Why Humans Have Always Been Fascinated With Their Ancient Past

Learn about the evolution of archaeology and human interest in it with this excerpt from “Archaeology: The Essential Guide to Our Human Past.”

H. erectus/ergaster lived in eastern and southern Africa between 1.9 and 1.4 million years ago. Lanmas/Alamy Stock Photo
As far as we know, human beings are unique creatures in that we are interested in our past—a phenomenon that British antiquarian William Camden (1551 – 1623) called a “back-looking curiositie.” And for the great majority of that past, and certainly for any period that predates writing, archaeology is our principal—and usually only—source of knowledge.

Archaeology is a vast and varied subject, covering everything from the crude stone tools of at least 3 million years ago to the materials thrown away yesterday. It encompasses the entire world, from the seabed to mountain tops, and from jungles to deserts.

Archaeology: The Essential Guide to Our Human Past

Epic in scope, yet filled with detail, this illustrated guide takes readers through the whole of our human past. Spanning the dawn of human civilization through the present, it provides a tour of every site of key archaeological importance.

The term “archaeology” derives from the Greek arkhaiologia (discourse about ancient things), but today it means the study of the human past through those material traces of it that have come down to us. The greatest challenge of the subject is that, for most of the things that ever happened in the past, very little evidence has survived, and of this evidence only the tiniest fraction is ever recovered by archaeologists, and it is difficult to know what portion of that is correctly interpreted or identified. But countless archaeologists rise to that challenge and maintain steadfast optimism that they can reliably reconstruct some aspects of the human past.

The discipline of archaeology arose primarily in Europe. By medieval times, people were becoming intrigued by “magic crocks,” probably cremation urns that mysteriously emerged from the ground through ploughing. Similarly, flints worked by humans and polished stone axes were constantly turned up as farmers ploughed their fields; these were usually interpreted as elf-shot or thunderbolts. The realization then slowly dawned in more enlightened minds that all these finds were in fact crafted by ancient peoples. At around the same time, discoveries of Greek and Roman sculpture began to be collected and displayed by wealthy families.

It was in the sixteenth century that some scholars in northwest Europe recognized that information about the ancient past could be obtained from the study of field monuments; thus, antiquarians in Britain, Scandinavia, and elsewhere started to visit and describe ancient monuments. The next two centuries saw these activities being pursued more systematically and increasing numbers of excavations were carried out. While these were mostly intended simply to retrieve objects from the ground, a few pioneers were already treating the work like a careful dissection, noting the relationships of artifacts to different layers in the soil, and realizing that, in general, objects from upper layers must be younger than those from layers below. There also arose a craze for barrow-digging, or excavating the burial mounds of northwest Europe or North America. This was primarily a leisure pursuit for gentlemen, clerics, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and the like, who would usually employ laborers to dig into the sites with picks and shovels.

It was really only in the early to mid-nineteenth century that true archaeology took over from antiquarianism, in the sense of attempting to be systematic and scientific about the vestiges of the past. This was the period when, through discoveries in western Europe of stone tools associated with bones of extinct animals, it was gradually realized and accepted that humankind had a formidable past. By the end of the nineteenth century, true archaeology was already flourishing, with many of the “greats” hard at work— such as Petrie in Egypt, Koldewey at Babylon, Schliemann in the Aegean, and Pitt-Rivers in Britain. By now, for most enthusiasts, archaeology was far less of a treasure-hunt and more a means of answering specific questions.

Through the twentieth century, thanks to the efforts of a series of major figures—Wheeler in Britain and India, Reisner and Woolley in the Middle East, Uhle and Kidder in America, Bordes and Leroi-Gourhan in France—archaeology became a massive, multidisciplinary enterprise, drawing on the skills of innumerable experts of different kinds: geophysicists, aerial photographers, zoologists, botanists, chemists, geneticists, and a whole range of scientists able to date different materials. Today, science-based archaeology is very much to the fore, and archaeologists are now taking part in some of the most prominent debates of our time, such as climate change—examining the effects of rises in sea-level and the consequences of global warming.

Overall, several major trends have emerged in archaeological studies since they began, and especially in recent decades. First, the work has become far slower, more painstaking and, inevitably, more expensive. Instead of tackling the stratigraphic layers with pickaxes, archaeologists carefully shovel the soil, scraping or brushing it away and recording each step in the sequence, and everything is sieved to prevent any scrap of information from being lost.
Excavation in progress on the Forum Boarium—the central cattle market—in Rome. Vito Arcomano/Alamy Stock Photo
Second, we are now acquiring vastly increased quantities of material of all kinds, to the extent that severe storage problems are created. As a result, it is sometimes wiser to leave evidence in the ground, rather than expose it to deterioration in unsatisfactory storage conditions. After an excavation, the study and analysis of finds may take decades rather than years; in fact, the processing and study of the results may take up the rest of the excavator’s life. This kind of timescale imposes a limit on what can and should be taken out of the ground. Further, the great cost in money and human effort of a major excavation has ensured that few big digs are now undertaken. For example, the excavation of the Upper Paleolithic rock-shelter of L’Abri Pataud (Pataud Shelter) by Hallam Movius between 1958 and 1964 yielded 2 million objects, and doctoral theses are still being written about this material today. Few Paleolithic sites in France have been dug on this scale since then, and only a few sites—such as the caves of the Sierra de Atapuerca, near Burgos, in Castilla y León, Spain, with their abundant content of nearly 1-million-year-old fossils— are sufficiently well funded to maintain annual excavations.

Third, the accepted dates for many phenomena—the appearance of farming or pottery, the arrival of people in Europe, the New World, or Australia—have been pushed steadily back in time, and may well continue to retreat. And fourth, thanks to new technology, archaeologists are now able to do far more with far less material. For example, the organic samples needed for radiocarbon dating are tiny, while pigment analysis can be carried out with equally tiny samples, or even—thanks to portable spectrometers—with no physical contact at all. Also, satellite imagery, advanced computers, GPS, and genetic and chemical analyses have revolutionized many aspects of our studies of the past. In view of the rapidly accelerating developments in these and other technological approaches, it boggles the mind to try and imagine what people will be able to learn fifty or one hundred years from now. A century ago, a potsherd was simply studied in terms of its manufacture, shape, decoration, and likely date. Today we can assess the precise contents of its paste, the source of its raw materials, the temperature at which it was fired, when the firing occurred, and, if the pot bears residues, what it formerly contained.

Our “back-looking curiositie” has also grown to become one of the foremost factors in world tourism, and indeed the economy of some countries relies heavily on archaeological tourism as a source of income: notable examples include Greece, Peru, Mexico, and Egypt. Unfortunately, warfare or terrorist events can have a devastating impact not merely on archaeological sites or monuments but also in deterring tourists from visiting. For obvious reasons, in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, archaeological tourism has been virtually nonexistent for years now, while, far worse for the historical record, ideological extremists have set about destroying or vandalizing monuments and museum collections. Even in Egypt, which has remained relatively unaffected by such hostilities, the fear of terrorist attacks alone has had a major impact. In 2010, the year before the “Arab Spring,” 14.7 million tourists visited Egypt. Tourism made up 11.3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and employed 1.3 million people. But only 3 million tourists visited during the first half of 2016—only half of the previous year’s equivalent.

However, ideological extremists do not stop at destroying monuments of the past, such as the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan or the temples of Palmyra in Syria. They also participate actively in the traffic in antiquities, looting sites and museums to obtain objects for sale to unscrupulous buyers in the West. This phenomenon is by no means limited to the Middle East; it is also common in other, more stable parts of the world, such as Latin America. Even China, which imposes draconian penalties on traffickers, is losing many of its antiquities to the West. Peasants in many countries stand to make enormous profits by selling their heritage to wealthy collectors, as do the middle-men who identify the buyers and smuggle the artifacts out to them.

Between 2620 and 2480 BCE, Stonehenge was extensively remodeled. First, the immense trilithons, consisting of two massive uprights and a lintel made of sarsen stone, were put up in a horseshoe arrangement. Around them was a circle of upright sarsens and lintels. Finally, the bluestones were relocated from the Aubrey Holes to the interior of the monument to form additional circular arrangements. Several more standing bluestones were erected along a gap in the bank through which the monument is entered.
  Skyscan Photolibrary/Alamy Stock Photo
The past has become big business, in many different ways. In the modern age of generally cheap air transport, people are able to travel farther and more often than their predecessors, and hence they can visit the great archaeological sites of the world relatively easily. Sadly, their increasing numbers are posing a serious threat to many sites and monuments, which are in real danger of being “loved to death.” The primary concern must be to preserve the sites for future generations, and unfortunately this means that tourist visits have to be severely restricted—and in some cases totally stopped—at certain sites. That is why only about fifty of the caves of Spain and France that were decorated in the Ice Age are open to the public, and the numbers of people admitted per day, and the time allowed inside, are carefully controlled. Access to Stonehenge in England or to the rows of stones at Carnac, France, is likewise restricted to prevent wear by hundreds of thousands of pedestrians per year. Major sites, like Pompeii, Italy; Machu Picchu, Peru; and Angkor Wat, Cambodia, are forever swamped by countless visitors. Even on Easter Island, remote in the Pacific Ocean, the increasing number of tourists has necessitated many restrictions on which paths can be taken and where visitors are allowed.

Archaeology has to weigh the right of the public to see the cultural heritage against its paramount duty to protect and preserve that heritage—and it can be very hard to strike the right balance. Difficult decisions often have to be taken, some of which are resented by the public because archaeologists are usually able to retain access to sites that become off-limits to others.

A tried solution to this problem—one that can only exacerbate as mass tourism expands further—is to create accurate facsimiles of some of the most threatened sites, such as the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in France, and that of Altamira in Spain. Also, virtual reality technology is making it possible to make virtual visits to many sites, and this option is likely to be expanded in the future to incorporate holograms and other effects.New technology is also having an unprecedented and very positive impact on archaeological studies in many different ways. A whole new world of digital archaeology is opening up awe-inspiring prospects for the future. For example, digital imaging and 3D printing have made possible an accurate and detailed recreation of the destroyed Arch of Triumph at Palmyra, and could likewise be used to restore or replace antiquities elsewhere, such as those attacked for various reasons or damaged by natural disasters. As long as there is some photographic or other recording of the precious relics of the past, there is potential for them to be “restored.”

In another exciting recent development, it has become possible to read texts that were thought destroyed. For example, a 1,500-year-old Jewish scroll, found at Ein-Gedi in Israel, was charred in a fire and thought unreadable, but X-ray scans and sophisticated computer programs have “unfurled” it virtually and made it legible. It is now hoped that this method can be applied to a cache of charred Roman scrolls found at Herculaneum, Italy.

In many places, modern archaeology has become a race against time because rapidly expanding construction and urbanization are threatening to destroy sites before they can be investigated. In Scandinavia, Alaska, and elsewhere, receding sea ice and glaciers are opening up previously inaccessible areas and exposing numerous artifacts. These are often astonishing finds, beautifully preserved organic materials that would have disintegrated in warmer climes, but that are now thawing and at risk of destruction. In its totality, this priceless and irreplaceable archive is being destroyed faster than archaeologists can locate and retrieve it.

Archaeology in the future will be a more anonymous activity than in the past, when it was dominated by big personalities. The relatively recent phenomenon of consulting and involving indigenous peoples in the study of their ancestors will be developed further. Androcentric views of the past will give way to equal emphasis being placed on the roles and activities of women and children. Also, there has been a growing realization that the ways in which archaeological data were presented to the public in the past were subject to all kinds of bias—expressing the prejudices and beliefs of the society, religion, politics, or world view of the scholars involved. Inevitably, the scholars were influenced by their background, upbringing and education, their social status, their interests, teachers, friends, and enemies, all of which colored the versions of the past that they put forward. Today’s archaeologists recognize their responsibilities in this domain, try to be more conscious of these factors, and endeavor to be more objective in their work.

Archaeology is undeniably a “luxury” subject in that it is not crucial to human existence. Nevertheless, it interests an enormous number of people and, as we have seen, is an important component in the economies of many countries. As long as it can go on stimulating and giving pleasure to the masses, its public funding and support will continue to flourish. Archaeology is the only discipline that can tell us about 99 percent of the human past, and can deliver insights into the big questions about our development—when, where, and how we originated; the human colonization of our planet; the development of technology, art, and writing; and the origins and spread of agriculture, complex societies, and urbanization. Only archaeology provides the long-term view of the human trajectory, and at the same time captures the interest of the whole world with spectacular finds such as Ötzi the Iceman or China’s Terracotta Army. Few other studies can make such a boast.

Archaeology: The Essential Guide to Our Human Past is available from Smithsonian Books. Visit Smithsonian Books’ website to learn more about its publications and a full list of titles. 

Excerpt from Archaeology: The Essential Guide to Our Human Past © 2017 Quintessence Editions Ltd.