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The History of Excavation.

by Liam Byrne

Diploma in Archaeology, NUI Galway Module 1: Introduction to Archaeology Essay 1.

National University of Ireland Galway 2007

Introduction. Archaeology is a science. As a science it is multidisciplinary, bringing together many other scientific fields. Perhaps the most important thing that differentiates archaeology from, for example anthropology, is excavation. Excavation can destroy a site as thoroughly as building work or natural disasters and for many years, it did! Today however, properly undertaken excavation carried out by qualified persons has led to a major expansion in our understanding of the past. Discussion. One of the principal means by which archaeological data is captured and recorded, excavation involves the systematic exposure of deposits that are then taken apart. There are a number of different techniques of excavation each having its own strengths and weaknesses. Selecting a method that suits the kind of site under investigation and the questions being asked is an important preliminary to any excavation project. A widely held principal is that excavation should proceed by removing layers and deposits within the site in the reverse order to which they were laid down in the first place. The different methods also carry with them implications for the way things are recorded, although plans, sections, photographs, notebooks, field indexes, context records and sample logs will be found in almost all of them (Darvill, 2002, 139). One of the first excavations ever was carried out by Nabonidus, king of Babylonia, in the sixth century. He dug beneath the foundations of a temple dedicated to the sungod Shamash to find out who had built it and he discovered an inscription that answered his question. (Schnapp, in Green, 2002, 37). Why did Nabonidus carry out this excavation? Was he looking to prove his own people built the temple, or whether it was the work of the gods? We will never know the answer, only that he found whatever it was he was looking for. This exploration does, however, explain the basic reason for excavation to answer some question. This was not always the case. The first people to become interested in the history of the past were called antiquarians. Antiquarianism was an intellectual pursuit that developed in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and which was reinvigorated in the eighteenth century by the rediscovery of the ancient Classical world. (Darvill, 2002, 17). Antiquaries began collecting ancient artefacts for museums and private collections. (Green, 2002, 16). It was the collecting that interested them and the context of the find (its position in relation to other objects etc.) was unimportant. Initially items (inscriptions, documents, works of art etc.) were found by accident or by simple field survey (by looking), but later the appetite for collecting led to active seeking after things. This was the beginning of archaeological excavation. Wealthy individuals throughout Europe, with money to spend and time on their hands began to search for the wealth that they expected would exist at the most important sites. When Herculeneum was rediscovered in 1710 the Prince of Elboeuf dug shafts and tunnels into the ground to investigate the find. He was mainly interested in works of art for his collection. A more systematic approach followed in 1738 and Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748. Under the patronage of the King and Queen of Naples ancient masterpieces were quarried (sic) to embellish the royal palace. It was not

until 1860, when Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge that well recorded excavations began there. (Renfrew, 2001, 22). The credit for the first scientific excavation in the history of archaeology goes to Thomas Jefferson who, in 1784, dug a section across a burial mound on his property in Virginia (Renfrew, 2001, 21). Jeffersons excavation was intended to answer the question of who had built the mounds. The colonial mentality tried to degrade the local ability to undertake such work and ascribed their building to some higher intelligence, but Jefferson debunked the notion and placed the mounds firmly in the local tradition. Jefferson was ahead of his time and a scientific approach to excavation was to take many more years. In England Richard Colt Hoare dug into hundreds of burial mounds in the south of the country in the early years of the nineteenth century. None of these did much to advance the course of scientific knowledge. (Renfrew, 2001, 21). At about the same time, however, Jacques Boucher de Perthes became interested in archaeology in France. Though he did little excavation, de Perthes studied the gravel quarries of northern France and especially the stratigraphy the different layers in which the finds were discovered. This was an early example of the importance of stratigraphy in excavation (Green, 2002, 27) and his influence was to have a profound effect. In 1863 Heinrich Schliemann closed down his business interests and devoted himself to travelling and studying the ancient Greek world. After spending a long time reading and studying the text of Homers Iliad he decided that he knew the location of the fabled Troy and said so in 1869. Two years later he began excavating the site (Green, 2002, 38). Although not to the exacting standards of later work (Schliemanns methods have been described as crude and cavalier (Renfrew, 2001, 30)), Schliemanns excavations at Troy brought the Greek Bronze Age to light for the first time. He conducted his work as a conscious, problem solving exercise, rather than simply an artefact recovery one. He also paid attention to stratigraphy. However only solid structures were excavated and these were rapidly demolished to reveal the earlier features. (Green, 2002, 39). One of the final phases in the revelation of Europes early civilizations was instigated by Arthur Evans ca. 1898. He discovered the last great unknown European race, the Minoans a literate civilization from ca. 2000 BC. Evans had, at the age of eight, accompanied his father when he visited de Perthes in France in the late 1850s. The young Arthur found a flint implement and this early interest was to stay with him for the rest of his life. The excavations at Knossos were directed at the solution to a specific cultural problem and the results were spectacular (Green, 2002, 39). Evans illustrations of his work had an attention to detail which would allow later archaeologists draw conclusions that would have been unimportant (and perhaps impossible) for him to draw at the time. Though unimaginable in the 1890s his carefully documented approach was to form a critical element in later archaeological excavation work (Green, 2002, 89). General Pitt Rivers (1827 1900) was one of the pioneers of scientific excavation (Green, 2002, 29). His military experience proved invaluable, especially his knowledge of survey. He carried out excavations on his estates in southern England and in Ireland. Plans, sections and even models were made. The exact position of

every mundane object was recorded. He was a pioneer of total recording and he published his results. (Renfrew, 2001, 31). Sir William Petrie (1853 1942) was a contemporary of Pitt Rivers. He excavated in Egypt and Palestine. He invented his own techniques of sequence dating which he used to bring order to his research. Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1890 1976) was a military man who pioneered the grid-square method and is remembered for his excavations in India where he was Director General of Indian Archaeology. (Renfrew, 2001, 32). By the end of the nineteenth century many of the principles of modern excavation (stratigraphy, recording etc.) had been established. Archaeology as a science began to develop. Ian Richmond carried out extensive research on Roman military ruins in Britain by the judicious use of small narrow trenches carefully placed to check critical details. (Green, 2002, 93). But perhaps the greatest breakthrough came just after the end of World War 2 when, in 1949 radiocarbon dating was invented. This method, refined over the years, was to provide the context, long sought after by archaeologists. For the first time finds from excavations could be dated, not by reference to typology, but to the actual item itself. The nature of the individual item might not lend itself to the technique, (stone and metal cannot be tested) but the context of the find began to take on a scientific value. Carbon deposits found with the item (and carefully recorded in context) could be dated and the item then dated by association. The most common form of excavation and the one which is most obvious to the nonexpert is open-area excavation. These were developed in the first half of the twentieth century in Northern Europe (Green, 2002, 94). The technique arrived in Britain and the USA by the 1930s. Wheeler developed the maxim that good excavation should satisfy the demands of the vertical and horizontal aspect of the site. This has led to the modern technique of clearing the site in the horizontal context while carefully recording both the vertical and horizontal stratification and finds. Extent, contours, depth and consistency of each feature and layer must be carefully recorded before it is removed. The focus has changed from presenting one cross-sectional view of the whole site (as Jefferson had) to one of developing multiple layers which can be superimposed individually or in groups to clearly show the context of the entire site over time. Sketched, drawings, photographs and other records help to reassemble the site after the excavation has been completed. (Green, 2002, 96). Conclusion. Excavation is a very important part of archaeology. From humble and disorganised beginnings, where the prime focus was acquisition, the focus soon changed to context and the long road to modern excavation techniques began. Today the new fields of historical archaeology and industrial archaeology are using the techniques of classical archaeology to continue to bring the history of the past to life. Without the early adventurers none of this would have been possible. END Liam Byrne November 2007

References / Bibliography. The following works were used in the writing of this essay. Darville, T. 2002; The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology; Oxford; Oxford University Press. Greene, K. 2002; Archaeology: An Introduction. Fourth Edition; Abington; Routledge. Renfrew, C & Bahn, P. 2001; Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice; London; Thames & Hudson Ltd.