Archeology has for the longest time been inspired by hobbyists, normal people with a passion for digging up the remains of ancient human cultures. All though professional archaeologists have supervised several excavations for the last few hundred of years most of the digging is still done by amateurs.
I have a passion for digging up history. There is still so much to discover in the world of archeology, like at the Mayan temple site of Tikal, Mexico, only 15 % has been excavated.
Archeology is a well-known subject. The history of unearthing history is not part of common knowledge.
The exact origins of archeology are not known, though some think that the roots are from the last king of Babylon Nabonidus, better known as Nebuchadnezzar II. He supervised the first archaeological excavation during his reign between the years 555-539 BC. There are records of even earlier excavations than the one in Babylon: the reconstruction of the 4th Dynasty Sphinx during the New Kingdom Egypt (1550-1070 BC). Collecting of antiquities and excavating ancient monuments is not a new practice, but has taken place for thousands of years.
In the Near East, the Muslims were the first to develop archaeological methods. They had an interest in pre-Islamic cultures that had habited their areas before them. Their primary interest was pre-Islamic Arabia, Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and ancient Egypt. The first steps of Egyptology were done by Islamic Dhul-Nun al-Misri and Ibn Wahshiyya in the 9th century. Among known Egyptologists is Abdul Latif al-Baghdadi who was a teacher at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University in the 13th century. He made detailed descriptions on the ancient Egyptian monuments, like the pyramids and the Sphinx. He and two others, Abu al-Hassan al-Hamadani of Yemen and Al-Idrisi, developed elaborate archaeological methods.
In China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) the educated gentry concentrated on collecting antique art and the Neo-Confucian scholar-officials used archaeological pursuits to revive the use of ancient relics in the state rituals. This was criticized by polymath official Shen Kuo who endured materials, technologies and objects of antiquity to study them for their functionality and to discover ancient manufacturing techniques.
Archeology took its first steps towards being an acknowledged science about 150 years ago in the beginning of the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment, as others would say. The Age of Reason was in Europe between the 17th and 18th centuries.
Flavio Biondo was an Italian Renaissance humanist historian and he created a systematic and documented guide to the ruins and topography of ancient Rome. He is considered an early founder of archeology. During Biondo’s lifetime the itinerant scholar Ciriaco dePizzicolli traveled throughout Greece recording his findings of buildings and objects from the far past.
The founder of scientific archeology is seen to be the German Johann Joachim Winckelmann, “the prophet and founding hero of modern archeology”. His systematic study of physical remains is more recognizable to the modern students of the subject. His work was built by more theoretical work and he applied empirical examinations of artifacts. Reasoned conclusions could be drawn and theories about ancient societies could be formed through Winckelmann’s method, which is still in practice today.
Great Britain was one of the first countries to develop a systematic approach to archeology. It was mainly practiced by clergymen that recorded detailed descriptions of their surroundings.
The third president of the United States Thomas Jefferson, nicknamed the father of archeology, supervised what seems to be the only systematic excavation of his time. The excavation was located on his land in Virginia and they investigated a Native American burial mound. His careful methods were ahead of his time, but unfortunately his colleagues were not inspired by him and they continued their violent fashion of digging up history.
In the 1800s Napoleon started an Egyptian campaign and he brought a lot of scientists into the country. One of these was a French Army engineer Lieutenant Pierre François Bouchard who found the Rosetta stone near the city of Rosetta. The Rosetta stone is one of the world’s most famous artifacts. It has the same text carved in it thrice with three different languages, including Egyptian hieroglyphics and ancient Greek. With the help of the Rosetta Stone Jean- François Champollion discovered the hidden meaning of hieroglyphics. Champollion’s work was and is the key to Egyptology.
The first person to suggest that humankind was older than six thousand years was Jacques Boucher de Perthes. He found historical artifacts from the Ice Age near a small town called Abbeville along the Somme River, France. He was later proven right by two British archaeologists that visited the site to investigate de Perthes’ theory.
In the beginning of the 19th century archeology was mainly done by the kids of rich families whom traveled to exotic location and brought back the best-looking artifacts. Unclassified items gathered into museums, because there was no dating system to display the items correctly. Finally Christian Jurgensen Thomsen, curator of the National museum of Denmark, developed a classification method called the Three Age System basing it on the ideas of historian Videl-Simonson. Videl-Simonson claimed that the earliest Scandinavian antiquities were made first out of wood and stone, then of copper and later of iron. Inspired by this Thomsen introduced the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. The Three Age System sorted artifacts by material culture and the suggested order was chronological. Thomsen’s successor J.A.A. Worsaae proved him correct. The problem is that the changing of material culture to another doesn’t always coincide with the social changes of the ancient world.
In the 1830s geologist Charles Lyell brought to the world the theory of old rock being buried by younger rock and that the same seismic activity and erosion that happens today happened also in ancient times. This is called the principle of uniformitarianism. The principle has been proven incorrect. Lyell also introduced the idea of transmutation meaning that organic forms would develop and change over time. This inspired biologist Charles Darwin to form the theory of evolution. Creationists disagree with transmutation. They believe in the theory of creationism which replicates the Bible’s idea that God has created everything.
Interest in the cultures of the New World was light up by John Stephens in 1839. He traveled through the New World recording his experiences. Stephens’ writings excited the interest in the Maya and the studying of the Toltec and Aztec in Mexico, the Inca in South America and the Folsom culture, near Folsom, New Mexico began.
From halfway through the 19th century to the end of the century more importance was put on delicate excavation. First archaeologists to practice it were Giuseppe Fiorelli in Pompeii (1860) and before him Ernst Curtius in Olympia (1852 and 1875). In 1730s Marcello Venuti had a similar approach to excavation. Venuti was an antiquities expert in 1738 hired by King Charles of the Two Sicilies to excavate the ancient city of Herculaneum. Venuti’s approach was methodical and the excavation was the first supervised one. This was a likely birth of modern archeology.
People usually investigated locations mentioned in available texts. One of these people was rich German businessman Heinrich Schliemann who had a lifelong interest in the city of Troy. After he had gathered a fortune he traveled to Hisarlik, Turkey where he did find a rich, ancient city which he immediately assumed to be Troy. He spent four years in the early 1870s in Hisarlik digging through the nine levels of occupation. Schliemann was mainly a treasure hunter and very harsh in his digging methods, luckily he in the last years he spent in Hisarlik he hired Wilhelm Dorpfeld who refined Schliemann’s technique. Dorpfeld used to work with Curtius in Olympia.