Chapter1 ANTH 110.pdf - 1 The Searchers The History of...

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The Searchers The History of Archaeology 1 The history of archaeology is commonly seen as the history of great discoveries: the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt, the lost Maya cities of Mexico, the painted caves of the Old Stone Age, such as Lascaux in France, or the remains of our human ancestors buried deep in the Olduvai Gorge in Tan- zania. But even more than that it is the story of how we have come to look with fresh eyes at the material evidence for the human past, and with new methods to aid us in our task. It is important to remember that just a century and a half ago, most well-read people in the Western world – where archaeology as we know it today was first devel- oped – believed that the world had been created only a few thousand years earlier (in the year 4004 BC according to the then-standard interpretation of the Bible), and that all that could be known of the remote past had to be gleaned from the surviving pages of the earliest historians, notably those of the ancient Near East, Egypt, and Greece. There was no awareness that any kind of coherent history of the periods before the development of writing was possible at all. In the words of the Danish scholar Rasmus Nyerup (1759–1829): Everything which has come down to us from heathendom is wrapped in a thick fog; it belongs to a space of time which we cannot measure. We know that it is older than Christendom, but whether by a couple of years or a couple of centuries, or even by more than a millennium, we can do no more than guess. Today we can indeed penetrate that “thick fog” of the remote past. This is not simply because new discoveries are being made all the time. It is because we have learnt to ask some of the right questions , and have developed some of the right methods for answering them. The material evidence of the archaeological record has been lying around for a long time. What is new is our awareness that the methods of archaeology can give us information about the past, even the prehistoric past (before the invention of writing). The history of archaeology is therefore in the first instance a history of ideas , of theory, of ways of looking at the past. Next it is a history of developing research methods, employ- ing those ideas and investigating those questions. And only thirdly is it a history of actual discoveries. We can illustrate the relationship between these aspects of our knowledge of the past with a simple diagram: In this chapter and in this book it is the development of the questions and ideas that we shall emphasize, and the application of new research methods. The main thing to remember is that every view of the past is a product of its own time: ideas and theories are constantly evolving, and so are methods. When we describe the archaeologi- cal research methods of today we are simply speaking of one point on a trajectory of evolution. In a few decades or even a few years’ time these methods will certainly look old-fashioned and out of date. That is the dynamic nature of archaeology as a discipline.
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