Archaeology is the study of the physical remains of the past—such things as ancient graves, ruins of buildings, works of art, and objects used in everyday life. These ruins and artifacts* provide vital clues to the past, offering archaeologists the opportunity to learn about the cultures and societies of ancient peoples.
* artifact ornament, tool, weapon, or other object made by humans
* excavate to uncover by digging
Digging for Treasures of Ancient Rome. The field of archaeology emerged in Europe during the A.D. 1500s, a period of cultural rebirth known as the Renaissance. At that time, many Europeans became very interested in the past, particularly in the ancient civilizations of Rome and Greece. Attention focused first on the ruins of Roman civilization that were uncovered in Italy. People began to excavate* among the ruins of the Roman Forum and other sites in and around the city of Rome. The primary goal of this effort was to find works of art from the ancient world that could be collected by individuals and museums. As it happened, the discoveries provided creative inspiration as well as the artworks themselves. Renaissance artists used ancient objects as models for new works of art, and Renaissance architects were influenced by the design of ancient Roman buildings.
In the A.D. 1700s, archaeologists explored the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Roman cities in Italy that had been buried in ash during the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Again, the primary purpose of the excavations was to obtain valuable works of art, but the cities unearthed in the digging brought other gifts from the past. The archaeologists found remarkably well-preserved remains of homes, shops, public buildings, streets, and gardens as well as sculptures, wall paintings, and even remains of grains and wine. These discoveries revealed a great deal about the lives of the cities’ ancient inhabitants and changed the way people thought about the past.
In the years that followed, archaeology increasingly focused on the importance of ruins and artifacts as a window to the past, providing crucial information about ancient history. At the same time, archaeology became more of a science with certain principles and procedures. Archaeologists learned to dig slowly and carefully and to make extremely detailed records of their findings, including the precise location of every fragment of pottery or other artifact unearthed. This scientific approach enabled archaeologists to piece together a clearer and more accurate picture of the past.
On the Trail of Ancient Greek Legends. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, archaeological excavations uncovered important ruins of early civilizations in Greece and on the island of Crete. The inspiration for these explorations came from stories and legends in ancient Greek writings such as the Iliad, the epic poem written by Homer.
In the 1860s, an amateur German archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann began a search for the ancient city of Troy. Although many people thought that Troy existed only in legend, Schliemann had read Homer’s descriptions of Troy and believed it had been a real place. Determined to find the long-lost city, Schliemann used the Iliad as his guide and in 1870 began excavating a large mound on the northwestern coast of Asia Minor (present-day Hissarlik in Turkey). There the archaeologist uncovered not one but a series of cities, buried one on top of the other. He also found gold jewelry and other treasures that convinced him that he had found Troy. Over the next century, other excavations confirmed Schliemann’s belief.
DIGGING UP THE PAST
Archaeologists have found that many famous sites of the ancient world were not destroyed, but merely buried. Much of modem Athens, for instance, is built on top of the ancient city, in early 1997, workers digging the foundation for a new art museum in Athens uncovered what is believed to be the school Aristotle founded, the Lyceum. Scholars recognized the Lyceum from descriptions of it made by ancient authors. Other important findings may be waiting underground, but the needs of the modem city do not allow for a thorough examination of what might be there.
Schliemann next set out in search of ancient Mycenae. Again using Homer’s epics as a guide, he explored a site in Greece and uncovered massive fortifications and royal tombs. This discovery provided the first look at Mycenaean culture, the ancestor of Greek civilization.
In 1900, British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans began excavating a site on the island of Crete in search of the house of the legendary King Minos of Knossos. Evans’s explorations revealed an ancient palace and other ruins, the first evidence of the ancient Minoan civilization that flourished from about 3000 to 1400 B.C. The work of Schliemann and Evans uncovered vital information about the earliest Aegean civilizations and provided a framework for historians and archaeologists studying the history of ancient Greece.
Modern Archaeology. In the last hundred years, archaeologists have unearthed a wealth of information about ancient Greece and Rome. Through their work, experts now know a great deal about how the people of these civilizations lived, worked, traded, and worshiped. Unlike the archaeologists of earlier centuries who focused on individual works of art or buildings, many archaeologists today explore broad topics such as the economic and social interactions of different ancient cultures. They also work with biologists, historians, sociologists, and other specialists to study all aspects of the civilizations. In addition, modern technology helps researchers find new information by analyzing traces of ancient food, accurately dating ancient artifacts, studying skeletal remains to determine the cause of death, and investigating underwater shipwrecks or submerged ruins. Through their work, archaeologists continue to uncover secrets about the ancient world as they reexamine old sites and discover new sites that have remained hidden beneath the surface of the earth. (See also Architecture, Greek; Architecture, Roman; Art, Greek; Art, Roman.)