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Science of Archaeology

The Dictionary definition of “archaeology” reads like this- The scientific study of material remains (as fossil relics, artifacts and monuments) of past human life and activities.” (Webster's) Paul Bahn has a more memorable one…

Archaeology is rather like a vast, fiendish Jigsaw puzzle invented by the devil as an instrument of tantalizing torment, since:

  1. It will never be finished
  2. You don't know how many pieces are missing
  3. Most of them are lost forever,
  4. You can't cheat by looking at the picture.

                                            -Paul Bahn

One image we may have of archaeologists comes out of Hollywood- the “Indiana Jones” model- a tall, lean man wearing a battered leather hat, revolver mounted on his hip, a half-smile on his tanned face as he contemplates a dangerous quest to a foreign land in search of some kind of treasure, pursued by bad guys, adventure lurking around the next exotic corner. That picture was not entirely fabricated. It was based on the exploits of early explorers- people such as the American dinosaur hunter Roy Chapman Andrews and Britain's Sir Austen Henry Layard, both of whom made astonishing discoveries amidst the dangers and challenges of disease, poisonous snakes, natural disasters, ruthless bandits, civil war and corrupt bureaucracies. Both have been suggested as the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character.

One should not conclude that archaeology is something that began in the past 2-3 centuries. More than two millennia ago the king of Babylonia ordered the careful excavation of a temple in the city of Sippar (located southwest of today's Baghdad) to see if he could determine who had built the temple. Ancient Greeks of the same era did some archaeological excavations in Delos, trying to make sense of the grave goods they found buried with the inhabitants. However it is in the last 2-3 centuries that archaeology has evolved into a science, one whose goal of treasure hunting has been replaced with the goal of uncovering the secrets of the past. That sentiment is best expressed in the observation of General Augustus Pitt-Rivers that, in general, everyday objects are more useful in interpreting the past than unique ones are.

Along the way though, archaeology has had its colorful characters, some of whom were extremely gifted individuals blessed with imagination and curiosity (and, sometimes with money), some had well-developed linguistic talents, others had organizational and leadership skills coupled with a lot of self-confidence. Most had a passionate desire to solve puzzles that had stumped their predecessors- lost cities, forgotten languages, buried temples, things remembered only in myths and legends. These were the kind of challenges that drove people such as: Jean-Francois Champollion, Heinrich Schliemann, Michael Ventris, Yuri Knosorov, John Lloyd Stephens, Sir Arthur Evans, General Augustus Pitt-Rivers, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Howard Carter, Sir William F. Petrie and a host of others.

Often it was well-diggers, farmers, construction workers, hikers, cavers or children playing who stumbled upon something that later proved to be an important piece of local heritage. In such a manner were the tomb of the First Emperor of China, the Lascaux Caves, the buried Bronze Age city of Akrotiri and many other archaeological sites brought again to the attention of the public. Natural processes such as erosion, flood and earthquakes exposed other long-hidden secrets to the light of day. Once discovered, quick action was required in order to prevent destruction of the site by modern day tomb robbers, tourists and souvenir hunters. There have been many instances where the authorities didn't act quickly enough.

In the early days, excavation and archaeology were considered to be almost synonymous terms. Excavation is still the main method of investigating most sites. Excavation tools range all the way from bulldozers down to shovels, picks, dental tools and paint brushes. The most important tool, generally, and the one that is practically a symbol of the archaeology profession is the mason's trowel- a sharp-pointed, wedge-shaped implement that looks somewhat like a pie lifter with a wooden handle. In the hands of an experienced archaeologist the trowel can remove a lot of earth, delicately, in a short period of time without damaging the artifacts.

Today a wide range of tools, virtually all developed for other applications, can be used in an archaeological examination. Some are more suitable than others, depending on the characteristics of the site and the preferences of the archaeologist. As in any profession, some practitioners are more comfortable and proficient with certain tools than others. Some have taught themselves to handle a bulldozer as delicately as a surgeon's scalpel. Some place their reliance on tools and techniques that others use sparingly or not at all. It could be said that there is a lot of art as well as science in the realm of archaeology.

This 100 ft. cliff of ash and pumice shows stratigraphy akin to that found on a dig site.
This 100 ft. cliff of ash and pumice shows stratigraphy akin to that found on a dig site.
Courtesy MacGillivray Freeman Films

The term “stratigraphy” in archaeology refers to occupation layers. Digging down through each layer or stratum the experienced eye will notice differences in the colour of the soil, differences in the type of soil and differences in the materials that are found in the soil. It is like cutting through a layer cake with the layers on top, of course, being newer or more recently laid down than the layers on the bottom. (You do have to be careful that the layers weren't disturbed, turned over by a shovel, plow or animal or pulled out of position by a well or pit, so that the layers are reversed or mixed up. ) Stratigraphic analysis is a very important tool in archaeology, as it is in geology. In the film one can clearly see the different strata or layers laid down by the erupting volcano.

Scientists explore Santorini Island using high technology equipment.
Scientists explore Santorini Island using high technology equipment.
Courtesy MacGillivray Freeman Films

Ice core dating is very similar to dendrochronology or tree ring dating. Seasonal variation in both the ice cores and tree rings allow one to count the number of years shown in an ice core or wood sample. One of the inclusions regularly found in ice core samples is volcanic ash. In the film the presence of such ash was used to establish a precise date for the volcanic eruption that destroyed Thera.

In the film Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) is shown in action. The equipment can also be put on a small cart or wagon and pushed or pulled around the site. GPR works by sending ultra high radio frequency waves down into the ground. These reflect off buried walls, pipes, etc. and provide an electronic profile of what may lie beneath.

Different trees and plants produce different amounts and types of pollen (microspores involved in plant reproduction). These vary throughout time and place. By collecting and analyzing the spores it is possible not only to build up a picture of a particular environment; that environment can also be dated. Pollen analysis is an important tool in understanding the environmental challenges faced by prehistoric peoples.

Computer technology has revolutionized the practice of archaeology just as it has had an enormous impact on most other professions. A generation ago it could take years to collect, sort, analyze and publish the data from an archaeological excavation- particularly if the site was at all complex. Now laptops right on the site can collect the information and there are software programs that can shorten the sorting and analytical timeframe considerably. Instead of moving heavy columns, “what if” programs can be used to try out different configurations and models on the computer. In the film, Professor Doumas confirms that the computer has become an indispensable archaeological tool.

State-of-the-art computer modeling restores the Parthenon to its original glory.
State-of-the-art computer modeling restores the Parthenon to its original glory.
Courtesy MacGillivray Freeman Films

Virtual reality reconstruction. In recent years some archaeologists have become interested in what is called experimental reconstruction. Using stone tools produced by the same techniques used by prehistoric hunters the archaeologists have butchered both elephants and bison to find out how the process was done, how long it would have taken and how tools marks found on ancient mammoths compare. The voyage of the Kon-tiki by Thor Heyerdahl, the raising of an Egyptian obelisk and the transporting of massive building stones in Greece and Egypt were all successful experiments to demonstrate the feasibility of something. Nowadays we can go one step further and do some of the experimentation in the computer. In the film there is a striking computer reconstruction of the Parthenon showing the temple as it most probably looked shortly after it was completed. If further research indicated the addition, removal or alteration of a particular feature, the computer model could be easily updated.