History of Archeology

Archeology is the study of past cultures and peoples by examining the artifacts they left behind. The relics left by people of the past tell archeologists about family units, social structures, languages, government, religion, architecture and technology. These objects create a blueprint about the way their societies operated and how they interacted with one another. At times, artifacts found at archeological digs establish a framework that tells how later civilizations developed. Though humans have shown interest in the past from the beginning of time, the history of archeology as scientific study dates back to the 19th and 20th century.

Humans have shown interest in cultures of the past for centuries; therefore, it is hard to pinpoint at what moment in time it actually started. In the Middle East, Muslim historians began collecting information about pre-Islamic Arabia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and other Eastern and Near Eastern cultures. This occurred around the 9th century. Egypt became the focal point of most of their historic discoveries, thanks to Egyptian hieroglyphics that told them things about language. Thus, the early stages of Egyptology formed. By the 13th century, Europeans started visiting Egypt to explore the pyramids and tried deciphering hieroglyphics.

Flavio Biondo, an Italian Renaissance humanist historian, studied ruins and geography in Rome in the 15th century and created a systematic way to study archeological sites. His way of studying ruins and documenting them helped him become one of the early founders of archeology. In the same century, Ciriaco de’ Pizzicolli, another Italian scholar, recorded his findings in Greece, focusing on buildings and objects. De’ Pizzicolli wrote his findings in a six-volume work entitled “Commetaria.” His contemporaries called him the father of antiquity.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, called the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, learned men from around the world refined the science of archeology, making it more an academic endeavor. They began excavating sites of ancient civilizations in places other than Egypt and collecting artifacts. These men used their findings to try to decipher how people lived. The systematic study of archeology began taking shape.

While previous men like Biondo and de’ Pizzicolli were credited for their research, Johann Joachin Winckelmann, an 18th-century German art historian, was one of the founders of scientific archeology with his rediscovery of Greek and Roman art and architecture. He made artworks more than just an aesthetic view of paintings, sculptures and literature; he treated them as a scientific look at how they affected culture. Winckelmann presented his findings in “History of Ancient Art” (1764).

Englishman Sir Richard Colt Hoare, an archeologist of the 18th and 19th century, lead the first excavation at Stonehenge with William Cunnington in 1798. They returned to the site in 1810. Hoare went to other placed in the United Kingdom, including excavating 400 barrows on the Salisbury Plain. He published “Ancient History of North and South Wiltshire” (1812-1819) and contributed to other works.

By the 20th century, archeology was an established science, with excavations taking place all over the world. Archeologists document their findings and collect artifacts from different civilizations. Because archeological finds take place all over the world, the science of archeology has been divided by ancient civilizations and Western cultures. Archeologists even study the science to specialize in particular cultures. It is a changing scientific field that adapts as the world changes.