During the 6th century B.C., the last emperor of Babylon, Nabonidus, conducted a rudimentary form of archaeology. He traveled to the outmost edges of his empire in order to excavate and study old temples and retrieve antiquities. By studying the artifacts he attempted to determine the age of the objects he found. For this reason he is thought to be one of the earliest archaeologists to try to analyze the remains of those who had come before him.
By the 9th century A.D., most artifacts that had been recovered were the result of treasure hunters who ripped apart tombs in order to rob the treasures inside. Of course there was no system or records to document the original site in order to preserve any possible history that could have been determined from the sites. These stolen artifacts were then sold to art and antiquities collectors who had no regard for the site from which they came. It was during this time that Muslim scholars became interested in Egyptian hieroglyphs and were attempting to decipher them.
Centuries later during the Age of Enlightenment of Europe around the 17th and 18th centuries, a controlled process to study ancient human and pre-human sites became the standard by which archaeologists would research sites in order to preserve artifacts and sites in pristine condition. It was at this time that the removal of the soil at a dig site was done painstakingly with shovels and by hand so that any artifact that was found could possibly be a clue for the archaeologist to determine the age and purpose of the object. It was during this period that documentation of archaeological sites became standard practice; however the age of an artifact was primarily determined by conclusions drawn by the archaeologists.
In the mid 1700s, Venuti was able to accurately conclude that Pompeii had been destroyed in 79 A.D. by translating transcriptions that were uncovered during his excavations in that city. Up until the development of radiocarbon dating in 1949, determining the age of an artifact was mostly guesswork and comparison with other artifacts of known periods. Even with radiocarbon tests on an artifact, age can only be estimated. However radiocarbon testing is still used today in archaeology as the most accurate method to estimate the age of organic and manmade artifacts.
In the 1930s and 1940s archaeologists used aerial photos over suspected sites in order to determine where to dig, many times missing their mark by several hundred feet. Digging at an archaeological site can destroy possible clues to the history of the site. One of the most important advances in recent years in the field of archaeology is the development of ground penetrating radar. Developed in the 1970s, this radar makes it possible to study a site without destroying important historical evidence. It can also show archaeologists where buildings, walls and streets may be underneath the soil and save valuable time by indicating where artifacts may exist. Even more recently archaeologists have been utilizing thermal-infrared imaging which is so accurate that tiny objects can be seen below the surface. There are many other methods used by professional and amateur archaeologists, such as metal detectors, resistivity, seismic sounding, magnetometry and microgravity while searching for artifacts and each has advantages and disadvantages; however professional archaeologists prefer to use the least invasive methods.
Archaeological sites on land have yielded some of the most fascinating artifacts, such as those from King Tut’s tomb. Yet there are archaeological sites that lie underwater that have given us glimpses into history as well. Although specialized tools and equipment, costing much more than those used for sites on dry land are needed for underwater sites, archaeologists are literally delving deeply into maritime history. Shipwrecks around the world are being explored to learn about the history and people that were on board them when they sank. Underwater cities have provided even more clues to the history of man. Archaeologists use sophisticated side sonar and diving equipment for more shallow sites and use technology laden submarines for sites that are beyond the depths that divers can descend.
As time passes and we leave our own mark on history, archaeological tools and methods will undoubtedly evolve to meet the needs of those who study what we have left behind.