excavations, ancient ruins, history of archaeology, history
[archaeology, history of archaeology, history]
collections, artefacts, ancient sites, archaeology


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An outline History of Archaeology

The exact origins of archaeology as a disciplined study are uncertain.
Excavations of ancient monuments and the collection of antiquities have been taking place for thousands of years. The terms "excavations" ond "collection" can, however, cover a multitude of scenarios. In ancient times the Tombs of the Pharaohs of Egypt were looted by graverobbers who probably hoped for financial gain through sale of their plunder.
We can contrast this with the endeavours of the Italian Renaissance humanist historian, Flavio Biondo, who created a systematic and documented guide to the ruins and topography of ancient Rome in the early 15th century.
Flavio Biondo, is seen by posterity a candidate for consideration as an early founder of archaeology. He was a man of his times, Renaissance means rebirth and the rebirth those involved in the Renaissance hoped for was the rebirth of Human Achievement such as the ancients of the Classical Age of Greece and Rome had been capable of. Thus Biondo was inclined to treat the ruins and topography of ancient Rome with great respect.

Such excavations and investigations as took place over ensuing centuries tended to be haphazard; the importance of concepts such as stratification and context were usually completely overlooked. King Charles of the Two Sicilies employed Marcello Venuti, an antiquities expert in 1738, to excavate by methodical approach, the ancient city of Herculaneum. This first supervised excavation of an archaeological site was likely the birth of modern archaeology.

In America, Thomas Jefferson, as he reported in his "Notes on the State of Virginia" by Jefferson (completed in 1781), supervised the systematic excavation of an Native American burial mound on his land in Virginia in 1781, (or perhaps slightly earlier). 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 the deposited remains of ancient settlements, - ( aka "tell" sites), in the Middle East, at barrows and tumuli in Europe, and at ancient mounds in North America, destroying valuable archaeological material in the process.

In 1801, an army under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte was deployed in an Egyptian campaign. Napoleon brought some five hundred civilian scientists, specialists in fields such as biology, chemistry and languages, in order to carry out a full study of the ancient civilisations of Egypt. In these times some soldiers rebuilding a fort discovered an unusual stone on which ancient scripts were engraved. This stone, known to posterity as the Rosetta Stone, caused great excitement amongst the scholars attached to Napoleon's army.
Several decades later the work of Jean-Francois Champollion in deciphering the Rosetta stone led to the discovery of the hidden meaning of hieroglyphics. This discovery proved to be the key to the study of Egyptology.

Egyptology has since become a celebrated and prolific branch of classical archaeology because of the amount and quality of material that have been well preserved in the dry Egyptian climate,

In 1803, there was widespread criticism of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin for removing the "Elgin Marbles" from their original location as a frieze on the Parthenon in Athens. Back in England these marble sculptures themselves tended to be valued, even by his critics, only for their aesthetic qualities, not for the information they might yield about Greek civilisation.

It was only as the 19th century continued, 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.
Richard Colt-Hoare (1758-1838) turned his attention to recording the past of the countryside surrounding his estate at Stourhead in Wiltshire which he published in a book entitled Ancient Historie of Wiltshire in 1812.
In his reporting of his investigations and ecavations of such neolithic barrows as Silbury Hill used terminology that was later adopted by other archaeologists. Colt-Hoare made meticulous recordings of his discoveries and preferred to use a trowel for careful excavation.

Archaeology was continued as an amateur pastime pursued, in later years, by persons such as Augustus Pitt-Rivers who collected many artifacts during his early career as a colonial soldier to which he added further finds from a large estate he had inherited complete with numerous prehistoric features. Pitt-Rivers extensive personal collection of artifacts was used by him to develop a typology scheme for dating archaeological remains. The Pitt-Rivers collection forms the nucleus of a museum named after him, in Oxford.

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 Great Britain 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.

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.

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. 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 in England, has been surveyed by these methods, though only a small portion has actually been excavated.


Some famous archaeologists
& Archaeology

A History of Archaeology
Giovanni Belzoni Flinders Petrie
Howard Carter Heinrich Schliemann
Piltdown Man Rosetta Stone
Antikythera Mechanism

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Space Archaeology







Point Rosee - North American
Norse or Viking settlement sites
Sarah Parcak ~ Space Archaeologist
Archaeology from space
Dr Sarah Parcak discoveries
space satellite remote sensing


 
 
 
 

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