The Variety of Archaeology
The sheer variety that encompasses the rich subject of archaeology is often underestimated. Digging in the sand looking for the stone walls of a lost city, pulling on a wetsuit and diving into the dark oceans with SCUBA gear, or sitting for weeks with primitive Indians high on a lonely Peruvian plateau are all working types of the archaeologist.
The examination of ancient Greek and Roman civilisations is known as classical archaeology. The two ancient cultures of Greece and Italy form the basis of classical investigation. The Grecian Empire, the Roman Empire and the transitional period between the two, the Greco-Roman Period, together permit a 2000 year era of classical history.
The period between around 500 BC to 300 BC was known as the Classical period or Golden age of Greece. These short years have given us the great monuments, philosophy, art, literature and architecture that are now the building blocks of western civilisation.
Certainly, the most famous sites of classical archaeology are found in Athens and Rome. Who can argue the grandeur of the Colosseum or the Parthenon? Yet classical archaeology is not confined to only the centres of these two great empires but even to the very extremities of their conquests.
Heinrich Schliemann, a German born, American archaeologist, conducted expeditions near the coasts of the Aegean Sea, in the late part of the 1800’s. Schliemann’s first excavation was in Turkey, and he claims he had revealed the legendary city of Troy. Unfortunately, his excavations were quick and destroyed large areas of his sites. Many other archaeologists followed, conducting more methodical and scientific excavations. Recent archaeology of the classic civilisations has tended to concentrate less on the popular heroes and more on the lives of common citizens.
Historical archaeology pays great attention to the everyday world of all people. It is a conjunction of history and anthropology whereby the archaeologist seeks to understand the cultural processes and human experiences that produced the world we live in today through examination of the forms of writing and recording of information by past cultures.
Writing in some form or another was known to have been used thousands of years ago. However, historical archaeologists study only recent history. Using only written evidence as the foundation of their research, historical archaeologists often work in partnership with historians. This type of archaeology developed in Britain and North America, where it continues to thrive in academic centres. Researchers in this field are particularly interested in books, manuscripts, seals, engravings, paintings, drawings and the like. Historical archaeology is therefore the study of the material remains of past societies that also left behind historical documentary evidence. An interesting sub field of archaeology, it studies the emergence, transformation and nature of our modern world.
Underwater archaeology employs special techniques to study shipwrecks and other submerged archaeological sites such as water-buried cities. Archaeologists who work under water rely on sophisticated diving and excavating equipment and employ special methods to preserve perishable materials that have been waterlogged for long periods.
There is significant danger involved when working at low depths and with little visibility. The use of robotic divers, armed with strong lights and cameras, helps greatly in the safety of underwater archaeology.
Much like today, ships were the primary mode of transport for international trade in ancient times. Many a full cargo, along with the entire crew, was lost at sea never to arrive at its destination. Yet more often than not, it is the rocky, shallow waters that mostly took their toll. Underwater archaeologists find lucrative bounty in these shallow water shipwrecks. These archaeologists are not searching for gold and sunken treasure chests but instead are trying to discover more about the society that lived at the time of the sinking. Cups, plates, weapons, food items and cargos will all piece together to bring the shattered jigsaw of past cultures to life again.
Artefacts such as weapons and tools along with human and animal fossils indicates that past cultures lived by hunting and gathering until relatively recently. A branch of archaeology has sought to understand these activities by studying today’s living groups of hunter-gatherers in Australia, Central Africa and even in the Arctic. Observing these living cultures in their natural environment and cautiously making deductions about the characteristics and behaviour of their ancestors is a sub-domain of anthropology known as ethno-archaeology. Archaeologists believe that present-day hunter-gatherers such as the Australian Aborigine or the North American Eskimo, as well as people who lived during the Neolithic period share some aspects of each other’s ways of life.
These archaeologists spend much time among the people they are studying, keeping detailed records of their daily activities and behaviours. They attempt to make accurate records of any abandoned settlements, including rubbish pits, discarded food and artefacts including tools for hunting, trapping, or food preparation. These are compared with patterns observed in excavated archaeological sites. Ethno-archaeologists can provide an important angle for interpreting the accumulations of artefacts and other remains found at excavation locations. They become particularly helpful in recognising associations between activities such as tool making or animal slaughtering.