Notepads to Laptops: Archaeology Grows Up

By Julian Richards
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.
Julian Richards with a skeleton from fifth-century Italy 

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 [notepads_laptops_fact_file.shtml] , the evidence from archaeology is all that we have.

Age of antiquarians

Image of John Aubrey
Engraving of John Aubrey, 17th-century antiquarian
There is evidence that people have been interested in ancient objects at least as far back as Roman times. There is, however, a difference between collecting objects for their curiosity or monetary value and collecting them for the information they can provide.

In Britain, the roots of what would eventually become archaeology can be found in the studies of 17th- and 18th-century antiquarians such as John Aubrey (1626-97) and William Stukeley (1687-1765). They observed ancient sites, speculated about their age and function, collected artefacts and even carried out basic excavations to try and prove their theories.

'... his observations ... made before modern agriculture brought many radical changes to the landscape, are still valuable.'

John Aubrey was one of the first to realise that some of the sites he observed must have belonged to the pre-Roman period, and he is credited with bringing the monumental stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire to the attention of Charles II. On the orders of the king he also prepared a detailed description of Stonehenge, and compiled a great work, Monumenta Brittanica, which contained a vast body of notes and drawings of sites of all periods.

William Stukeley was one of the first people to investigate properly the sites that he discovered by means of excavation, and his observations on his findings, made before modern agriculture brought many radical changes to the landscape, are still valuable. Unfortunately, in later years, he became obsessed with Druidism and tended to view much of what he observed as the result of the Druids' influence and labours. One exception was a long prehistoric enclosure near Stonehenge that he interpreted as a Roman chariot racing track, or ‘cursus’. The date has changed but the name remains.

Both men experienced major problems with chronology. The first was of timescale as, according to the calculations of an Archbishop Usher, the Bible stated that the world was created in 4004 BC. The second was concerned with artefacts, which the early archaeologists thought had more to do with status than age. They assumed that weapons or tools of stone must belong to the poorest members of society and those of iron to the middle ranks, while bronze was reserved for the higher orders. The potential for such objects to provide evidence of date rather than social position was unrecognised

Three-age system

Image of Stonehenge
Stonehenge, dating from the late Stone Age (5000 to 3000 BC)
The intellectual climate of the mid 19th century had a huge effect on archaeology, particularly on the study of prehistory. A system was developed by means of which ancient artefacts could be ordered and some concept of chronology could be recognised. This was the Three-Age System [notepads_laptops_fact_file.shtml] , which demonstrated that different materials could represent different periods of time and that prehistory could be divided into successive ages of stone, bronze and iron.

This type of sequence is known as a ‘relative chronology’ - it puts things in order but will not indicate how old the individual components are. Today, while the basic principle of the Three-Age System remains, we can subdivide the most ancient, the Stone Age into old (Palaeolithic), middle (Mesolithic) and new (Neolithic). The ages of bronze and iron are comparatively much shorter and have their own internal divisions, often based on differing styles of pottery or metalwork.

'Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution suggested that man’s origins lay within the animal kingdom.'

There were also great advances in associated sciences, with the work of Charles Lyell in geology and Charles Darwin in biology. Together these debunked traditional views that man was entirely separate from the rest of creation, absent until comparatively recent times. The association of stone tools with the bones of extinct animals demonstrated that prehistory was of a considerable duration, while Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution suggested that man’s origins lay within the animal kingdom.

The legacy of General Pitt Rivers

Image of rock formations
The classification of layers found in rock formations was key to Pitt Rivers' research
Later in the 19th century General Augustus Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, often described as the father of modern archaeology, applied the skills he acquired during his military career, and an enquiring and ordered mind, to campaigns of excavation.

His investigations were carried out in order to find the answers to specific questions. His sites were mapped and photographed with great precision. He understood the principles of stratigraphy [notepads_laptops_fact_file.shtml] - the sequence of layers and deposits that make up an archaeological site.

'... Pitt Rivers even had his estate carpenter make detailed scale models of his sites ...'

Pitt Rivers collected objects systematically and consistently, recognising the importance of fragments that would have been ignored by earlier archaeologists as being of little intrinsic or artistic value. The location of all these objects was precisely recorded and they were then carefully described and catalogued.

On the basis of these truly scientific archaeological investigations, detailed reports were written and promptly published. A wealthy man, Pitt Rivers even had his estate carpenter make detailed scale models of his sites as an additional permanent record, in many cases showing them before and after excavation.

Controlled destruction

Image of a dig
An archaeological dig in progress
Although a present-day archaeologist would feel quite at home on one of Pitt Rivers' excavations of more than a century ago, archaeology has continued to develop. Notebooks and pencils have been replaced by hand-held computers, measuring tapes by electronic surveying instruments, but despite these new tools the basic principles remain the same.

The excavation of a site involves its destruction, either partially or completely, in just the same way as it would be destroyed by a road builder's bulldozer. The only difference is that archaeological excavation is controlled and aims to carefully reverse the sequence of events that have led to the formation of the site where, as a result of human activities, deposits have built up gradually through time (stratigraphy).

'In theory, it should be possible to reconstruct a "virtual" site from the records that have been made ...'

Some individual activities may leave very obvious traces. A line of mortared bricks or stone is easily recognised as a wall, and even if it's been removed may well have left traces of its foundations. A hearth may show only as a patch of reddened soil and a few flecks of charcoal, while a change in land use from pasture to cultivation may only be recognizable in far more subtle traces, perhaps only in the colour and texture of the soil.

In a controlled excavation, starting at the modern ground surface, such events, represented by their layers and structures, are removed in the reverse order in which they built up. In the case of total excavation, everything that is the result of human activity is removed until undisturbed natural bedrock or subsoil (referred to as 'natural') is reached over the whole site.

During the removal every change in soil colour, texture or components that can be observed is recorded by means of drawings, photographs and written notes, while artefacts and samples are collected for later analysis. In theory, it should be possible to reconstruct a ‘virtual’ site from the records that have been made during an excavation even though the site itself no longer exists.

New techniques

Image of pottery
Traces of food and wine can be found in pottery fragments
Although the basic techniques of excavation have not changed radically over the past 100 years, what has developed enormously is the range of scientific investigations that can be applied to the site itself, the soils of which it is composed and the objects that it contains.

Sites can now be located by aerial survey [notepads_laptops_fact_file.shtml] or by the use of geophysics [notepads_laptops_fact_file.shtml] - both are ways of detecting subtle changes in the soils that represent pits, ditches, walls, floors, burning for hearths or other types of human activity.

The archaeologists of the early 19th century did not think it worthwhile to collect human skeletons, as they thought there was nothing that could be learnt from them. As a result, although burial mounds that they excavated have been stripped of their pots or bronze daggers, most still contain their original burials. By examining the bones in these burials 200 years later, it is possible not only to tell sex, age and stature of the people buried in them, but, by using DNA and isotopes [notepads_laptops_fact_file.shtml] , to find out about such aspects of their societies as kinship, migration, diet and health.

'Metal and stone may now be traced back to their place of origin ...'

Animal bones found at archaeological sites can also provide evidence of food and patterns of animal husbandry, while snail shells and grains of pollen contained within the soil offer clues to the local and more widespread environment [notepads_laptops_fact_file.shtml] and vegetation.

Metal and stone may now be traced back to their place of origin, as may the clay from which pots are made - giving indications of long-vanished trade routes. Pots [notepads_laptops_fact_file.shtml] , due to their considerable variation in shape, decoration and clay, have long been valuable for dating and demonstrating cultural links. However, recent advances in the study of lipids (types of fats) can also now show what different foods have been cooked in a particular pot.

Modern archaeology

Image of tree rings
Growth rings on a tree trunk
There have also been great advances in dating through the study of tree ring sequences - known as dendrochronology [notepads_laptops_fact_file.shtml] . This can, in optimum circumstances, provide an astonishingly precise date for preserved timbers.

Another technique is the more widely applicable radiocarbon, or C14 [notepads_laptops_fact_file.shtml0] , dating. This depends on measuring declining levels of radioactivity in materials that absorbed carbon when living, and has revolutionised our understanding of the prehistoric past. Bone, charcoal, wood or leather can all be used, and today only tiny samples of carbon are needed to get meaningful results.

Archaeology has developed enormously over the last 200 years and today, as new and developing scientific techniques allow us a greater understanding of the past, it has become an exciting area of study. Archaeology may have started as the preserve of wealthy landowners and scientists but today it is available for everyone to study and enjoy.

'Archaeology is not just about digging - the past is all around you ...'

Although most archaeology today is practised by professionals in museums, universities, government bodies, planning departments and field archaeology units, anyone can get involved. If you find the past fascinating and have an urge to learn and discover more, then visit your local museum, or join an archaeological society to find out what interesting sites are local to you, or where your nearest monuments record is.

Archaeology is not just about digging. The past is all around you - in your street, your village, your town. Explore it, record it, tell others what you have found, and you are well on the way to becoming an archaeologist.

Published on BBC History: 2005-01-24
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