Archaeology: An Introduction - 4th Edition 2002
The Online Companion: updated November 2007

CHAPTER 1 : The Idea of The Past













1.1.1. Archaeology and antiquarianism, prehistory and history

1.1.2. The problem of origins and time



It is important that the benefit of hindsight does not make us forget the constraints of the social and intellectual context in which antiquarians lived and worked. We may learn a great deal by examining how early antiquaries and archaeologists tackled the formidable problem of making sense of the human past without the help of the libraries, museums, travel and technical facilities available today. At the same time we should not reduce early scholars to 'textbook cardboard' by looking only at the origins of ideas we still consider important, and ignoring the wider setting in which they were formulated.

  • Studying the History of Archaeology: excerpt from A History of Archaeological Thought. 'In its original edition, Bruce Trigger’s book was the first ever to examine the history of archaeological thought from medieval times to the present in world-wide perspective. Now, in this new edition, he both updates the original work and introduces new archaeological perspectives and concerns. At once stimulating and even-handed, it places the development of archaeological thought and theory throughout within a broad social and intellectual framework.' (Cambridge University Press)
  • Materials for teaching the History of Anthropology 'We are making available for educational purposes a large selection of articles published in the American Anthropologist on the subject of the history of the discipline of anthropology. This is not a selection of papers of historical significance, but papers on the subject of the history of the field, along with some obituaries. Our goal is to facilitate learning and teaching the history of anthropology.' (American Anthropological Association Centennial Commission)
  • Bad Archaeology - an informative site with an ironic name created by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews and James Doeser, including section on the History of Archaeology

1.1.1 Archaeology and antiquarianism, prehistory and history

The concept of prehistory is perhaps the most important single contribution made by archaeology to our knowledge of humanity; furthermore, it was based almost exclusively on the interpretation of material evidence. The emergence of prehistoric archaeology in the nineteenth century, although it relied heavily upon natural sciences such as geology and biology, was a remarkable episode that changed people's ideas about themselves.


1.1.2. The problem of origins and time

A quest for origins is only possible in an intellectual framework that has a well-developed concept of time, in particular linear time that progresses from a beginning to an end rather than going around in an endlessly repeating circle of life, death and rebirth. Many societies have developed sophisticated mythologies which, in association with religion, allow the physical environment to be fitted into an orderly system where natural features may be attributed to the work of gods.

  • UC-Berkeley Museum of Paleontology Useful pages on geological time and evolution
  • Human Prehistory: An Exhibition 'The discovery of the evolution of man is attributed to two scientists of the 19th century: Sir Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin' (Demetris Loizos, Deree College, Athens)
  • Fossil Hominids: the evidence for human evolution ' overview of the study of human evolution, and of the currently accepted fossil evidence. It also contains a very comprehensive treatment of creationist claims about human evolution. If you are not interested in creationism, you can easily skip those pages. If you are interested in creationism, you can go directly to the pages on creationist arguments; they contain links to the fossils under discussion when necessary.' (Jim Foley)
  • Excavations and finds from Boxgrove, Sussex Human remains c. 500,000 years old were discoverd here in 1993 and 1995.
  • NB: See also Chapter 3 1.1

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1.2.1. Greece and Rome

1.2.2. Medieval attitudes to antiquity

1.2.3. From medieval humanism to the Renaissance

1.2.4. Archaeology and the Enlightenment

1.2.5. Antiquarian fieldwork in Britain

:: John Aubrey (1626-97)

:: William Stukeley (1687-1765)

1.2.6. Fieldwork elsewhere

1.2.7. Touring, collecting and the origin of museums

1.2.8. Science and Romanticism




1.2.1 Greece and Rome

Greek and Roman culture and commerce grew from modest origins but eventually embraced the whole Mediterranean region as well as parts of its hinterland. While Greek and Roman travellers might have felt that an understanding of other peoples would give insights into their own society, on a more practical level such observations were useful to other travellers and colonial administrators. Such ideas were taken up again with enthusiasm during the Renaissance and advanced to a stage where travel and observation developed into archaeological fieldwork.

  • Pausanias, Description of Greece Account of travel around Greece in the second century AD (English text from Perseus Digital Library)
  • Herodotus, History Written in the fifth century B.C., this history of Greece contains some ethnographic and topographical information (eBooks@Adelaide 2004, Translated by George Rawlinson)

1.2.2 Medieval attitudes to antiquity

For most of its history, Christianity has been founded on total belief in the Bible; to doubt its word offended not only God, but also the political organisation of Church and State that enforced its acceptance. Thus, independent thinking was discouraged by both intellectual and social circumstances, and new ideas were likely to be treated as heresy.

  • Historicity of the Bible 'The Smithsonian's department of Anthropology has received numerous inquiries in recent years regarding the historicity of the Bible in general, and the Biblical account of Noah's flood in particular. The following statement has been prepared to answer these questions.'


1.2.3 From medieval humanism to the Renaissance

The civilization that emerged from the ruins of the former eastern Roman Empire was very much a Greek Christian culture. Much of Greece was ruled by Italian states in the final years before the Turkish conquest, but they took little interest in its ancient monuments. In western Europe monastic scholarship gradually drew upon a wider range of ancient Greek and Roman writers until the rediscovery of pagan philosophers such as Aristotle inspired new interest in science and the natural world during the phase known as medieval humanism. The physical heritage of ancient Rome was understandably of particular interest during the fourteenth- to fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance. Scholars, artists and architects turned to pre-Christian Roman sources for largely forgotten ideas and new inspiration - for example by imitating Roman building practice.

1.2.4 Archaeology and the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was the culmination of increasing separation between science and religion among many philosophers of the eighteenth century AD. This rift had been developing since medieval humanists began to use the writings of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle in which ideas of biological and social evolution were already emerging.

  • Discovering the world in the 18th century: 'The Enlightenment was an age of reason and learning that flourished across Europe and America from about 1680 to 1820. ... The Enlightenment Gallery is divided into seven sections that explore the seven major new disciplines of the age: Religion, Ethnography, Archaeology, Art history, Classification, Decipherment and Natural history. It was opened in 2003 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the British Museum' 


1.2.5 Antiquarian fieldwork in Britain

The work of antiquaries who engaged in active field archaeology in Britain illustrates the aims and concepts of research into the past undertaken after the diffusion of Renaissance thinking into northern Europe. Before the sixteenth century, historical writers occasionally referred to monuments, but with little purpose other than to display sheer wonder, or to add circumstantial detail to some actual or invented episode in their works. The Tudor dynasty of the sixteenth century coincided with an increase in national consciousness, underlined by the Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England.

----- John Aubrey (1626-97)

Aubrey lacked the depth of education of Leland or Camden, but participated in a new kind of scholarship that came to prominence in the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. It was characterised by a desire to approach any subject from a sound basis of classification and comparison, whether astronomy, medicine, botany or antiquities. In addition to antiquities, Aubrey included natural and artificial phenomena in accounts of his beloved Wiltshire.

  • John Aubrey and William Stukeley on Avebury, Wiltshire: 'Prior to Alexander Keiller's wonderful contribution in making Avebury what it is to-day two names stand above all others when we trace the history of this fascinating place.' (Avebury Web)
  • John Aubrey (1626-97). 'Aubrey was not able to escape from the conundrum of dating ancient monuments. Although he was right to place Stonehenge and Avebury in a ritual context of pre-Roman date, he attributed Iron Age hillforts to Britons, Romans or Danes with wild inconsistency.' (p. 20)

----- William Stukeley (1687-1765)

Although the eighteenth-century Enlightenment favoured Classical literature, art and architecture, it also engendered reactions against a purely rational and secular outlook. By the nineteenth century this had resulted in a Romantic movement which preferred fanciful 'Gothic' buildings incorporating medieval features, and which glorified primitive and exotic peoples. Stukeley reflected these changes in the spirit of the age; his interpretations of sites such as Stonehenge, and its association with primitive religion, were very much in tune with the sentiments of Romanticism. These interpretations never affected the quality of his fieldwork, however.

  • William Stukeley (1687-1765). 'It is noteworthy that Stukeley was already aware of the role of fieldwork as part of rescue archaeology: he wanted to "perpetuates the vestiges of this celebrated wonder & of the barrows avenues cursus &c for I forsee that it will in a few years be universally plowed over and consequently deface"d' (p. 23)
  • William Stukeley: Abury - A Temple of the British Druids 1743: 'A full facsimile copy of William Stukeley's book ... has now been added to the site. Although Stukeley's own exotic and academically inspired theories dominate much of the text, for researchers it remains one of the most important and essential sources of information about Avebury's past.' (Avebury Web)

1.2.6 Fieldwork elsewhere

Historians of ideas, science or archaeology can point to early antiquarian work throughout Europe. In Scandinavia, Johan Bure and Ole Worm undertook antiquarian research - with royal patronage - in the early seventeenth century, and similar efforts were devoted to Roman and earlier antiquities in central Europe. A German pioneer of the systematic investigation of Roman art and architecture in Italy, Johann Winckelmann, was a near contemporary of Stukeley. An indigenous archaeological tradition had also emerged in America by the nineteenth century.

  • DANGEROUS ARCHAEOLOGY: Francis Willey Kelsey and Armenia (1919-1920) (Kelsey Museum of Archaeology (Ann Arbor, Michigan))
  • Gertrude Bell 1868-1926 An on-line archive about an adventurous woman and her travels in the Near East, including diaries and stunning photographs
  • Timeline of American archaeology – 'From the moment of the discovery of the New World questions of Native American origins and the nature of the cultures discovered there were to captivate the minds of the discoverers, the colonists and the members of European society' (from Minnesota State University's EMuseum)


1.2.7 Touring, collecting, and the origin of museums

In western intellectual circles, the collection and study of objects ran parallel to the development of archaeological fieldwork but did not become dominant until the nineteenth century, when the expansion of agriculture, industry and (eventually) archaeological excavations began to provide sufficient quantities of pottery, metal and stone artefacts for advanced studies.


1.2.8 Science and Romanticism

Nineteenth-century Europe experienced a spectacular rate of change. Science had moved on from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to become what we know today - a discipline based upon laboratory observation and experiment, rather than a term encompassing the pursuit of knowledge in general. Awareness of rapid change probably boosted interest in causes and effects, and assisted in the development of grand explanatory schemes.

  • The Social & Intellectual Context This fascinating website about amateur antiquarian H.M.J. Underhill includes many illustrations of prehistoric archaeological sites. 'The formal and informal links between amateurs and professionals and their contributions to the development of the study of British prehistory can be illustrated by the formation and membership of new 'scientific' societies during the latter part of the nineteenth century' (Institute of Archaeology Archives, University of Oxford
  • Romantic view of Stonehenge This dramatic view of Stonehenge by John Constable, painted in 1836, is characteristic of Romantic perceptions of archaeological sites in the landscape (Victoria and Albert Museum)

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1.3.1. Scandinavia and the Three-Age System

1.3.2. Typology



'Sophisticated prehistoric objects made of cast bronze were commonly assigned to the Romans or Danes, because antiquarians lacked a clear idea of what to expect from prehistoric material culture. For these reasons the systematic study of objects began with simple stone tools from very early periods. Casual finds of finely worked flint arrowheads or polished axes must always have suggested human manufacture to anyone who actually thought about them, and it would not have been difficult to reach the idea that they might have been used before metals were known.'

  • Stone Age Reference Collection Institute of Archaeology, Art History and Numismatics (I.A.K.N.) at the University of Oslo, Norway. The text and graphics link to animated stacks illustrating processes such as flint knapping techniques (pressure flaking, burin technique etc.) and some 'games' (eg. naming the parts of a flint flake).


1.3.1 Scandinavia and the Three-Age System

The archaeology of Scandinavia is particularly rich in finely made artefacts dating from the prehistoric to Viking periods, and many of them are found in good condition in graves. Increased building, agriculture and excavation in the nineteenth century had provided a plentiful supply of discoveries.

  • National Museum, Denmark The National Museum (established in 1807) has one of the oldest collections of prehistoric finds in Europe. The museum began when King Frederik VI (1768-1839) set up a royal commission for the preservation of antiquities. The key figure in dividing the antiquities into Stone, Bronze and Iron Age categories was Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1788-1865).


1.3.2 Typology

Classification was an important part of the Enlightenment approach to science; typology differs from classification in that artefacts are arranged into sequences according to developments and changes that may then allow them to be placed into a hypothetical chronological order. This may not seem a particularly significant distinction until it is recognised that before the nineteenth century there was a prevailing idea that the natural world was fixed at the time of the Creation.


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1.4.1. Evidence for human antiquity

:: John Frere and Hoxne

:: Boucher de Perthes

1.4.2. Catastrophists, Uniformitarians, and the impact of Darwin




1.4.1 Evidence for human antiquity

In 1619 Lucilio Vanini was burned alive for suggesting that humans originated from apes, while the great apes were only classified as distinct (but related) species - as opposed to degenerate forms of humans - in the eighteenth century, by Linné and Buffon. Pioneers of geology and fossil classification such as Ray or Cuvier were not able to contribute to this debate because neither fossil apes nor primitive human remains were encountered until the 1830s.

----- John Frere and Hoxne

Volume 13 of Archaeologia (published in 1800) included a minor item, of which the full significance did not become apparent for sixty years. Amongst an assortment of papers was a short letter from John Frere, drawing attention to some observations made in a clay pit at Hoxne in Suffolk. He reported flint weapons found at a depth of twelve feet in a layer of gravel, overlain by a bed of sand containing bones of extinct animals and, remarkably, shells and remains of marine creatures 'which may be conjectured to have been once the bottom, or at least the shore, of the sea'.

  • A MEMORIAL TO JOHN FRERE - News of a long overdue memorial to a man who might be considered the 'father of scientific archaeology'
  • Hoxne handaxe – axe from Hoxne published by Frere, which he thought to be from '...a very remote period indeed'; it is now identified as Lower Palaeolithic, about 400,000 years old (British Museum)


----- Boucher de Perthes

By the time of Frere's death in 1807 Jacques Boucher de Perthes was already becoming interested in archaeology in France; he spent several decades studying the gravel quarries of northern France. He was impressed by the great depth and variety of the deposits of sediments and he felt that they were far too complex to result from the biblical Flood, although he did not totally reject the authority of the Old Testament.

  • Boucher de Perthes 'The French geologist Jacques Boucher de Crevecour de Perthes, was born September 10, 1788 and was noted for being one of the first academics to form the idea that archaeological history could be charted using periods of geological time. (ArchaeologyExpert)'

1.4.2 Catastrophists, Uniformitarians, and the impact of Darwin

The recognition of authentic associations between flint axes and the bones of extinct animals did nothing to solve the problems of dating faced by geologists and historians: how long ago did these humans and animals live?

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1.5.1. World prehistory



In some ways it is more difficult to conceptualise the process by which people who had hunted wild animals and gathered plants for food for several million years turned into settled farmers. Nothing meaningful could be said about the actual origin of civilization(s) until some understanding had been achieved of the earlier adoption of agriculture by settled prehistoric communities

  • First farmers discovered 'The first farmers grew wheat and rye 13,000 years ago in Syria and were forced into cultivating crops by a terrible drought, according to UK archaeologists' (BBC Sci/Tech News)

1.5.1 World prehistory

Developments during the twentieth century in integrating archaeological and scientific evidence with anthropological interpretation mean that world prehistory is now a meaningful concept.

  • World Prehistory in New Perspective: details of a classic book by Grahame Clark. 'The origins and development of human culture throughout the world are re-examined in this new, generously illustrated edition of Clark's famous work. There is much more detailed and up-to-date coverage of the various territories, particularly America and Australasia...' (Cambridge University Press)

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1.6.1. Greece and Rome

1.6.2. Egypt and Mesopotamia

1.6.3. The Aegean Bronze Age: Schliemann and Troy

1.6.4. Greece and the Aegean: Evans and Knossos

1.6.5. India and Asia

1.6.6. Civilizations in the Americas



It is important to remember that civilization is a modern definition imposed upon the past from a western intellectual perspective. The fact that the modern world is dominated by sophisticated cities and states might encourage a view that the discovery of civilizations was a more important archaeological achievement than the revelation of human origins or the growth of the study of prehistory.

  • Ancient Civilizations: a sophisticated presentation that allows you to pursue aspects of civilizations - 'The British Museum uses objects in its collection to explore the cities, buildings technology, trade, religion and writing of the ancient world'.

1.6.1 Greece and Rome

The Classical Mediterranean civilizations of Greece and Rome received particularly close attention from the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries AD. Their familiarity reduced the potential for Classical archaeology to introduce new techniques and concepts, compared to the study of earlier civilizations in Egypt or Mesopotamia, or prehistoric issues such as human origins.

  • The invention of Antiquity: An exhibition held in the Rare Book Room of the Canaday Library, Bryn Mawr College, 2004: 'The recovery and interpretation of long-neglected texts and monuments required great intellectual discipline. At the same time, there was a pronounced element of creative fantasy in classical studies. The idea of antiquity met a present need. It would eventually enable a revision of the foundation myth of modern Europe, establishing a robust Athens alongside Jerusalem at the origin of the West.'

1.6.2 Egypt and Mesopotamia

Some indications of the early history and antiquities of Egypt and Mesopotamia could be gleaned from Classical writers, while even earlier references abounded in the Old Testament of the Bible. Classical archaeology had amplified written records about Greece and Rome, and hinted at the origins of their civilizations; investigations in Palestine and Mesopotamia therefore offered similar success in relation to the Bible. Thus, a wide public could take a safe interest in news of discoveries that promised to enrich and confirm one of the major formative elements of European Christian culture.

  • Jean Francois Champollion: The Father of Egyptology '...provided the foundation that scholars would need in order to truly understand the ancient Egyptians. Even though he suffered a stroke, dying at the age of forty-one, he himself added to our knowledge of this grand, ancient civilization by translating any number of Egyptian texts prior to his death.' (John Warren; one of many biographical articles from Tour Egypt)
  • Giovanni Battista Belzoni 1778-1823 'Belzoni was no intellectual scholar, he was an amateur archaeologist. As an explorer he was motivated by finding hidden treasure so that he could sell the artifacts to collectors. His methods were often destructive and quite unorthodox but his discoveries laid the foundation for the scientific study of Egyptology.' (MSU EMuseum)
  • Sir Austen Henry Layard 1817 –1894 'Layard’s excavations at Nimrud and elsewhere provided crucial evidence of both the antiquity and the cultural achievement of ancient Mesopotamia, particularly Assyrian civilization. Through two memorable travelogues of his excavations at the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, Layard presented his archaeological activities to readers in narrated forms lending a new depth to his readers’ awareness of their collective past. ' (MSU EMuseum)
  • DANGEROUS ARCHAEOLOGY: Francis Willey Kelsey and Armenia (1919-1920) (Kelsey Museum of Archaeology (Ann Arbor, Michigan)). Contextual information about the expedition and individual photographs is also provided.

1.6.3 The Aegean Bronze Age: Schliemann and Troy

Part of the enduring appeal of Schliemann's life-story lies in his rather dubious role as an outsider who took on the academic establishment and outwitted the Greek and Turkish authorities in the relentless and successful pursuit of his theories. However, Schliemann was not the only archaeologist in Greece or Turkey to pay attention to the recognition and recording of stratification and finds during an excavation.


1.6.4 Greece and the Aegean: Evans and Knossos

One of the final stages in revealing the early civilizations of Europe and the Near East took place when Arthur Evans investigated the origins of the Mycenaean civilization revealed by Schliemann in Greece. Soon after the independence of Crete in 1898 John Evans excavated the Minoan palace at Knossos, where a literate civilization had developed from around 2000 BC.


1.6.5 India and Asia

Despite contacts through commerce with the Roman Empire little was known in Europe about India or China before the sixteenth century. By the nineteenth century no educated European could remain ignorant of the fact that civilization, measured in western terms through its cities, art, architecture and systems of writing, was not restricted to the ancient Near East and Mediterranean region.

  • Colonial India Archaeological photography and the creation of histories. Fascinating collection of engravings and photographs compiled by Sudeshna Guha, Cambridge University
  • Ancient India – a section of Minnesota State University's useful EMuseum
  • China – more from the EMuseum


1.6.6 Civilizations in the Americas

Spanish conquistadors and churchmen reported the existence of sophisticated urban civilizations during initial contacts in the early fifteenth century, but only recorded them in the course of their destruction. Some churchmen wrote detailed accounts of Mayan settlements, customs and religion; Diego de Landa (1524-79), first bishop of Yucatán, also described and sketched remains of abandoned settlements. Archaeological rediscovery began in the eighteenth century, but the literate civilization of the Maya was first presented to a wider public by John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in the 1840s.


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1.7.1. Excavation: the investigative technique of the future



The rapid developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries incorporated several preoccupations already established during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Pursuits that were considered respectable in intellectual circles happened to include collecting artefacts and recording ancient sites as part of the scientific study of natural history. The efforts of individuals, usually amateurs and often eccentrics, established the methods of fieldwork, and led to the opening of displays in museums that had to be staffed and catalogued.


1.7.1 Excavation: the investigative technique of future

Interest in material remains, and in particular the concept of excavating sites for information rather than treasure, developed well after the great period of descriptive study characterised by antiquaries such as Aubrey. Although by the sixteenth century the study of ancient ruins (accompanied by attention to coins and inscriptions) was an indispensable companion to historical investigation of the past, the idea of using systematic excavation lay far in the future.

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