Origin and growth of Archaeology

Lt. Regina Razousinuo
Assistant Professor & Associate NCC Officer Department of History  

The genesis and evolution of archaeology is a long and checkered one. What we study today as the science of archaeology has its roots in treasure hunting and religion. It was born out of centuries of curiosity about the past.  

In the 6th century B.C., the royalties of Babylon pursued a passion for collection of local antiquities and developed some interest in antiquarian research, but there was no archaeology as such in the ancient world. What the Greek scholars developed concerning the study of man and his culture would be called Anthropology and Ethnography. E.D Phillips in his article, “The Greek vision of prehistory”, remarks that ‘archaeology is the product of European scholars of the last 200 years. It began in a formal way when the antiquity of man was scientifically established and the three age system was developed by Scandinavian archaeologists.’  

The Grave Looters: The birthplace of archaeology could be traced to Western Europe namely France, Britain and Denmark. Initially, some dilettanti of Italy in 14th and 15th centuries reveled in collection of art objects of ancient civilizations for the decoration of their drawing rooms. Simultaneously, a class of grave looters emerged among the European colonial powers who journeyed to Near East and Egypt. They unearthed and robbed the burial riches of great monarchs of ancient Egypt, Babylon and Persia and brought home along with their spoils a large number of art objects of the ancient civilizations of those countries. Some of the art objects landed in some of the museums in Europe. This process, however, contributed in arousing interest in the collection of art objects. Interest in art objects paved the development of classical archaeology.  

Classical Archaeology: The interest in classical antiquity caused a wave in late 14th century. Cyriacus of Ancona, who travelled in Greece and Mediterranean for 25 years for documenting archaeological monuments, collecting books and documents and copying the inscriptions, is considered as the first archaeologist. After the loss of his six volumes of commentaries on inscriptions in a fire accident in 1514, hardly any excavation in the modern sense took place and it was merely digging in hunt for objects. By 17th century, antiquities began accumulating in private hands. The accumulated classical art objects were laid for investigations. This classical study purveyed a model for the development of Egyptology and Assyriology. The ancient civilizations of Egypt and the Near East were unknown until late 18th century, except the limited records found about them in the Bible and by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The systematic investigation of ancient Egypt began with observations made by the French scholars who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt in 1798-99. They brought out the multi-volume “Description de I’ Egypte” in 1809.  

Antiquarian study: In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, there arose collectors of art objects in England, France and Scandinavian countries. This class of collectors gave rise to the stage of archaeological studies called antiquarian study. This stage of archaeological studies was enriched by a number of distinguished antiquarians in Britain. The European antiquarian research disseminated quickly with the expansion of European colonial rule to Asia, Africa, America and Australia and the collectors brought home from the overseas colonies hoards of antiquities and these objects of great historical values have filled the museums in Europe and have purveyed as evidences for the study of unknown ancient cults and civilizations in the East and the West.

The Beginning of Scientific Archaeology: The credit for the prestige of proving the great date of human past goes to a French custom official–turned –archaeologist named Boucher de Perthes, who in 1814 announced the discovery of stone tools found embedded in undisturbed geological deposits of sand and gravel in the valley of river Somme at Abbeville in Northern France in association with the fossils of extinct prehistoric animals. This important archaeological discovery was confirmed by British geologist and archaeologist, Sir John Prestwich and Sir John Evans. Sir Charles Darwin announced his epoch-making discovery called “Origin of Species”. Soon after, in 1863 Sir Charles Lyell published and confirmed the geological antiquity of man.  

The geological discovery of great antiquity of man received further confirmation when in 1857, the actual fossil remains of prehistoric man was discovered in a lion stone cave at Neanderthal in Germany. The Neanderthal man lived on earth between 80,000 to 35,000 years ago. This race of Stone Age man disappeared from the world after the ancestors of modern human race were evolved about 40,000 years ago. All these archaeological, geological and palaeontological discoveries laid the foundation of modern archaeology on the scientific principles and methods in the mid 19th century.  

The Birth of Modern Archaeology: The extension of Darwinism to man was largely due to T.H. Huxley, who published in 1863 his book called “Man’s Place in Nature”. Darwin also published his book, “Descent of Man”, in 1871, showing the applications of theory and evolution in place of man. It is sometimes argued that it was the “Origin of Species” which was really responsible for the development of archaeology. Prof. Grahame Clark states in his book, “Archaeology and Society”, that the acceptance of Darwin’s theory made it essential to extend the antiquity of man by long epoch. The vast extension in the range of human history was due to the new idea that man evolved from some antecedent animal species at a remote period of time. The origin of modern archaeology cannot really be attributed to one cause. The new geology, three age system, discovery of the antiquities of Egypt and Mediterranean countries, the theory of evolution, and some great archaeological discoveries brought the discipline of archaeology into existence in 18th and 19th centuries, and also revealed to the learned world the rich cultural treasures and civilizations created by archaeology to the level of scientific discipline of research and interrogation into the human past and enriched the growth and development of archaeology.  

The first archaeological excavation was started by a German businessman – turned – archaeological to discover the Homeric city of Troy. After this, the archaeological excavations were conducted in many parts of the world as the method of digging up history.   In the 20th century, the method of archaeological excavation has been perfected by applying scientific principles and methods and excavations conducted through this method have contributed to the development of archaeology as a scientific discipline.  

Since the mid-20th century, after the invention of radio carbon dating method by Prof. W.F. Libby of the University of Chicago, absolute data in terms of years have been calculated and applied in the reconstruction of the unrecorded prehistory of man in terms of historical prospective. The application of the method and principles of nuclear physics in solving the archaeology problem has contributed to the development of archaeology as a mature science in the present century.