Ancient History & Civilisation



If we human beings want to feel humility, there is no need to look at the starred infinity above. It suffices to turn our gaze upon the world cultures that existed thousands of years before us, achieved greatness before us, and perished before us.


We are at the end of the panorama of great archæological discoveries, at the end of a promenade that has led us through five millennia. Yet the theme is by no means exhausted. At the same time the choice we have made among the multiplicity of archæological discoveries was guided all along the route by a definite intention. By arranging excavations according to the cultural arena where they occurred, rather than in chronological order, we have achieved in our four “books” an almost spontaneously created picture of four closed cultural provinces, four of the most important advanced cultures known to mankind. It must be remembered in this connection that between the few great cultures and the myriad primitive societies throughout the world a difference obtains that suggests the difference between “history” and vegetation, between apperception and instinct, between a creative molding of the environment and passive subsistence.

By “books that cannot yet be written” it is implied that there are three cultures that rank almost as high in the developmental scale as those already explored. These three are the Hittite, the Indus, and the Inca cultures. The archæological literature given over to them has yet, however, to reach a stage definitive enough to allow its condensation into the sort of “books” of which our story is constructed.1

I have deliberately chosen for portrayal those cultures whose exploration has been richly fraught with romantic adventure. Actually we know almost as much about the Incas as about the Mayas; but there is neither a Stephens nor a Thompson among the archæologists who have worked in the Andes. On the other hand, we also know a great deal about the history of Chinese culture. Here, however, our knowledge derives only negligibly from excavational activity; and so it is plain why both these cultures have been left out of account.

For some decades the Hittite and Indus Valley regions have been thoroughly investigated, and with much success. “Books” about them, accordingly, will some day have to be written. Yet one fact we must bear clearly in mind. Even were we to extend our four books by three more, even then we should by no means have covered all cultures of advanced status. For the ordinary educated man of our time, the Greco-Roman culture, outside the Christian-European heritage, is the only spiritual influence of which he is actively conscious. Yet even when we were treating the mysterious Sumerian people, we were beginning to realize that many much more remote and older cultural forces still lurk in the hinterland of our being. The modern English historian Arnold J. Toynbee sees the history of mankind as a contiguity and succession—mostly in a father-son relationship—of twenty-one cultures.

Toynbee arrives at this high count because he understands culture to mean a “civilized society,” unlike Spengler, who thinks in terms of “cultural spheres” of much wider scope. For example, Toynbee separates the Christian-Orthodox society into two different aspects: the Byzantine-Orthodox and the Russian-Orthodox. He also considers the Japanese-Korean culture apart from the Chinese.

Toynbee’s modestly titled A Study of History in twelve volumes (a two-volume condensation of Volumes I–X has also been published for popular consumption by D. C. Somervell) may well prove to be the most significant cultural history of recent decades. Among other things, it finally buries a concept already shaken by Spengler: namely, the idea of “progressive development” that is still taught in our schools. This notion has really become untenable—for example, as in the traditional schema of “Antiquity—Middle Ages—Renaissance—Modern Times.”

To give a proper picture of the cultures that the modern historian must reckon with—including those which I have tried to bring to life—let us count them off after Toynbee:

the Western

the Byzantine-Orthodox

the Russian-Orthodox

the Persian

the Arabic

the Hindu

the Far Eastern

the Hellenic

the Syrian

the East Indian

the Chinese

the Japanese-Korean

the Minoan

the Sumerian

the Hittite

the Babylonian

the Egyptian

the Andean

the Mexican

the Yucatán

the Mayan

Actually this listing, if we cared to follow other authorities, would have to be increased to at least twenty-two. It is Plato who tells us about the lost culture of Atlantis. Since Plato’s day approximately twenty thousand volumes have been written on the Atlantis theme, though as yet no one has been able to prove the existence of the mythical continent. In this literature are countless works that treat Atlantis as an integral part of the world picture. And the great German cultural historian and African explorer Leo Frobenius would have insisted on adding some “black cultures” to Toynbee’s list. Frobenius, too, consistently used the concept of an “Atlantean culture.”

Who dares claim that the archæologists have dug up all possible cultural vestiges? Throughout the world are scattered monuments which, standing alone and mysterious, have yet to yield the secret of the culture that gave them being. The most discussed artifacts of this category are the more than 260 statues of black volcanic rock on Easter Island, which at one time were decked with broad hats of the same kind of stone, only of reddish hue. These likenesses are silent, but there are some twenty wooden tablets covered with what appears to be a hieroglyphic form of writing, and these might solve the riddle of the statues were we able to decipher them.

A promising step in this direction has been made by Thor Heyerdahl of Kon-Tiki fame. As the world knows, the young Norwegian explorer crossed the Pacific from the Peruvian port of Callao to one of the Tuamotu islands on a raft built in Inca style and named after the Inca sun-god, in the spring of 1947, to prove a connection between the Inca culture and that of the South Sea islands. Less than ten years later he paid a visit to Easter Island. Even his early, popular account of his findings in 1957 aroused widespread interest. Then, in 1958, Thomas Barthel, a German anthropologist, published his extraordinarily acute Grundlagen zur Entzifferung der Osterinselschrift (Principles of Deciphering the Easter Island Script), with his interpretations of many hieroglyphs. These interpretations have now been challenged, however, by the publication in 1965 of the full scientific analysis of Heyerdahl’s data, including more inscriptions. It seems that the Easter Island script is more mysterious than ever.

But the philological axiom that texts in an unknown tongue and an unknown script cannot be deciphered without a bilingue has now been disproved. Back in 1930 the German Hans Bauer managed to decipher Ugaritic in one bold sweep—he correctly interpreted seventeen out of thirty signs in only a few weeks. The rare good fortune of finding another bilingue fell to Helmuth Bossert in 1947, when he discovered a tablet covered with Phoenician and Hittite hieroglyphics on the Karatepe in southeastern Turkey. The task of decipherment that had baffled three generations of scholars could now be accomplished.

Signature of Asitawandas, king of a Hittite grand duchy on Karatepe (“Black Mountain”) in southeastern Turkey.

But the greatest feat of decipherment in our century was achieved by a “dilettante”: the young English architect Michael Ventris managed, in 1953, where scholars all over the world had struggled in vain for fifty years, to decipher the Cretan so-called “Linear-B”—finding it to be an ancient Greek dialect (see this page).

Recent efforts to develop electronic translation machines have led not so much to translation by computer as to new approaches in the study of language as such. It is possible, however, that the new electronic data-processing devices may come to be of some use in the decipherment of ancient scripts as well.

In our own century the number of archæological excavations has increased from decade to decade, interrupted only by our senseless wars. Some researchers have given their entire lives to a single complex of problems. Thus the Frenchman Claude F. A. Schaeffer concentrated on the ancient Syrian harbor town, Ugarit; the Italian Amedeo Maiuri burrowed in Pompeii for over forty years, until 1962—yet only three fifths of that city has been unearthed so far. The German Kurt Bittel has been digging since 1931 in the ancient Hittite capital, Hattusas (modern Bogazköy). Sir John Marshall made the excavation of the Indus culture his life’s work. In 1922 the first finds were made at Harappa, in the southwestern Punjab. In 1924 excavations at Mohenjo-Daro disclosed evidence of a rich culture reaching back into the second millennium B.C. Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s excavations at Harappa brought to light, in 1946, ancient fortifications showing an astonishing similarity to old Mesopotamian military works. A joint reopening of the Mohenjo-Daro site by the University of Pennsylvania and the Pakistan government department of archæology—initiated during the winter of 1964–5 as part of the three-year program—has already found much evidence that the Harappan civilization, far more extensive than originally supposed, was destroyed by flood rather than invasion.

A number of extraordinary finds made headlines either because of their actual significance or the sensational circumstances surrounding them. Leonard Woolley, the great excavator of Ur, had been working at Alalakh, now called Atchana, in Turkey, from 1937 to 1939, and again from 1946 on. In 1947 he announced that he had come upon the grave of King Yarim-Lim, almost four thousand years old. The American Nelson Glueck crowned a successful archæological career by uncovering “King Solomon’s Mines.” The Mexican Alberto Ruz demolished the seemingly sacrosanct thesis that, while the Egyptian pyramids were royal graves, the Mexican pyramids were only temple pediments: in 1949 he found the grave of a ruler in the Maya pyramid of Palenque. And in one of the sacred wells of sacrifice, a Cenote of the Mayas in Yucatán, into which Edward Herbert Thompson descended as an amateur diver a generation ago to bring up golden treasure, modern aqualung divers in our own decade brought to light four thousand more cult and art objects within four months. In 1954, the Egyptian Zakaria Goneim defied improbability by unearthing, near Sakkara, a totally unknown step pyramid.

Another momentous feat was the exemplary excavation of a neolithic town near Çatal Hüyük in Turkey (probably an actual town as early as 6000 B.C.) begun in 1958 by an Englishman, James Mellaart—after another surprisingly ancient town had been dug up under the ruins of Jericho by Kathleen Kenyon and others. Final dating, as well as whether it can be called a town or a city, is still under discussion, being a question for the sociologists among cultural historians rather than for the archæologists as such. Perhaps the most spectacular of recent excavations is the one undertaken in 1963–5 by Yigael Yadin, former chief of staff of the Israeli army and archæologist, who exposed the rock fortress of Masada in the Judaean desert, where, according to the great Jewish historian Josephus, 960 Zealots committed suicide rather than surrender to the Roman besiegers.

It was, however, a stroke of pure luck that led to what is probably the most interesting and significant find in all Christian-Occidental archæology, and one that is keeping scholars all over the world glued to their desks even now: Bedouin goatherds in 1947 found ancient Hebrew scrolls in a cave near Qumran, north of the Dead Sea, including a complete text of the Book of Isaiah. More discoveries in other caves nearby were added. The now world-famous Dead Sea scrolls cast an entirely new light on what was happening in the sphere of religion before the birth of Christ. Each new find means that we have extended our knowledge by so much. Occasionally it means, too, that we have to revise our seemingly secure opinions. Some years ago a new argument about Troy broke out. Neither the Schliemann nor the Dörpfeld interpretation of Trojan archæology was correct, it was asserted. The American Professor Carl William Blegen in 1932 re-examined the diggings on the mound of Hissarlik. As a result of this search he maintains that it was not level VI—as Dörpfeld, in later years, vigorously claimed—that contained the ruins of Homeric Troy, but level VIIa, the level identified, according to Blegen, with the period between 1200 and 1190 B.C.

For archæology in general, the most important development since World War II is the sweeping methodological effect of certain advances in the natural sciences and technology. Two new branches of investigation, aerial and marine archæology, barely attempted heretofore, leaped to maturity almost overnight. Since Paul Kosock used aerial photography over the Andes, it has been taken for granted as a preparatory measure in planning an excavation, especially the kind of large-scale dig that aerial survey has helped to make possible today by taking in enormous areas impenetrable to the antlike surface traveler. Among other things the aerial photograph reveals traces of ancient structures beneath the surface, by registering subtle variations in the ground cover and in the coloring of the soil.

Something started by isolated sponge divers on the coasts of Greece at the turn of the century, when they rescued an occasional amphora from the “Blue Museum,” has been transformed into systematic underwater archæology by the daring Frenchman Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the inventor of the aqualung. What may be hidden in those hundreds of ancient shipwrecks lining the Mediterranean coastal shelf is still beyond surmise.

Once more it was an outsider who revolutionized modern archæology, this time by means of technology and physics. The Italian engineer and industrialist Carlo Maurilio Lerici applied geophysical methods, hitherto used only for finding oil or water in deserts and mountains, to archæological exploration. He began with the vast old Etruscan burial grounds north of Rome, locating hundreds of grave chambers underground in the briefest possible time with his highly sensitive instruments. One of these was a special drill for cutting through surface layers above a grave chamber, so that a “periscope” could be lowered into the chamber. By this means it was possible to explore the inside photographically before opening it up—thus saving a great deal of time and effort that might otherwise have been expended on excavating an empty cavity. Lerici might be called another Schliemann; like the excavator of Troy, he first made his fortune in industry, then at the height of his career turned entirely to archæology and spent a fortune on it. In 1964, after barely a decade of work, he announced the discovery of 5,250 new Etruscan graves in Cerveteri and Tarquinia alone!

It was from America, however, that the two most significant scientific aids to modern archæology came: contributions from atomic physics and biology respectively. They brought the fulfillment of archæology’s oldest dream, the possibility of exact dating.

In 1948 the American Willard F. Libby worked out his method of radiocarbon dating. It was based on the fact that the rate of decomposition of an isotope found in all organic matter, carbon 14, is known. Relics from graves before the periods for which we have written records can now be accurately dated by Libby’s “timeclock.”

But such physicochemical dating could not be exact to the year; it had always to be stated with a plus-or-minus differential that increased with the age of the object. Another American, Andrew E. Douglass, physicist and astronomer by profession, had for some decades been developing a different method which was now within a few years brought to a high degree of accuracy by a team at the University of Arizona: the method of tree-ring dating or dendrochronology. The number and character of the annual growth-rings in trees, tree stumps, even carbonized remains of trees, provided a sort of natural calendar from which exact annual dates could be read. Since there was found to be a certain overlapping when the annual rings of trees of various ages were compared, one could work his way backward into the past from tree to tree, as it were, wherever tree remains were found in ruins and graves.

Thus it became possible to move forward—or rather, backward—into the early centuries of our era in studying pre-Columbian ruins in North America. So-called “flowing” chronologies—without linkage to any fixed date of our own chronology—such as the decision whether a certain object is a year older or younger than another, can be worked out by this method in all millennia and will be invaluable aids in either confirming or refuting corresponding dates already established in our old world.

All these new techniques have not only refined the quality of archæological research but also quite considerably increased the quantity of its results. Formerly the expeditions in the field at any one time could be counted on two hands. Today the University of Pennsylvania alone is supervising more than twenty expeditions annually. Indeed, the accumulation of materials in some areas is. too great—the purely scientific labor of classification and interpretation cannot keep up with it. Too often the newly excavated materials—and this is a new danger—tend to wander into the museums, there to be reburied at once.

But the light of publicity poured on the originally esoteric pursuits of the archæologists has had at least one welcome result. Humanity, which used to be so entirely absorbed in the daily assaults of contemporary events and future threats, has learned to be curious about its past and even fascinated by it. This new appreciation manifested itself with a violence no one would have suspected when the technicians announced that they were planning to build a dam in Egypt that would result—unfortunately!—in the total immersion of a few old monuments. Involved primarily were the monumental rock sculptures of Abu Simbel and about a hundred others; they merely happened to be among the oldest and most significant works of art in human history. An outcry arose throughout the civilized world. From the largest organizations to the smallest classes of schoolchildren fund-raising campaigns were set up. UNESCO intervened, and more than twenty countries united to save Abu Simbel.

What more remains to be said?

Digs are in progress all over the world. For we need to understand the past five thousand years in order to master the next hundred years.

1 This was written in 1949. In 1951 and 1953 the author participated in two digs in the southeast of present-day Turkey. See C. W. Ceram: The Secret of the Hittites: The Discovery of an Ancient Empire (New York: Alfred A. Knopf; 1958).

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