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The Origins of Archaeology

We are currently in the second week of this year’s Festival of Archaeology, a nationwide celebration of all things archaeological, organized by the Council for British Archaeology. Here at Abingdon Museum we are participating as well. But it got me thinking: since when have people been “doing” archaeology? Some people always must have been interested in the remains of the past, but how did they approach them? What did they think about them? And when did they start digging systematically for more?

Archaeology as a subject has existed for about 250 years. Professional digs as we would recognize them have only been conducted since the late 19th century, and it took a while for the associated skills to develop.

People who were interested in the past used to be called antiquarians. They did not necessarily dig into the ground to find things, but looked at features that were above ground. There are a couple of people in British history who stand out as having conducted systematic studies and advanced our knowledge about some of our most famous ancient monuments.

The first I need to mention is John Aubrey (1626-1697). He has actually been called “the first archaeologist”, but the term “archaeology” was unknown in his time, and he should probably be called an antiquarian, but he can certainly be considered a predecessor of archaeologists. His name is particularly associated with Stonehenge and Avebury. These are big features in the landscape and obviously hard to miss, and people had probably looked for explanations for their existence for a long time. One early theory about Stonehenge was that the monument was built by Merlin. Aubrey surveyed Stonehenge systematically. He was not the first to do so, it had been surveyed previously by Inigo Jones, who concluded that it was built by the Romans. You have to bear in mind that people at the time, when they thought of British history, did not think much beyond the Romans. They had no notion of prehistory (Stone Age, Bronze Age etc.) like we have today, although they were aware that there was something before the Romans.

Merlin building Stonehenge with the help of a couple of giants. From a 14th century manuscript in the British Library.

Aubrey discovered a ring of post holes, which had been unknown before. He then went on to survey other stone circles in the British Isles and concluded that they pre-dated the Romans and were built by the ancient Britons. The only ancient Britons mentioned in the literature were the druids, so Aubrey identified the stone circles as druidic monuments. Aubrey also wrote a book about these monuments, Monumenta Britannica, but it was not published in his lifetime.

The other famous predecessor of archaeologists is William Stukeley. He looked at Stonehenge in detail in the 18th century and also concluded that it was built by druids. Like Aubrey, he discovered some new features which hadn’t been looked at before. He was inspired by Aubrey, which is why he also looked at Stonehenge and Avebury. His main work was to survey the monuments and to sketch and map them and any interesting features in the surrounding landscape (such as burial mounds).

Map by William Stukeley of the reconstructed stone circle at Avebury (called Abury on the map), with surrounding features.

So far I have described the activities of these antiquarians mainly with the word “surveying”, and with good reason. The notion of systematic digging to discover remains underground hadn’t really caught on yet. Sure, people might have found a few things in the ground, and perhaps had a little dig around to see if there was more in the same spot, but an “archaeological dig” was unknown at the time.

The people who brought the digging aspect into archaeology came from a different direction and with a different motivation: they were tomb robbers and treasure hunters.

The two approaches came together and combined (you might even say collided) in Egypt during the time of Napoleon. In 1797 Napoleon arrived in Egypt with an army. He had already defeated Italy, where he had enjoyed all that classical art and architecture. Napoleon had a genuine interest in science (which included the study of the past), and he had brought scientists with him to Egypt. However, you can’t call them archaeologists or Egyptologists, since neither discipline existed yet. These scientists did with the Egyptian monuments, the pyramids, temples etc., what Aubrey and Stukeley had done with the British ones: sketching, drawing, measuring, surveying. They did not dig as such for objects. Some things were discovered by accident, like the Rosetta stone which was found in a pile of boulders by soldiers building defences.

All this scientific activity had a big effect back in Europe. Until then the magnificent monuments of Egypt had been more or less unknown, but now there were publications with detailed drawings, often in colour, not just of the buildings, but of the sculptures, reliefs and objects found in them. They alerted people to the exotic treasures which were to be had in Egypt, and they awakened a desire to possess them. A wave of collectors and dealers followed in the wake of Napoleon’s scientists. Not to miss out, museums and even governments commissioned collectors to get those desirable things for them. And that is exactly what the collectors did: they went in and got things, taking them without any regard for the context in which they were found. They enlisted the help of the tomb robbers, who knew their way around and the best places to find things. But the most successful “archaeologists” of that time were not those who made the most scientifically interesting discoveries, they were those who got the treasures with the greatest monetary value. They were after treasures in a strictly material sense.

In the decades that followed the concept of digging in search of ancient artefacts caught on, but for the most part even large-scale excavations were crude and unsophisticated. For example, in the mid-19th century, Babylon and Niniveh were excavated. The leading figures in these undertakings were Paul-Emile Botta, a French diplomat, and Austen Henry Layard, an Englishman with a passion for archaeology. Brian Fagan writes of the latter’s approach:

Layard worked with one objective in mind: to discover breathtaking artworks and artefacts that could be shipped to London. He knew that exotic finds sent to the British Museum would place him firmly in the public eye. By no stretch of the imagination could his work be described as careful recording.

The Palaces of Nimrud, illustration from Austen Henry Layard’s publication “A Second Series of the Monuments of Niniveh”. (Royal Collection Trust)

How then did the shift from treasure hunting to scientific archaeology occur?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but perhaps part of the explanation is that people who were naturally more logical and methodical got involved in archaeology. People like General Pitt Rivers, who combined military experience with a passion for archaeology. Pitt Rivers had inherited a large estate and a lot of money, so he had both the resources and the terrain to indulge his passion. He also had a scholarly mind, and planned and organised his activities efficiently. Pitt Rivers excavated Bronze Age burial mounds, an Iron Age fort and a Roman military camp. The work was done by a team of trained workers under several supervisors. Also on hand were a draughtsman and a model maker. At every stage, the finds and the layers where they were found were carefully documented, so that the context was not lost. Pitt Rivers also insisted that every find was recorded, not just the valuable or spectacular ones.

At the same time that Pitt Rivers made his forays into archaeology, some Germans changed the way in which excavations were conducted in a similar fashion. Karl Richard Lepsius, a professor in Berlin, was tasked with the organisation of field research. He was definitely a scholar, not a treasure hunter, and he had a logical and ordered mind. He recognised the importance of both artefacts and data, and organised his digs accordingly. “Careful organisation, responsible, slow-moving excavation, and prompt, detailed publication” is how Brian Fagan characterises his approach.

Lepsius trained others to take a similar approach. They set new standards for excavations, which are more in line with archaeology as it is practiced today: paying attention to all finds, large and small; meticulous documentation and record keeping, including drawings and photographs.

Heinrich Schliemann’s publication of his excavations of the antiquities of Troy

It took a while for this new approach to archaeology to catch on. At the same time as Alexander Conze, who had learned from Lepsius, was carefully investigating Samothrace, Heinrich Schliemann was digging up Troy “as though he were digging potatoes” in search of goodies. Archaeology was still dominated by enthusiastic amateurs, and excavators learnt not through formal training but simply on the job. But the Germans and Pitt Rivers, with their organised, logical minds, structured approach and attention to detail led the way along which the discipline of archaeology would eventually follow. They laid the groundwork on which the subject rests today.

Elin Bornemann, Collections Officer

My main source of information for writing this post, and from which I have quoted a few times, was Brian Fagan’s book “A Little History of Archaeology” (Yale University Press 2018).

Featured image: a modern-day excavation at Thrupp.


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