Archaeological Beginnings: A Brief Discussion on the Start of the Archaeology Discipline

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Bowl barrow from an engraving of barrow types,...
Bowl barrow from an engraving of barrow types, from Colt Hoare’s introduction to “The Ancient History of Wiltshire”.

Archaeology has become an established and well-thought out discipline with set processes and methodologies. But the beginnings of archaeology were a little less professional. Archaeology as we understand it only really appeared in the 19th century. Before this there was a series of business ventures, treasure hunters, and few researchers. The 18th century especially saw archaeology with a sense of adventure especially with the discovery and initial looting of prominent sites like Pompeii. I call it looting rather than excavating because essentially it was. For instance, tunnels being dug through ceilings and walls to find and collect precious items, statues and frescos. Many of which still have unfortunately not been recovered.

Some of the first scientific excavations were carried out in the early 19th century by Thomas Jefferson, later to become the third president of the United States. In 1784 he decided to investigate some mounds on his property in Virginia and did so by digging a trench across the mound. Jefferson was ahead of his time and adopted a scientific approach while testing his ideas about the mounds with the evidence that was found in the trench and hence the mound itself. He recognised that there were different layers in the trench and established that this formed a timeline of sorts. Jefferson’s sound approach led to fairly logical deductions from carefully excavated archaeological evidence. In some ways he created a basis for modern excavations but this was not taken up by any of his immediate successors in America. And so we move over to Europe…

During the 19th century extension excavation was carried out at sites around Europe. One of the first to begin this was an Englishman by the name of Richard Colt Hoare (1758-1838). Colt Hoare started extensive excavations at a number of burial grounds in southern England using a more scientific approach. However, none of his excavations advanced the interpretation of the evidence by much because of the current biblical framework of ideas which he was subject to. This framework insisted particularly significantly a shorter time-span for human existence.

Charles Lyell 1875
Charles Lyell 1875

It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that the discipline of archaeology began to be properly established. New studies in geology assisted in this basis through increased knowledge of land formation and contributing factors. Scottish geologist James Hutton was one of the first to establish principles which were to become the basis of archaeological excavations. Hutton demonstrated that the stratification of rocks were due to continuing processes that could still be seen continuing in seas, rivers and lakes in the present day. From this knowledge Hutton established the basis principle of uniformtarianism. This principle, which is too long to type again, was argued by fellow geologist Charles Lyell in his book on the ‘Principles of Geography’ in 1833. Lyell argued that the ancient geological conditions were in essence the same of those of the present era, hence ‘uniform with’. With this principle the idea came about that this could also be applied to the human past also, on the basis that ancient humans were still like modern humans in needs, wares and thoughts. While placing modern ideals on ancient history is highly questionable, the essence of the idea was that we are all human. And thus was born the discipline of archaeology.

Check out

Archaeology: theories, methods and practice – Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn

Handbook Of Archaeological Methods

Archaeological Method and Theory: An Encyclopedia

Field Archaeology: An Introduction

Archaeology: An Introduction: The History, Principles and Methods


One thought on “Archaeological Beginnings: A Brief Discussion on the Start of the Archaeology Discipline

    How to find Archaeology Field Schools | GraecoMuse said:
    April 18, 2013 at 10:34 am

    […] Archaeological Beginnings ( […]

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