This year’s Festival of Archaeology was a tremendous achievement for us. In the wake of its success, now is a good time to look back at the history of our profession. It has been a long journey for archaeology over the centuries, from a pastime of an educate few, to the formal, multi-disciplinary field it is today. The theme for next month’s Heritage Open Days is inventions, so we are taking the opportunity to host special events and tours around the inventions theme, including the invention of archaeology as a profession.
The field of archaeology has much deeper roots than many might think. If we define archaeology simply as ‘the study of the past’, then the earliest example is in New Kingdom Egypt, in the 14th century BC. Thutmose IV oversaw the excavation of the legs of the sphinx, which had been built at the request of the pharaoh Khafre, over a thousand years earlier. Similar projects were undertaken by the Babylonians, and in China from the Song Dynasty onwards.
Similarly, many scholars of the Renaissance took an interest in individual objects. It quickly became fashionable to proclaim themselves as ‘antiquarians’ by owning a spearhead or shards of pottery. But often this was more like treasure hunting than serious research; a quest to fill spaces in curiosity cabinets.
The discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum from 1738 to 1748 was a major tipping point for archaeology as a serious profession. Carried out under the watch of Charles V of Sicily, with the professional input of military engineers, it was the first supervised excavation of a large-scale area.
The phrase ‘archaeology’ first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1824, by which point the practice had already become a discipline with methods and practices. As the nineteenth century progressed, whole new sites were excavated: Troy in 1870; ancient Rhodes in 1873; and Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympic Games and the statue of Zeus, in 1875.
The rediscovered Classical civilizations were obviously a source of fascination for nineteenth century Europeans, and not just because of their age. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the idea of governments leading by democratic rule became a distinct possibility, for the first time in Europe since Ancient Rome. In the wake of the 1848 revolutions, and the foundation of nation states such as Germany and Italy, many looked towards these ancient seats of republics and democracy, hoping to find guidance.
Archaeology in Britain took its first major step with John Aubrey. In his Monumenta Britannica, he looked further back than many continental antiquarians, to monuments from the Stone Age. Aubrey took a particular interest in Wiltshire’s henge monuments, encouraging fellow antiquarians such as William Harvey to unearth these sites. From this, British archaeology took a particular fascination with more ancient sites, with notable archaeologists such as Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers and William Pengelly. These archaeologists, working in the mid-nineteenth century, came in the wake of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. This popularised the concept of the Earth’s geology and biology changing gradually, over a period of not just thousands, but millions of years. This, coupled with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, proved to be a breakthrough for archaeologists, who now had a counterpoint to the Church’s argument of the world being created over a week in 4004 BC.
Elephant bones unearthed in Britain could previously only be explained as specimens brought by the Romans, somehow displaced several millennia before their arrival. Now they could demonstrate the presence of extinct species that formerly inhabited the country- mastodons and mammoths, or even giant reptiles.
Of course, archaeology was not free from agenda, any more than any other discipline. With the rise of nationalism across Europe, it became a way for many countries to proclaim their history. In the process, the actual truth about their ancestors was often distorted, to raise their country’s profile.
This same mindset was also fed by colonial ideology as the nineteenth century moved forward. The aforementioned Pitt-Rivers used the stone tools he excavated to construct a hierarchy of human evolution. Tools and religious items from different world cultures were organised in different levels of complexity, and the system naturally placed white Europeans at the top.
Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, from 1798 to 1801, was his attempt to portray himself as the new Alexander the Great. He was accompanied by hundreds of civilian scientists, whom he tasked with excavating the land. When the British pushed him back, they claimed much of these artefacts as plunder, most notably the Rosetta Stone.
The subsequent rush into Egypt by archaeologists came imbued with the doctrine of race science. Severed heads of mummies were used by George Gliddon and American slave owner Josiah Nott in Types of Mankind. This tome used these remains to argue that Black Africans were slaves to the Caucasian Egyptians, as justification for Caucasian superiority.
Severing the heads of mummies was one example of the damage that Europeans brought to Egyptian artefacts and sites. Nonetheless, many archaeologists began to see themselves as the saviours of Egypt’s heritage. In 1923, the Egyptologist Arthur Weigall was adamant that “Egyptians care not one jot for their history”. This was despite the Ottoman rulers of Egypt passing an antiquities protection law fifty years before Britain.
From the nineteenth to the early twentieth century, Europeans gradually moved their archaeological horizons eastward. Paul-Emile Botta’s excavations of Ninevah and Khorsabad, site of the Assyrian Empire, in 1843, began this trend. It was followed by the excavations of Nimrud and the Library of Ashurbanipal from 1845 to 1879, and Harappa, site of the Indus Valley civilization, in 1921. Among the discoveries made in the Near East were the shared linguistic roots between European languages, Babylonian, Persian, and Sanskrit. Evidently, the Indo-Europeans had a common heritage. When several of these languages were found to have a root word for people in arya, European ‘race scientists’ developed a mythology of the original Europeans as a lost superior race- the Aryan race.
The consequences of this need no introduction. It is perhaps fitting, that one of the great achievements in archaeology after WW2 helped disprove the idea of European superiority.
The development of radio-carbon dating in 1949 allowed archaeologists to date much older remains with far greater accuracy. One of the places this was applied was in Africa. Beginning in 1951, Louis Leakey’s excavations in Olduvai Gorge were perhaps the ultimate frontier in archaeology: uncovering the beginnings of humanity. The early results of this project were new specimens of Australopithecus. This early ape had been known since the 1920s, but Leakey’s work shone new light on their anatomy, demonstrably proving that this was the first species to walk upright, and therefore our ancestor. Then in 1962, there came the discovery of Homo habilis. This was a tool user, and the earliest species of hominin.
Archaeology had been used as a justification for regressive ideologies, ones which placed Europeans front and centre, and often justified horrendous atrocities against other people, even other Europeans. Now it demonstrates that the continent previously dismissed as savage and in need of European intervention, was where our origins lay.