History of archaeology

History of archaeology

Archaeology is the study of human activity in the past, primarily through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind, which includes artifacts, architecture, biofacts (also known as eco-facts) and cultural landscapes (the archaeological record).

The development of the field of archeology has it roots with history and with those who were interested in the past such as kings who wanted to show past glories. Later, Herodotus was the first scholar to systematically study archeology. Then, the 16th and 17th century saw the rise of Antiquarians who were interested in the collection of artifacts. The Antiquarian movement shifted into nationalism as personal collections turned into national museums. It evolved into a much more systematic discipline in the late 19th century and became a widely used tool for historical and anthropological research in the 20th century. Also, in this time, there have been great advances in the technologies used in the field.


  • Beginnings 1
  • Antiquarians 2
    • Shift to Nationalism 2.1
    • First excavations 2.2
  • Development of archaeological method 3
    • Professionalisation 3.1
  • Modern methodology 4
    • New technology 4.1
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


Archeology had its start in the European study of history and in people who were interested in the past. King Nabonidus (556-539 BCE), the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, was interested in the past so he could align himself with past glories. He led a revitalization movement and rebuilt ancient temples. Even back in what one would think was ancient times itself there was the start of the systematic investigation into the past by Herodotus (c. 484-c. 425). He was the first western scholar to systematically collect artifacts and test their accuracy. He was also the first to make a compelling narrative of the past. He is known for his set of 9 books called The Histories, in which he wrote of everything he could find out about different regions. A few examples are he discussed the causes and consequences of the Greco-Persian Wars. He also explored the Nile and Delphi. However, scholars have found errors in his records and believe he probably did not go as far south down the Nile as he said he did.


Laocoon and his sons, Greek sculpture from the 1st century BC, Vatican Museums.

Archaeology later concerned itself with the antiquarianism movement. Antiquarians studied history with particular attention to ancient artifacts and manuscripts, as well as historical sites. Their focus was to collect artifacts and display them in cabinets of curios and were usually wealthy people. Antiquarianism also focused on the empirical evidence that existed for the understanding of the past, encapsulated in the motto of the 18th-century antiquary, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, "We speak from facts not theory". Tentative steps towards the systematization of archaeology as a science took place during the Enlightenment era in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.[1]

During the Song Dynasty period (960–1279) in China, educated gentry became interested in the antiquarian pursuit of art collecting. Neo-Confucian scholar-officials were generally concerned with archaeological pursuits in order to revive the use of ancient relics in state rituals. This attitude was criticized by the polymath official Shen Kuo in his Dream Pool Essays of 1088. He endorsed the idea that materials, technologies, and objects of antiquity should be studied for their functionality and for the discovery of ancient manufacturing techniques, instead. Although a distinct minority, here 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.

In Europe, interest in the remains of Greco-Roman civilisation and the rediscovery of classical culture began in the late Middle Age. Flavio Biondo an Italian Renaissance humanist historian created a systematic 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 or Cyriacus of Ancona (1391—c.1455) also traveled throughout Greece to record his findings on ancient buildings and objects. Ciriaco traveled all around the Eastern Mediterranean, noting down his archaeological discoveries in his day-book, Commentaria, that eventually filled six volumes.

Antiquarians, including John Leland and William Camden, conducted surveys of the English countryside, drawing, describing and interpreting the monuments that they encountered. These individuals were frequently clergymen — many vicars recorded local landmarks within their parishes, details of the landscape and ancient monuments such as standing stones — even if they did not recognise the significance of what they were seeing.

Shift to Nationalism

In the late 18th to 19th century Archeology became a national endeavor as personal cabinets of curios turned into national museums. People were now being hired to go out and collect artifacts to make a nation's collection more grand and to show how far a nation's reach extends. An example of this is a man named Giovanni Battista Belzoni who was hired by Henry Salt, the British consul to Egypt, to gather antiquities for Britain.

First excavations

An early photograph of Stonehenge taken July 1877

Among the first sites to undergo archeological excavation were Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments in England. The first known excavations made at Stonehenge were conducted by Dr William Harvey and Gilbert North in the early 17th century. Both Inigo Jones and the Duke of Buckingham also dug there shortly afterwards. John Aubrey was a pioneer archaeologist who recorded numerous megalithic and other field monuments in southern England. He also discovered and mapped the Avebury henge monument. He wrote Monumenta Britannica in the late 17th century, as a survey of early urban and military sites, including Roman towns, "camps" (hillforts), and castles and a review of archaeological remains, including sepulchral monuments, roads, coins and urns. He was also ahead of his time in the analysis of his findings. He attempted to chart the chronological stylistic evolution of handwriting, medieval architecture, costume, and shield-shapes.[2]

William Stukeley was another antiquarian who contributed to the early development of archaeology in the early 18th century. He also investigated the prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury; work for which he has been remembered as "probably... the most important of the early forerunners of the discipline of archaeology".[3] He was one of the first to attempt to date the megaliths, and argued that they were a remnant of the pre-Roman druidic religion.

Pompeii and the Vesuvius in 1900

Excavations were carried out in the ancient towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, both of which had been covered by ashes during the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. These excavations began in 1748 in Pompeii, while in Herculaneum they began in 1738 under the auspices of King Charles III of Naples. In Herculaneum, the Theatre, the Basilica and the Villa of the Papyri were discovered in 1768. The discovery of entire towns, complete with utensils and even human shapes, as well the unearthing of ancient frescos, had a big impact throughout Europe.

A very influential figure in the development of the theoretical and systematic study of the past through its physical remains, was "the prophet and founding hero of modern archaeology," Johann Joachim Winckelmann.[4] 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.

In America, Thomas Jefferson, possibly inspired by his experiences in Europe, supervised the systematic excavation of a Native American burial mound on his land in Virginia in 1784. Although Jefferson's investigative methods were ahead of his time, they were primitive by today's standards.

The Egyptian Expedition under the orders of Bonaparte, painting by Léon Cogniet

Napoleon's army carried out excavations during its Egyptian campaign, in 1798-1801, which also was the first overseas archaeological expedition ever. The emperor took 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.[5]

However, prior to the development of modern techniques excavations tended to be haphazard; the importance of concepts such as stratification and context were completely overlooked. For instance, 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. The marble sculptures themselves were valued by his critics only for their aesthetic qualities, not for the information they contained about Ancient Greek civilization.[6]

In the first half of the 19th century many other archaeological expeditions were organized; Giovanni Battista Belzoni and Henry Salt collected Ancient Egyptian artifacts for the British Museum, Paul Émile Botta excavated the palace of Assyrian ruler Sargon II, Austen Henry Layard unearthed the ruins of Babylon and Nimrud and discovered the Library of Ashurbanipal and Robert Koldeway and Karl Richard Lepsius excavated sites in the Middle East. However, the methodology was still poor, and the digging was aimed at the discovery of artefacts and monuments.

Development of archaeological method

Artefacts discovered at the 1808 Bush Barrow excavation by Sir Richard Colt Hoare and William Cunnington.

The father of archaeological excavation was William Cunnington (1754–1810). He undertook excavations in Wiltshire from around 1798, in collaboration with his regular excavators Stephen and John Parker of Heytesbury.[7] Cunnington's work was funded by a number of patrons, the wealthiest of whom was Richard Colt Hoare, who had inherited the Stourhead estate from his grandfather in 1785. Hoare turned his attention to antiquarian pursuits and began funding Cunnington's excavations in 1804. The latter's site reports and descriptions were published by Hoare in a book entitled Ancient Historie of Wiltshire in 1810, a copy of which is kept at Stourhead.

Cunnington made meticulous recordings of mainly neolithic and Bronze Age barrows, and the terms he used to categorise and describe them are still used by archaeologists today. The first reference to the use of a trowel on an archaeological site was made in a letter from Cunnington to Hoare in 1808, which describes John Parker using one in the excavation of Bush Barrow.[8]

One of the major achievements of 19th century archaeology was the development of stratigraphy. The idea of overlapping strata tracing back to successive periods was borrowed from the new geological and palaeontological work of scholars like William Smith, James Hutton and Charles Lyell. The application of stratigraphy to archaeology first took place with the excavations of prehistorical and Bronze Age sites. In the third and fourth decade of the 19th century, archaeologists like Jacques Boucher de Perthes and Christian Jürgensen Thomsen began to put the artifacts they had found in chronological order.

Another important development was the idea of deep time. Before this, people had the notion that the earth was quite young. James Ussher used the Old Testament and calculated that the origins of the world were on October 23 4004 BC (A Sunday). Later Jacques Boucher de Perthes (1788-1868) established a much deeper sense of time in Antiquités celtiques et antédiluviennes (1847).


As late as the mid-century, archaeology was still regarded as an amateur pastime by scholars. Britain's large colonial empire provided a great opportunity for such 'amateurs' to unearth and study the antiquities of many other cultures. A major figure in the development of archaeology into a rigorous science was the army officer and ethnologist, Augustus Pitt Rivers.[9]

In 1880, he began excavations on lands that came to him in inheritance and which contained a wealth of archaeological material from the Roman and Saxon periods. He excavated these over seventeen seasons, beginning in the mid-1880s and ending with his death. His approach was highly methodical by the standards of the time, and he is widely regarded as the first scientific archaeologist. Influenced by the evolutionary writings of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, he arranged the artefacts typologically and (within types) chronologically. This style of arrangement, designed to highlight the evolutionary trends in human artefacts, was a revolutionary innovation in museum design, and was of enormous significance for the accurate dating of the objects. His most important methodological innovation was his insistence that all artefacts, not just beautiful or unique ones, be collected and catalogued. This focus on everyday objects as the key to understanding the past broke decisively with past archaeological practice, which had often verged on treasure hunting.[10]

One of Flinders Petrie's most significant find — the Merneptah Stele. This is an 1897 mirror image copy of the main part of the inscription (all 28 lines).

William Flinders Petrie is another man who may legitimately be called the Father of Archaeology. Petrie was the first to scientifically investigate the Great Pyramid in Egypt during the 1880s. Many theories as to how the pyramids had been constructed had been proposed (such as by Charles Piazzi Smyth),[11] but Petrie's exemplary analysis of the architecture of Giza disproved these theories and still provides much of the basic data regarding the pyramid plateau to this day.[12]

Sophia Schliemann, the wife of the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, wearing treasures recovered at Hisarlik.

His painstaking recording and study of artefacts, both in Egypt and later in Palestine, laid down many of the ideas behind modern archaeological recording; he remarked that "I believe the true line of research lies in the noting and comparison of the smallest details." Petrie developed the system of dating layers based on pottery and ceramic findings, which revolutionized the chronological basis of Egyptology. He was also responsible for mentoring and training a whole generation of Egyptologists, including Howard Carter who went on to achieve fame with the discovery of the tomb of 14th-century BC pharaoh Tutankhamun.

The first stratigraphic excavation to reach wide popularity with public was that of Hissarlik, on the site of ancient Troy, carried out by Heinrich Schliemann, Frank Calvert, Wilhelm Dörpfeld and Carl Blegen in the 1870s. These scholars individuated nine different cities that had overlapped with one another, from prehistory to the Hellenistic period. Their work has been criticized as rough and damaging — Kenneth W. Harl wrote that Schliemann's excavations were carried out with such rough methods that he did to Troy what the Greeks couldn't do in their times, destroying and levelling down the entire city walls to the ground.[13]

Meanwhile, the work of Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos in Crete revealed the ancient existence of an advanced 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.[14]

Modern methodology

Mortimer Wheeler pioneered a systematic system of excavation in the early 20th century. Pictured, are his excavations at Maiden Castle, Dorset, in October 1937.

The next major figure in the development of archaeology was Mortimer Wheeler, whose highly disciplined approach to excavation and systematic coverage in the 1920s and 1930s brought the science on swiftly. Wheeler developed the grid system of excavation, which was further improved on by his student Kathleen Kenyon. The two constant themes in their attempts to improve archaeological excavation were, first, to maintain strict stratigraphic control while excavating (for this purpose, the baulks between trenches served to retain a record of the strata that had been dug through), and, second, to publish the excavation promptly and in a form that would tell the story of the site to the intelligent reader.

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.[15]

Archaeology increasingly became a professional activity during the first half of the 20th century. 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.

New technology

Undoubtedly the major technological development in 20th century archaeology was the introduction of 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 medieval 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. This encompasses a number of remote sensing techniques such as aerial photography and satellite imagery. Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) is also used, a technology which measures the height of the ground surface and other features in large areas of landscape with resolution and accuracy that was not previously available. Archeologists have also used subsurface remote sensing such as magnetometry using such things as ground-penetrating radar (GPR), enabling an advanced 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.

Archaeology has also come to use Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and visualize all types of geospatial data.

The discovery in 1991 in the Ötztaler Alpen of the prehistorical mummy of the so-called Man of Similaun introduced a new field of archaeological science. With the help of DNA Analysis the scholars could ascertain that Ötzi, as the mummy is called, doesn't belong to any known human population. Generally speaking, in the following years genetics have helped to understand the human migrations occurred during Prehistory.

See also


  1. ^ The History of the Science of Archaeology
  2. ^  
  3. ^ Hutton, Ronald (2009). Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300144857 p. 86.
  4. ^ Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers, p. 584, Random House (New York, 1983).
  5. ^  
  6. ^ Dorothy King, The Elgin Marbles (Hutchinson, January 2006)
  7. ^ Everill, P. 2010. The Parkers of Heytesbury: Archaeological pioneers. Antiquaries Journal 90: 441-53
  8. ^ Everill, P. 2009. Invisible Pioneers. British Archaeology 108: 40-43
  9. ^ Bowden, Mark (1984) General Pitt Rivers: The father of scientific archaeology. Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. ISBN 0-947535-00-4.
  10. ^ Hicks, Dan (2013). Hicks, Dan; Stevenson, Alice, eds. "Characterizing the World Archaeology Collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum". World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum: a characterization (Oxford: Archaeopress). 
  11. ^ "Sir William Flinders Petrie". Palestine Exploration Fund. 2000. Retrieved 2007-11-19. 
  12. ^ E.P. Uphill, “A Bibliography of Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853–1942)," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 1972 Vol. 31: 356–379.
  13. ^ Kenneth W. Harl. "Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor". Retrieved November 23, 2012. 
  14. ^ MacGillivray, Joseph Alexander (2000). Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth. New York: Hill and Wang (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). 
  15. ^ Biddle, Martin; Hudson, Daphne M (April 1, 1973). Future of London's Past. 

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

External links

  • History of Archaeology series at About.com