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18 September 2014
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Notepads to Laptops: Archaeology Grows Up

By Julian Richards
Image of Julian Richards
Julian Richards with a skeleton from fifth-century Italy 

Julian Richards salutes those who first recognised the interest of odd things buried in the earth. And tells how this led to amazing insights into our ancestors' daily lives.

What is archaeology?

There are many ways of finding out what happened in the past - all of them with some drawbacks. There are oral records and the testimony of people who have lived through past events, but these, along with film and photographs, will only apply to comparatively recent times.

There are also written records, but these are fragile, and vulnerable to fire and flood. What's more, they may not always be objective - in many cases they describe events and the deeds of important people from one viewpoint only.

'... the evidence from archaeology is all that we have.'

And then there is archaeology, the study of the past through material remains - effectively the careful reconstruction of past events using rubbish. Rubbish such as the bones left over after meals eaten far back in ancient times, or pots that were accidentally broken, or fragments of flint with no obvious use. All these items would have seemed unimportant rubbish to those who discarded them, but are vital evidence to the archaeologist of today.

Archaeology can provide the type of information about everyday life in the historic period that would not normally be contained in written records. And if we want information about the lives our ancestors led in prehistory, the evidence from archaeology is all that we have.

Published: 2005-01-24

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