many of the finds from this site were catalogued and brought to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where they could be studied by classicists, while an attempt was made to reconstruct much of the original site. Although this was done in a manner that would be considered inappropriate today, it helped raise the profile of archaeology considerably.

The bomb damage and subsequent rebuilding caused by the Second World War gave archaeologists the opportunity to meaningfully examine inhabited cities for the first time. Bomb damaged sites provided windows onto the development of European cities whose pasts had been buried beneath working buildings. Urban archaeology necessitated a new approach as centuries of human occupation had created deep layers of stratigraphy that could often only be seen through the keyholes of individual building plots. In Britain post-war archaeologists such as W. F. Grimes and Martin Biddle took the initiative in studying this previously unexamined area and developed the archaeological methods now employed in much CRM and rescue archaeology.

Archaeology was increasingly becoming a professional activity. Although the bulk of an excavation's workforce would still consist of volunteers, it would normally be led by a professional. It was now possible to study archaeology as a subject in universities and even schools, and by the end of the 20th century nearly all professional archaeologists, at least in developed countries, were graduates.

Introduction of technology

Undoubtedly the major technological development in 20th century archaeology was the introduction of radiocarbon dating, based on a theory first developed by American scientist Willard Libby in 1949. Despite its many limitations (compared to later methods it is inaccurate; it can only be used on organic matter; it is reliant on a dataset to corroborate it; and it only works with remains from the last 10,000 years), the technique brought about a revolution in archaeological understanding. For the first time, it was possible to put reasonably accurate dates on discoveries such as bones. This in some cases led to a complete reassessment of the significance of past finds. Classic cases included the Red Lady of Paviland. It was not until 1989 that the Catholic Church allowed the technique to be used on the Turin Shroud, indicating that the linen fibres were of mediaeval origin.

Other developments, often spin-offs from wartime technology, led to other scientific advances. For field archaeologists, the most significant of these was the use of the geophysical survey, enabling an advance picture to be built up of what lies beneath the soil, before excavation even commences. The entire Roman town of Viroconium, modern day Wroxeter, has been surveyed by these methods, though only a small portion has actually been excavated. The application of physical sciences to archaeology, known as archaeometry or archaeological science, is now a major part of archaeology.

Further reading

  • Christenson, Andrew L., Tracing Archaeology's Past: The Historiography of Archaeology, Southern Illinois Univ Press 1989
  • Kehoe, Alice Beck , The Land of Prehistory: A Critical History of American Archaeology, Routledge 1998
  • Marchand, Suzanne L., Down from Olympus : archaeology and philhellenism in Germany, 1750 - 1970, Princeton, NJ : Princeton Univ. Press, 1996, Paperback Edition 2003
  • Pai, Hyung Il, Constructing "Korean" Origins: A Critical Review of Archaeology, Historiography, and Racial Myth in Korean State-Formation Theories , Harvard University Press 2000
  • Smith, Laurajane, Archaeological Theory and the Politics of Culture Heritage, Routledge 2004
  • Trigger, Bruce, "A History of Archaeological Thought". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990

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