Modern archaeology is a scientific attempt to understand the interaction of humans with their environment from the remains that they left behind. This scientific approach to digging up the past has its roots in treasure hunts, religion, political aspirations and that insatiable human craving to discover the past and who we once were.
At first, before archaeology developed its scientific boundaries, most archaeology was little more than looting. This destructive practice continued until more academic practitioners realised that it would be more constructive and therefore more worthwhile to record the information associated with the digging. However, looting of archaeological sites by artefact collectors remains, if not by the collector themselves then by those ready to sell them on for profit.
Indeed, much of the significant artefacts to be found in national museums worldwide have the taint of looted goods. The British colonial powers tore great stone monuments from the Egyptian tombs and pillaged sculptures from Athens’ remarkable Parthenon. They were all for proud display in colonial museums. Classical archaeology, the study of the Greco-Roman period of approximately 400 BC to AD 400, had its infancy in the looted accumulations of colonial museums.
Today in the west, we believe we know better and understand that hastily ripping out artefacts from their location of context, destroys its scientific value and hence, its socio-political importance. Unfortunately, many other countries do not follow this academic approach and archaeological sites that could yield valuable information through their methodical excavation are still looted by destructive means.
A Young Science
Archaeology, as a scientific discipline, is a mere 150 years old. The oldest known archaeological dig, according to tradition, was in 555 BC by the last king of the Babylonians. It is said that he excavated the foundation stone of a building dedicated to the grandson of Sargon.
Religion played a major role in the early days of excavating important archaeological sites. The crusaders plundered many ancient sites, both holy to Christendom and pagan, returning much of it to Europe or on selling to fund further crusades. Europe’s nobility and royalty all coveted the precious finds of early explorers and their ability to pay handsome prices fuelled mass treasure hunting expeditions.
Modern Archaeology is Born
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.
There have been many historic figures and pioneers of archaeology. Some linger on as famous while others seem to have dissolved away into archaeology’s shifting sands. Christian Thomsen stands out for his construction of the Three-Age-System of dating artefacts.
The Diversity of Archaeologists
Although most early practitioners of archaeology were wealthy and unconventional, not all were rich, white, male eccentrics. For instance, the significant discovery of the Folsom site, in Colfax County, New Mexico, USA, by a black cowboy, is today the most significant archaeological locality in North America. At this site scientists now have empirical evidence to show that the extinct Ice-Age mammals once co-existed with humans, shattering the old evolutionary timelines.
Women were not without archaeological courage. Many accounts of pioneering women in archaeology are now being published.
Politics and Archaeology
It might appear that the governmental powers of past generations spared little thought for the archaeological record since they sanctioned haphazard looting by crusaders and the like. But some modern governments also still abuse archaeology today. For example, the Taliban rulers deliberately defaced or destroyed ancient monuments thought to oppose their Islamic beliefs. During the Gulf War, Iraq’s leaders positioned their tanks and troops near to famous monuments using them as a deterrent shield, but the saddest abuse of archaeology is when it is aimed against people. Adolf Hitler used spurious archaeological data in an attempt to prove that his Germanic culture was superior and force the Nazi ideology of genocide.
Archaeology has transitioned and evolved from a primitive treasure hunt using intrusive means to get the gold to a technically sophisticated science. Yet, regardless of how far it has progressed it still bears the bruises of abuse.