Archaeology: A Secret History

On Friday we started watching a new series about the history of archaelogy presented by Richard Miles. He started the first episode by talking about the Empress Helena’s trip to the Holy Land to dig up relics – which, if you stretch, can be considered the first ever archaeological expedition! At the very least it was an understanding that objects dug out of the ground can be used to understand the past.

We then moved briskly along to the Renaissance & an Italian called Pizzicolli. This is a very European history of archaeology (no mention of the Chinese, for instance, who were doing stuff that was at least as archaeological as the Empress Helena if not the Enlightenment era Europeans by the 7th Century AD). Anyway, Pizzicolli lived in the early 15th Century AD and became fascinated by the traces of the past that were all around the Mediterranean. He didn’t dig things up, but he’s still often referred to as the Father of Archaeology. What he did was to visit old ruins and to draw & describe them, and to collect the inscriptions and so on and try to figure out what these ruins were and who’d built them.

Miles touched on another couple of Renaissance era figures before moving on to the Enlightenment. Here we started with John Aubrey’s accurate scale drawing of the Avebury stone circle. During this era it was becoming clear that the history of Brtain stretched back further than expected – that these stone circles were the signs of a culture before the Romans. It was fashionable in the 18th Century for people (gentlemen mostly) to collect curiosities & Miles went to visit a large Cabinet of Curiosities and showed us some of the items in it. (Unfortunately I’ve completely forgotten where it was except I think in the north-west of England.) They covered a wide range of things, including bits of rock, fossils, and historic & pre-historic items.

During the Enlightenment there were also advances in other sciences that helped along the new discipline of archaeology. Miles trotted out the story of Archbishop Usher who’d counted up the years in the Bible and declared the date of creation to be 23 October 4004BC. Usher did this just as the modern ideas of geology were taking hold in the scientific world, so particularly poor timing on his part. The discoveries of geology and new ideas about how rocks were formed helped to give an idea of how old things were (in a relative sort of way) when they were dug out of different depths of earth. This started to stretch the length of time that we knew people were living in Britain. In particular a discovery of hand axes deep in a quarry in England showed that people were here long before the recorded history of the Romans & the Celts.

And Miles finished up this episode by going to visit the first Neanderthal skeleton that was ever found. This (once it was believed) was a discovery that completely broke with any idea that the Bible might give a literal account of creation and the rise of the human species. Not only was it far older than the calculated dates for the entire age of the Earth, but it also it was another human species.