Archaeology: A Secret History

The second episode of Archaeology: A Secret History covered the 18th & 19th Centuries. Two linked themes running through this era were the move from treasure hunting to scientific archaeology and the the move from wanting to own the past to wanting to understand the past. The third thread that tied the programme together was the move from investigating the Classical World of the Greeks & Romans, to looking further back for the history of civilisation before that era, or even in other places.

Miles started the programme by walking through the tunnels dug by Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre’s excavation of Herculaneum. This Spanish engineer was the first serious excavator of the city, but he wasn’t interested in the things that a modern archaeologist would be interested in. Instead he was after statues and other fine objects. So there are places where statues were taken out of their niches in the theatre they discovered, but the plinths they stood on are still there with the inscriptions that tell us who the statues were. That was considered boring.

In a similar treasure hunting vein was Napolean’s survey of Egypt. This was a military venture, but as well as an army he brought surveyors and they catalogued the country too. And took the best bits of the statues and so on that they found, planning to ship them back to France for the glory of the French Empire. When the British defeated the French they took the statuary etc back to England instead, for the glory of the British Empire. This statuary is the start of the British Museum’s Egyptian collections – and a lot of it is still on display in the Egyptian Statue Gallery at the BM, including the Rosetta Stone. The deciphering of hieroglyphs (using the Rosetta Stone as its starting point) not only let archaeologists learn about Egypt itself but also showed that civilisation existed long before the time of the Greeks and Romans. This was further backed up by the deciphering of cuneiform, and excavations in Mesopotamia.

Miles also talked briefly about Belzoni – the Italian circus strongman who excavated statues in Egypt and brought them back to Europe – but then we moved on to the discovery of ancient civilisations in the jungles of Mexico & South America. I forget which site in particular he showed us (I think it was a Mayan one), but the take home message was that this showed archaeologists that the history civilisation was more complicated than a simple progression from primitive to advanced in a single place.

In the 19th Century archaeology began to become an academic subject, no longer the sole preserve of rich enthusiasts or empire builders after a bit of bling to prove their worth. Miles talked about this a bit (with some footage shot in Cambridge), but then the last two personalities he told us about were still more in the gentleman amateur mould than academics. The first of these was Heinrich Schliemann, a German who went looking for Troy. Received wisdom at the time was that the Troy of Homer was a myth and had never really existed, but Schliemann found the site of Troy and then dug down past more recent remains to uncover much older sites. He actually overshot and the stuff he dug up was older than the era that Homer wrote about. By today’s standards he was a bit of a cowboy – having his wife dress up in the jewellery he found was probably the least of his sins. He is also thought to’ve added items to the cache of items that he identified as Priam’s treasure, and although not mentioned in the programme J remembers reading something about individual items that may’ve been altered to look more like what they were “supposed to”. But the take home message for this programme was that Schliemann pioneered using scientific techniques to investigate the objects he’d found. In particular analysis of the composition of the gold that made up the objects from Troy and the gold mask in Mycenae – and he believed this showed a link between the two settlements (necessary if you’re looking for proof of the Trojan War).

And Miles finished the programme by talking about Pitt-Rivers, which was particularly good from our perspective as we’ve just listened to the In Our Time episode about him (post). Rather than mention the museum Miles told us about Pitt-Rivers’ excavations, showing us not only a marker stone he put up on his land where he’d done an excavation but also the maps, models, detailed drawings and descriptions of what he’d found. Pitt-Rivers was a pioneer of systematic documented excavations. He details things like precisely where he found an artifact and recorded all the things he found not just the “interesting” ones. He was also more interested in the everyday artifacts, all in all a long way from the sort of excavation done by earlier people like de Alcubierre whose excavation of Herculaneum opened the programme.