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An Introduction

Kevin Greene, Tom Moore

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eBook - ePub


An Introduction

Kevin Greene, Tom Moore

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Über dieses Buch

Archaeology: An Introduction looks behind the popular aspects of archaeology such as the discovery and excavation of sites, the study of human remains and animal bones, radiocarbon dating, museums and 'heritage' displays, and reveals the methods used by archaeologists. It also explains how the subject emerged from an amateur pursuit in the eighteenth century into a serious discipline, and explores changing fashions in interpretation in recent decades.

This fifth edition has been updated by a new co-author, Tom Moore, and continues to include key references and guidance to help new readers find their way through the ever expanding range of archaeological publications. It conveys the excitement of new archaeological discoveries that appear on television or in newspapers while helping readers to evaluate them by explaining the methods and theories that lie behind them. Above all, while serving asa lucid textbook, it remainsa very accessible account that will interest a wide readership. In addition to drawing upon examples and case studies from many regions of the world and periods of the past, it incorporates the authors' own fieldwork, research and teaching and features a new four-colour text design and colour illustrations plus an additional 50 topic boxes.

The comprehensive glossary and bibliography are complemented by a support website hosted by Routledgeto assist further study and wider learning. It includes chapter overviews, a testbank of questions, powerpoint discussion questions, web-links tosupport material for every chapter plus an online glossary and image bank.

New to the fifth edition:

  • inclusion of the latest survey techniques
  • updated material on the development in dating, DNA analysis, isotopes and population movement
  • coverage of new themes such as identity and personhood
  • how different societies are defined from an anthropological point of view and the implications of this for archaeological interpretation
  • the impact of climate change and sustainability on heritage management
  • more on the history of archaeology

Visit thecompanion website at for additional resources, including:

  • chapter overviews
  • a testbank of questions
  • PowerPoint discussion questions
  • links to support material for every chapter
  • an online glossary and image bank

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The Idea of the Past

Our aim in this chapter is to show how some fundamental principles and methods emerged and combined to form the modern discipline known as archaeology. This has been the subject of several complete books, but we will attempt to map the development of archaeology in a wider intellectual context and look in more detail at some themes that are particularly important:
‱ Interest in landscapes and travel promoted the recognition and recording of ancient sites. Visits to sites, together with the habit of collecting ancient artefacts and works of art, eventually led to deeper investigations (with the help of excavation) of early civilisations.
‱ The study of human origins stimulated profound thinking about concepts of time, and forged lasting links between archaeology and the natural sciences, notably biology and geology. It also underlined the importance of being able to identify and interpret artefacts made by early humans.
‱ The word ‘prehistory’ was invented in the nineteenth century to describe the long period of human existence – undocumented in historical sources – revealed by newly developed archaeological methods. Later, these methods were applied to the study of other fundamental phenomena such as the transition from hunting to farming and the origins of urbanism.
These issues are not presented in a strict chronological sequence, and no clear line divides the history of archaeology from its present concerns. Many topics are discussed further in Chapter 6, which looks at more recent trends in theory and interpretation.


‱ key references: Trigger, A history of archaeological thought 2006; Murray, Milestones in archaeology 2007; Schnapp, The discovery of the past 1996.
It is important that the benefit of hindsight does not make us forget the constraints of the social and intellectual context in which antiquaries lived and worked. For example, in the early nineteenth century the Danish scholars who first organised prehistoric objects into three successive Ages (Stone, Bronze and Iron) assigned them to a very short time span. In mid-seventeenth-century Britain, Bishop Ussher had used the Bible to calculate that the creation of the Earth took place in 4004 BC, and other estimates were not much earlier (Stiebing 1993: 32; Rowley-Conwy 2007: 6–7). Pressure from developments in geology and biology to adopt a much longer time-scale did not finally displace the biblical scheme until the 1860s. The dating of prehistory underwent major revisions after the radiocarbon dating technique was introduced and accepted in the 1950s, while techniques such as potassium-argon dating revealed that some of the earliest sites with tools made by hominins were much earlier than had previously been suspected (Chapter 4).
We may learn a great deal by examining how early antiquaries and archaeologists (the difference between the two will emerge later in this chapter) 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 take care not to look only at the origins of ideas we still consider important, and ignore the wider setting in which they were formulated. At the most fundamental level it is possible to see the whole idea of looking for origins of things as a peculiarly Western intellectual diversion (Foucault 1970; Trigger 2006: 9–10).
We feel that it is important to place the development of archaeology within a broad intellectual, philosophical and historical framework; however, terms such as Renaissance, Enlightenment or Romanticism are less well known than they once were. Table 1.1 places onto a chronological scale the labels used in this chapter to indicate the cultural, political, philosophical or religious context of a particular approach to archaeology; many of these labels were only invented in the nineteenth century and are used for convenience. It is also worth remembering that in, charting the development of archaeological thought, the contribution of female archaeologists to these advances has often been underplayed because of the social context in which archaeology developed (Diaz-Andreu and Stig-SĂžrensen 1998; Kehoe and Emmerich 1999: 117). It is also true that this simplified account of intellectual history places Europe and America at its centre, and carries the implication that everything on the chart happened as part of a linear evolution towards the present. Although this kind of thinking can cause all sorts of problems (which are explored in Chapter 6), it may nevertheless be a useful starting point.
Table 1.1 Archaeology and the history of ideas

1.1.1 Archaeology and antiquarianism, prehistory and history

‱ key references: Sweet, Antiquaries 2004; Pearce, Visions of antiquity 2007a; Rowley-Conwy, From Genesis to prehistory 2007; Daniel and Renfrew, The idea of prehistory 1988.
The concept of prehistory is perhaps the single most important contribution made by archaeology to our knowledge of humanity; furthermore, it is 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 (Richard 1993). Indeed, research into human origins in the nineteenth century did as much as the discovery of civilisations to establish public awareness about what was distinctive about archaeology as an intellectual pursuit. Early progress in the study of ancient Greece and Rome established the value of recording sites and artefacts as well as documents and inscriptions; the term archaeology was already being used in Jacob Spon’s publications of his research in Athens and elsewhere in the seventeenth century (Etienne and Etienne 1992: 38–41). Nevertheless, most historical scholars gave the written word priority over physical evidence, and until quite recently considered archaeology inferior to the study of texts or works of art (Trigger 2006: 498).
Archaeologists still tend to be placed in one of two categories: prehistorians or historical archaeologists. This division is not particularly helpful, but it does distinguish the latter, who study people or places within periods for which written records are available, from the former, who are concerned with any period that lacks documents. Historical archaeologists usually possess a basic framework of dates and a general idea of the society of a particular period into which to fit their findings. In contrast, those who study prehistory, a concept only firmly established after 1850 (Clermont and Smith 1990; Rowley-Conwy 2007), have to create some kind of framework for themselves from artefacts and sites alone, normally with the help of analogies drawn from anthropology. The methods used by both kinds of archaeologist today are very much the same, and there is considerable overlap between their ideas and interests, including those who restrict the term ‘historical archaeology’ to a period beginning around AD 1500 (Hicks and Beaudry 2006). Historians who studied ancient Greece, Rome, or the Bible could set out to locate physical traces on the ground of events and civilisations described in literature; this possibility was simply not available to other historians, natural scientists or collectors who tried to make sense of artefacts or graves surviving from times before the earliest existing written records in other areas, for example pre-Roman Britain.
In 1926 R.G. Collingwood, a British philosopher who combined academic philosophy with extensive involvement in archaeology, disputed the clear distinction generally drawn between history and prehistory:
Strictly speaking, all history is prehistory, since all historical sources are mere matter, and none are ready-made history; all require to be converted into history by the thought of the historian. And on the other hand, no history is mere prehistory, because no source or group of sources is so recalcitrant to interpretation as the sources of prehistory are thought to be.
(quoted in Van der Dussen 1993: 372)
Collingwood was influenced by his knowledge of the difficulties of linking the general history found in classical documents to the physical remains encountered on Roman sites (and the problems in dating them). Another challenge to the perception of prehistory is exemplified by a Bolivian Indian archaeologist who questioned the simple dichotomy between written and unwritten evidence:
Prehistory is a Western concept according to which those societies which have not developed writing – or an equivalent system of graphic representation – have no history. This fits perfectly into the framework of evolutionist thought typical of Western cultures.
(Mamani 1989: 51).
This issue will be revisited in Chapter 6; meanwhile we should recognise that prehistory as a distinctive phenomenon seen through Western eyes is not a concept accepted throughout the world (Kehoe 1991b).

1.1.2 The problem of origins and time

‱ key references: Rowley-Conwy, From Genesis to prehistory 2007; Lucas, Archaeology of time 2005; Murray, Time and archaeology 1999b; Rossi, The dark abyss of time 1984.
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 (Gell 1992; Bintliff 1999). Recognition of the existence of a significant amount of time before historical records began was also essential before any attempt was made to understand it. Finally, people had to conceptualise using ancient objects, monuments and sites to explore prehistoric time. 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. Artificial mounds, abandoned occupation sites and ancient objects were often associated with deities, fairies, ancestors or other denizens of the world of mythology, and explanations of this kind abound in surviving folklore. Many prehistoric sites in England have traditional names that reveal this background, for example the large standing stones in Yorkshire known as The Devil’s Arrows.
For those early prehistorians who believed in a biblical Creation dating to 4004 BC, as calculated by Bishop Ussher, or by relating Roman and Greek historical documents back to the Old Testament (Rowley-Conwy 2007, 6–9), there was at least an upper limit to the age of any of the items that they studied. If not, an apparently insoluble range of questions was raised. Which sites and objects were in use at the same time, and how many years had elapsed between those that looked primitive and those that seemed more advanced? Did technical improvements represent a gradual series of inventions made by a single people, or did innovations mark the arrival of successive waves of conquerors with superior skills? The first step essential to any progress was a recognition of the amount of time occupied by human development in prehistory, and this advance took place in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the view of Bruce Trigger, the liberation of archaeologists from this ‘impasse of antiquarianism’ had two distinct consequences. The first was the development of new dating methods in Scandinavia, and the second was the study of human origins in France and England, both of which ‘added vast, hitherto unimagined, time depth to human history’ (Trigger 2006: 121). We will examine dating methods in Chapter 4, and look at the more fundamental and dramatic issue of human origins later in this chapter.
Hesiod, in the eighth century BC, had talked of five ages of man, from the Golden Age to the Iron Age. Roman philosophical poetry written by Lucretius in the first century BC contained ideas about the successive importance of stone, bronze and iron as materials for the manufacture of implements (Schnapp 1996: 332–3; see also below, pages 21–4). Although this Three-Age System was widely accepted as a philosophical concept by AD 1800, it was not applied in a practical way to ancient objects until 1816 (Rowley-Conwy 2007: 37–8; below: 23). Some individuals, such as the British antiquarian Thomas Wright, argued against its validity as late as the 1870s (RowleyConwy 2007: 2). It is difficult now for us to appreciate the basic problem that confronted historians or philosophers in literate societies right up to the eighteenth century AD. They were able to pursue their origins through surviving historical records, but beyond the earliest documents lay a complete void, containing unverifiable traditions that merged into a mythological and religious world of ancestors and gods. Gould’s thoughtful examination of the complex and varying concepts of time held by nineteenth-century geologists (1987) contains many surprises for anyone who had assumed that they rapidly adopted a ‘modern’ outlook. Indeed, the depth of archaeological and geological time is still grossly underestimated in the c...