Archaeology: A Secret History

The main theme of the third episode of Archaeology: A Secret History was that the ideology of the archaeologist affects not only the things they look for but also the things they see when they find stuff. Miles also continued with some of the themes of the last episode – the increasing use of science in archaeology and the continuing move from looking at Kings & Emperors to looking at the lives of the common people.

Miles used V. Gordon Childe & Marija Gimbutas as two examples of archaeologists whose ideology we can easily see showing through their work. Childe excavated Skara Brae, a prehistoric village in Orkney (which we’ve seen in a couple of other TV programmes as well). In this village all the houses are approximately the same size. Childe was a Marxist & interpreted this as being a Neolithic communist paradise. Gimbutas was an American woman who worked on prehistoric Europe, and was particularly interested in the female figurines found across the continent. You can see her feminism and the political context of the USA in the 60s & 70s (like the Vietnam War) shining through her interpretation of that prehistoric culture as a peaceful society run by women with no weapons of war – feminist utopia before the men got in charge & spoilt it all. (Miles was keen to stress that while her ideas might not have much favour now, she was a pioneering woman in what had been a predominantly male field and her work drew attention to the importance of considering women’s lives in the past.)

Other ways ideology influenced archaeology are less noble. The obvious example here is the Nazi regime’s desire to find the origins of the Aryan race (in Scandinavia) and “prove” their “superiority”. But another example is the one Miles opened the programme with: the skull of Piltdown Man, “discovered” by Charles Dawson in Sussex in 1912. This skull was claimed as evidence of a “missing link” between humans and apes, and (not so) coincidentally an older ancestor than the Neanderthals discovered in Germany. This meant Britain had the first known human ancestors, how glorious! But in the 1950s more modern scientific tests finally proved that the skull was a fake – it was constructed from human and ape bones, which were stained, painted and broken and planted in the quarry (perhaps by Dawson, perhaps he was just duped).

The revelation of Piltdown Man as a hoax is an example of a feature of late 20th Century & modern archaeology – revolutions of technique can be used to re-examine previous finds. The meticulous labelling, recording and preserving of artifacts means you can go back to something and apply your new scientific tests. Examinations are never completely finished, there’s always more to find.

There was also another thread running through the programme – PR and spin. These days archaeologists present programmes on TV (like Miles himself) or have other public out-reach things, designed both to interest people and to get funding for further projects & investigations. This can be seen as something that develops through the 20th Century – he used Howard Carter and the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb as an early example of this. Carter had a dig diary that was the real one, and another one that was written with the idea that it was going to be read. The photos from the dig include staged ones of Carter investigating, and Carnarvon sold the rights to the story of the dig to the Times.

Overall I’ve enjoyed this series, but with such a lot of ground to cover in just three programmes it’s not surprising that it feels like he painted everything with very broad brush strokes. J was disappointed there wasn’t more about Egypt, in particular that there was no mention of Petrie in the whole series. Which was surprising because he developed the technique of using pottery styles to put sites into relative chronological order. Also as a consequence of the high level view all the archaeologists got reduced to a particular quirk or one-note charicature – for instance I know a bit more about Howard Carter and he wasn’t just (or even mostly) a man with a good grasp on PR. And in skimming through the wikipedia articles for the people I’ve mentioned in my write-ups for this series I can see that all of the other archaeologists are more complex that Miles presented them as. So I think the series could’ve done with a bit more space to let the complexities of the subject shine through, but it was a good very high level overview.

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.

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.