The archaeologist’s office is usually buried deep underground. Every day, during the digging season, he or she heads off to work to uncover more remains of ancient cultures. Archaeological excavations cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to mount. Digging in the wrong place could be a very expensive mistake. So how do they know where to dig?
Primary Source Documents
Ancient books and manuscripts, even cuneiform tablets, can reveal a lot about lost civilisations. The most important source of information for the Biblical archaeologist is the Bible itself. Covering a period of more than 6000 years it precisely records the exact locations of many ruined and forgotten cities. Archaeologists have used the Bible’s accuracy to locate and re-discover ancient towns, cities and once busy ports. Other texts have recorded trade transactions between neighbours where only one is still in existence. Text documents are the primary source of information.
There is often much truth hidden in the tall stories and legends of antiquity and a cautious study may provide a clue to a missing place. Most traditions and myths are founded on real people and places. Over time they become exaggerated and unbelievable. Sifting the embellishment from these traditions often leaves a factual narrative helpful to the archaeologist.
Geographysical ground surveys are nearly always performed prior to an excavation establishing itself. These are conducted by skilled surveyors and provide the data necessary to conclude the feasibility of a settlement once being established there.
Quite obviously, if someone thinks it’s good enough to live there now then why not in the past. Many of the best archaeological sites are buried under present day cities and cannot be unearthed. Rome, Jerusalem and Athens are prime examples. Most modern cities have excavation teams working in them usually in pockets throughout the city and often many metres below present street level.
Ancient sites for settlement were often chosen for reasons of safety and protection from raiders. Sources of water, rivers for transport and natural harbours were preferred. Defendable high hills or narrow passes were ideal areas where the occupants had control over trade routes and transport arteries. Ground survey teams will identify these features.
Spying out the lie of the land has never been easier than with aerial mapping. A collage of photographs can be laid out and the perceptive archaeologist can intuitively identify prospective buried sites by analysis of every geographic feature in the vicinity. Archaeologist’s first used this technique after acquiring numerous photos from army recognisance flights during WW1.
Topographical radar mapping is the latest tool in the archaeologist’s kit bag. It is the unlikely combination of sketchy, inaccurate, ancient mapping and space-borne images. NASA initiated the use of sand-penetrating radar images in the Arabian Desert. These were taken by the space shuttle Challenger in 1984 and more recently by French satellites. This sky-high technology can look into the sand to locate the ruins of buried ancient settlements, obscured tracks of old caravan routes and sand drowned drinking wells. The image analysis is overlaid on to old maps of the region and land parties guide ground reconnaissance groups to test dig the location. Technological advances in hardware and software have allowed all manner of geographic information to be created.
It’s true that you almost can’t put a spade in the ground without turning up something ancient in Israel’s Holy Land, but even there, as in all professional digs throughout the world, insightful planning is necessary to ensure the correct selection of an excavation site.