In the Beginning
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In the Beginning

An Introduction to Archaeology

Brian M. Fagan, Nadia Durrani

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eBook - ePub

In the Beginning

An Introduction to Archaeology

Brian M. Fagan, Nadia Durrani

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In the Beginning describes the basic methods and theoretical approaches of archaeology. This is a book about fundamental principles written in a clear, flowing style, with minimal use of technical jargon, which approaches archaeology from a global perspective.

Starting with a broad-based introduction to the field, this book surveys the highlights of archaeology's colorful history, then covers the basics of preservation, dating the past, and the context of archaeological finds. Descriptions of field surveys, including the latest remote-sensing methods, excavation, and artifact analysis lead into the study of ancient environments, landscapes and settlement patterns, and the people of the past. Two chapters cover cultural resource management, public archaeology, and the important role of archaeology in contemporary society. There is also a chapter on archaeology as a potential career. In the Beginning takes the reader on an evenly balanced journey through today's archaeology. This well-illustrated account, with its numerous boxes and sidebars, is laced with interesting, and sometimes entertaining, examples of archaeological research from all parts of the world.

This classic textbook of archaeological method and theory has been in print for nearly 50 years and is used in many countries around the world. It is aimed at introductory students in archaeology and anthropology taking survey courses on archaeology, as well as more advanced readers.

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My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.
—Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias, 1818
Why study archaeology? What is the importance of this popular and apparently romantic subject? We will begin by looking at the place of archaeology in the twenty-first-century world. We will explain the subject’s roots, who we are, and what we do. Unfortunately, the discipline faces a crisis brought about by rapid destruction of important sites by industrial development and treasure hunting. Furthermore, all kinds of pseudoarchaeologies purporting to tell the truth about lost worlds, ancient astronauts, and sunken continents undermine archaeology’s credibility with a wider audience. As this chapter reveals, the reality of archaeology is one of rigor and professionalism, but can be more engaging than any invented Indiana Jones drama.
No one can fully understand archaeology without having some notion of its roots. The first archaeologists were little more than collectors and antiquarians who were searching for curiosities, buried treasure, and intellectual enlightenment. These treasure hunters were the predecessors of the early professionals, scholars who concentrated on site description and believed that human society evolved through simple stages, the final stage being modern civilization. Since World War II, archaeology has undergone a major transformation from a basically descriptive discipline into a many-sided activity that tries to understand how human cultures changed and evolved in the past. If there is one major lesson to be learned from the history of archaeology, it is that no development in the field took place in isolation. Innovations in many other disciplines, including geology, cultural anthropology, and computer science, resulted in changes in the way archaeology was carried out in the field and, more importantly, how researchers thought about the past.
Egyptian Queen Nefertari, first Great Royal Wife of pharaoh Rameses II, died 1255 b.c.

Introducing Archaeology


  • The First Archaeologists
  • What Is Archaeology Today?
  • Who Are the Archaeologists?
  • Why Study Archaeology
  • Who Owns the Past?
  • Is Archaeology in Crisis?
  • What Are the Goals of Archaeology?
The Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx.
Source: Watercolor of the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt, by David Roberts, 1838.
All was mystery, dark, impenetrable mystery, and every circumstance increased it. In Egypt, the colossal skeletons of gigantic temples stand in unwatered sands in all the nakedness of desolation; but here an immense forest shrouds the ruins 
 giving an intensity and almost wildness to the interest.
—John Lloyd Stephens, 1841
American traveler John Lloyd Stephens wrote these words as he explored the overgrown ruins of the great Maya city at Copán in Honduras in the mid-nineteenth century. He called Copán the “Mecca or Jerusalem of an unknown people” and made the exploration of the past high drama. It is still a fascinating adventure. Archaeology is the stuff dreams are made of—buried treasure, gold-laden pharaohs, the romance of long-lost civilizations. Many people believe that archaeologists are romantic heroes, like the film world’s Indiana Jones. Cartoonists depict them as elderly, eccentric scholars in sun helmets digging up inscribed tablets in the shadow of Egyptian temples. They are thought to be typical absentminded professors, so deeply absorbed in the details of ancient life that they care little for the pressures and frustrations of modern life. Archaeology is believed to open doors to a world of adventure and excitement, to discoveries, such as the spectacular tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, opened by English archaeologists Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1922. But where does this romantic image come from? For answers, we need only to look to the first archaeologists.

The First Archaeologists

The first archaeologists were indeed adventurers. The Maya civilization of Mexico and Guatemala was first described by American travel writer John Lloyd Stephens, who traveled in the forests of the YucatĂĄn with artist Frederick Catherwood in 1839. Stephens was already a gifted travel writer, Catherwood an artist with a reputation for spectacular public exhibitions, when they traveled to Central America.
Some early archaeologists dug for profit, others out of intellectual curiosity. None was more single-minded than Heinrich Schliemann, a German businessman (Traill, 1995). In his early forties he gave up business, married a young Greek woman, and set out to find Homer’s legendary city of Troy in 1871. His hectic search ended at the mound of Hissarlik in northwestern Turkey, already identified as Troy by the local American consul, Frank Calvert. Schliemann recruited 150 men and moved 325,000 cubic yards of soil in his early seasons (Figure 1.1). He proved the Homeric legends had some basis in reality, but his archaeological methods were brutal; he destroyed almost as much as he discovered.
Archaeology has come a long way since the days when one could find a lost civilization in a month. In this chapter, we define archaeology and explore its role in the modern world. We also discuss archaeology’s relationship to other academic disciplines, its goals, and the ethics of studying the past.

What Is Archaeology Today?

Many people still associate archaeology with all the adventure and glamour of the early archaeologists, as mythologized in the Indiana Jones movies—swashbuckling deeds of daring-do, sinister villains, and mythic treasure. And, of course, Harrison Ford and the good people win in the end. Great, crackling Hollywood stuff, which bears absolutely no resemblance to what modern archaeologists really do. There’s another popular misconception, too, that has archaeologists unearthing spectacular dinosaur fossils and all kinds of vicious creatures that flourished on earth long ago. Archaeologists study people; paleontologists research dinosaurs and other long-vanished animals. People never lived alongside dinosaurs, which became extinct about 66 million years ago. The earliest hominins appeared perhaps 6 or 7 million years before the present.
As witnessed earlier, a century ago, much of archaeology was a scramble for artifacts, spectacular and unspectacular, wrested from ancient cities and tombs. The old stereotype of a pith-helmeted professor digging in the shadow of a mighty pyramid had an element of truth in it. However, long gone are the days when an archaeologist would discover three royal palaces along the Tigris River in a week (this actually happened). Today, archaeology is a highly sophisticated, multidisciplinary science, which draws on a broad array of scientific methods. We used to be thought of as excavators in remote lands. Many archaeologists (including both authors of this book) do still work far from the beaten track, but some of today’s most spectacular discoveries come from air-conditioned laboratories. This, for example, is how we know that the Ancestral Pueblo people of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, imported cacao from Mexico to make chocolate drinks. Microscopic residues on pot fragments revealed the exotic import (Washburn et al., 2011).
Figure 1.1
Figure 1.1 Nineteenth-century excavation on a near-industrial scale. Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations at Hissarlik (Troy) in northwest Turkey.
Source: Courtesy of Interfoto/Alamy.

Discovery Catherwood And Stephens At CopĂĄn, Honduras, 1839

Scottish-born artist Frederick Catherwood (1799–1854) and New York adventurer and lawyer John Lloyd Stephens (1805–1852) formed a remarkable archaeological team. Hearing persistent rumors of great cities in the rainforests of the Yucatán, they sailed for Belize and Guatemala in October 1839 in search of lost civilizations. They set off inland with a small party and five mules. After a difficult journey through rough country, they arrived at the remote village of Copán, where they saw well-preserved stone walls across the river. Crossing the stream, they climbed a set of steps to a terrace completely mantled in vegetation. They stumbled across the terrace to the foot of a pyramid and came on a square stone column elaborately sculpted in bold relief. “On the front side was carved the figure of a man (evidently a portrait) curiously and richly dressed, whose face was solemn, stern, and well fitted to excite terror.” Fascinated, they followed their guide as he cut his way through the undergrowth. Catherwood paused to note and sketch fine sculptures. The brooding trees and clinging brush seemed to preserve profound stillness over the ruins. Stephens wrote: “The only sounds that disturbed the quiet of this buried city were the noises of monkeys moving along the tops of the trees and the crackling of dead branches broken by their weight.” Processions of 40 or 50 of them moved overhead, “like wandering spirits of the departed race guarding the ruins of their former habitations.” Copán was a kaleidoscope of sculptures, steps, and dense vegetation that powerfully affected the explorers. Few ancient cities have ever been described so eloquently. Stephens wrote: “The city was desolate. No remnant of this race hangs round the ruins
 . It lay before us like a shattered bark in the midst of the ocean.” Meanwhile, Catherwood stood ankle-deep in mud trying to copy the intricate carvings on the weathered stelae (columns) set in Copán’s great plaza.
Everything was a mystery; they never knew what they would find next. “I leaned over with breathless anxiety while the Indians worked, and an eye, an ear, a foot, or a hand was disentombed 
 when the machete rang against the chiseled stone, I pushed the Indian away and cleared out the loose soil with my hands” (quotes from Stephens, 1841: 271–273).
Stephens wanted to buy Copán and ship it back to New York piece by piece. However, the river was unsuitable for rafts, so he contented himself with buying the site for 50 dollars. The landowner thought he was an idiot; Stephens thought that he had the bargain of the century. Using a compass and a well-used tape that Catherwood had used in Egypt, the two men completed a rough survey of the core of the ruins over three days. As the artist sketched, Stephens wandered through courts and temples that extended over 2 miles (3.21 km) and pondered the mystery of the builders (Figure 1.2). Subsequently, artist and adventurer visited another Maya site at Palenque, then returned to New York where Catherwood’s paintings caused a sensation. Stephens wrote a classic account of their adventures, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, which became a best seller when it appeared in 1841.
Today, Copán is a major tourist destination and one of the most thoroughly studied Maya cities. The forest is gone, so it is hard to recall what the site must have been like when Catherwood and Stephens cut their way through it. You have to visit more remote, little-explored cities, such as the major center at Naranjo near perhaps the greatest Maya city of all, Tikal in Guatemala, to experience the modern equivalent. A dense tree canopy mantles the plazas; dense undergrowth covers the pyramids. When you clamber to the summit, you suddenly emerge from the trees and look across the forest. As you wander through this large, deserted city, you feel some of the emotions felt by Catherwood and Stephens when confronted by a totally unfamiliar civilization—exotic, flamboyant, and quite unlike those of Egypt and the Mediterranean world. And we’re lucky that the brilliant artistic and literary gifts of these two explorers rank among the immortal descriptions of ancient cities.
Figure 1.2

Figure 1.2a
Figure 1.2 CopĂĄn, Honduras. (a) Stela F, a.d. 721, which Frederick Catherwood sketched during his time at the site. (b) The cleared ruins today.
Source: Courtesy of Fabienne Fossez/Alamy Stock Photo and Jordi CamĂ­/Alamy Stock Photo.
Archaeology is the study of all aspects of past human experience primarily using the material (physical) remains of this behavior. These remains can include anything from prehistoric hand axes, to Egyptian mummies, to First World War trenches, and even more recent material. By rigorously studying these physical remains, we aim to understand (or interpret) more about the past and the circumstances of the people who left them.
For those of us who study very ancient, extinct s...