Archaeology

When I excavate sites and touch things that have lain untouched for centuries, I know why I am an archaeologist.  Janet Spector

The Honourable Lord has taken advantage of the most unjustifiable means and has committed the most flagrant pillages. It was, it seems, fatal that a representative of our country loot those objects that the Turks and other barbarians had considered sacred, Sir John Newport a contemporary of Lord Elgin referring to the removal of the famous Marbles from the Parthenon.

An archaeologist is someone whose career lies in ruins. Unknown source

The website Answers.com defines archaeology as the “systematic study of past human life and culture by the recovery and examination of remaining material evidence, such as graves, buildings, tools, and pottery. “ However our image of archaeology is influenced by such films as the Indiana Jones saga, The Mummy and Stargate. These movies bear little relation to reality. In fact, the true story of archaeology is much more interesting with a colourful cast of rogues treasure hunters and frauds.

The history of archaeology is absolutely fascinating. The ancient Egyptians engaged in it. In the Renaissance it was typical to look at ancient Roman remains. But things really got going from the 17th century onwards when there was an international race to acquire ancient artefacts. Thomas Howard Earl of Arundel, (1585-1646), was a pioneer in this race, excavating some Roman statues, which with other ancient sculptures that he had picked up, were given to the University of Oxford in 1667 and which are now housed in that city’s Ashmolean Museum. Howard was to become the model for European treasure hunters for the next two to three centuries. My favourite character has to be Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778 – 1824). This Italian certainly chose an unusual career path, working as a circus strongman and an engineer before becoming a prolific explorer of Egyptian antiquities. Well, a more accurate job description would be a tomb robber for the British council in Cairo. When he got bored with that he started working on outdoor projects as well. In three explosive years he would send tons of stuff back to England. The sad truth is that The Great Belzoni would destroy much more than he would ever find. There are so many other interesting characters who I could talk about. These include French scholar Jean-François Champollion who was the man who translated the Rosetta Stone in 1822. And of course there was Heinrich Schliemann, a German businessman and archaeologist who believed that the origins of a culture could be found in myth and literature. He had his faults but he was not one of those unscrupulous treasure hunters and his work at Troy was  an important milestone.

The origins of modern archaeology were in the mid 19TH century Europe where it developed in the context of the growing geological understanding of the age of the world and Darwin’s theory of evolution. The Danish historian Christian Jürgensen Thomsen divided European prehistory into a three ages: the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

I could talk more about serious archaeology but frankly pseudoarchaelogy is a lot more fun. I know that real archaeologists get pretty annoyed about these fake practitioners. I know that they have studied for years and they are meticulous. It must be galling to see how fame goes to a bunch of charlatans. But I kind of enjoy these pseudoarchaeologists and their wacky theories about the lost kingdom of Atlantis, the magical powers of the pyramids and the mysteries of Nazca. The big star must surely be Swiss-born Eric Von Däniken. Basically for Däniken it all comes down to extraterrestials. Humans were not capable of building such sites as Stonehenge and the statues of Easter Island. Therefore it must have been aliens. This seems a rather spurious claim and an insult to the efforts of many great civilisations. We should celebrate the wonderful inventiveness and sophistication of these peoples rather than invent such far-fetched theories.

Another fruitful area for this bunk is New Age archaeology. There are distinct variations but one common trait seems to be the idea that ancient cultures possessed special wisdom that we have now lost. If we were somehow able to recover it, then we could heal the world. The Mayas for examples are supposed to have amazing abilities OF prediction. Often there are feminist overtones with the worship of a Great Cosmic Mother/The Goddess/Mother Earth They hark back to this so-called golden period. But I think that their evidence is a bit dodgy. Just because you have female Gods doesn’t mean that these societies were dominated by women. And just as I said in my post about the Greeks we cannot depend on the past for our morality and ethics. These ancient people were humans with all our virtues and vices and trying to project our desires onto them is a futile endeavour.

Archaeology has raised and continues to raise many ethical dilemmas. Surely the most famous of these are the Elgin Marbles, which have graced the British Museum since 1812. One should remember that they were not stolen and were acquired by the Lord from the Turkish rulers of Greece (This part is controversial). They have been well preserved in London and have been enjoyed by billions of visitors. There are thousands of Greek artefacts in museums all over the world. But for Greece the marbles are a national symbol and returning them has become a question of national pride. The question of looting is a serious one. There is a massive international trade in antiquities. This is bad because it deprives humanity of the chance to appreciate these works and if a piece is looted we lose all the context of where it was found. The past matters. It tells us so much about who we are. We have seen that some bad things were done in the past. We have to learn from these errors so we can preserve our heritage.

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