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Classical Archaeology - An Introduction

Discussion in 'World History' started by Ciceronian, Jan 17, 2006.

  1. Ciceronian

    Ciceronian Latin Scholar

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    A fellow poster recently once again encouraged me to post one of my essays here, so I will oblige him and all others who are interested. It's not the best essay, but it should be worth a quick read.

    Given the recent discussion we had about what makes good history, and how much we can believe certain historians, I think a brief analysis of material as opposed to written sources would tie in well with this. The essay also discusses the relationship between material and written evidence, and the advantages as well as problems of archaeology. It focuses mainly on classical archaeology, but it also applies to archaeology in general. Enjoy!



    [The original question was: „It is self-evident that the potential contribution of archaeology to history is, in a rough way, inversely proportional to the quantity and quality of the available written sources.” (Moses Finley). Do you agree?]


    Archaeology (from the Greek words αρχαίος = ancient and λόγος = word /discourse) may be broadly defined as the study of human material culture. More specifically this is achieved through the recovery, documentation and analysis of material remains and environmental data, including architecture, artefacts and human remains. It is a modern discipline which has only seen a recent professionalisation. In the Middle Ages, knowledge of or interest in the past was almost non-existent, and it took until the Renaissance for an interest in the Classical cultures to be revived. At this point though the excavations did not resemble archaeology in the modern sense but rather treasure hunting, with aristocrats vying for the prettiest Roman statues in their gardens, rather than taking a genuine interest in the ancient cultures themselves. This pattern continued into the 19th century, when the controversial Lord Elgin removed the “Elgin Marbles” from the Parthenon in Athens and brought them back to Britain. It wasn’t until the 20th century that a formal archaeology method was developed, systematising excavations and finds. At the same time artefacts were not only admired for their individual aesthetical values, but for the information they conveyed about the culture of their makers, and as adding to or possibly contradicting any written sources available on that specific historical period.

    The relationship between written history and archaeology has always been a controversial one. Many have proposed that one is inferior or superior to the other in aiding us in obtaining information about the past. For a start, it is obvious that for periods where few or no written sources survive from archaeology is the only means for discovering more about it. But what about periods which are already closely covered by contemporary or near-contemporary historians? Do we require archaeological evidence to further our understanding or are the written sources entirely sufficient? The answer seems obvious: archaeology will provide us with additional evidence on the topics covered by the sources, but will also lay open to us areas which writings may never cover: what household items were used, what animals the diets of people consisted of, what type of pots or vases they produced, or if they produced them at all rather than trading for them.

    However the failure of written sources to cover various aspects of history is not the only shortcoming. In the past education was a privilege of the elite, and so it was only the elite that actually wrote anything about their times or the past. So while their writings may predominantly deal with politics or the military rather than the social sphere or daily life, if they did give information on such things it would be from an elite point of view. Their houses were not representative of the houses that farmers or labourers lived in; their diet was not the same, nor their daily routine nor even all their social conventions. The answer is of course archaeology, which gives a clear, (fairly) unbiased view of the lives of the lower classes. It lets us find and analyse objects of daily use and infer from our observations knowledge about the lives of people. Archaeology often attempts to answer questions quite different to those answered in textual sources.

    Another clear problem with written sources is the eminent possibility of bias contained in them. A writer would always look to elevate his nation or the political group he sympathised with. We may often be able to discern bias when it occurs, but we can only come closer to the truth through actual archaeological evidence which projects an unbiased perspective onto historical events for us. It can equally well help us to avoid the inherent accidental error in historical sources. Many historians were writing several centuries after the events they were describing took place, like for instance Livy or Plutarch, so their portrayal may not be entirely accurate. This must not necessarily be because the writer is biased or ignorant of the matter, but because he was probably drawing on earlier secondary sources which contained potential inaccuracies. We can use archaeology to verify or falsify the accounts of these authors to certain degrees and to establish the general reliability of an author for a specific period or area.

    However, we do start running into problems when using archaeology to complement and modify written sources. Digs are often planned to discover ancient sites described by some authors in their histories. This was the case with Mainake and Hermoskopion, two alleged Greek colonies on the Spanish Mediterranean coast. No precise descriptions of their location survive, so extensive exploration of the Spanish coast was carried out. This, however, has not yielded any results showing that a Greek settlement may have been present. Proposals such as the assimilation of the Greeks into an earlier Phoenician colony have been put forward to resolve this. But Mainake and Hermoskopion remained undiscovered, which shows that relying entirely on text-based sources can be dangerous. The potential problem which may arise in the future is that if a Greek settlement is indeed discovered in the area, it may hastily be matched to the written accounts and be proclaimed as either the site of Mainake or Hermoskopion. The problem clearly is that written sources seem to come to dictate the course of archaeological excavations and even their proposed results.

    Basing excavations too closely on written evidence can lead, as we have seen, to trying to match the results to surviving written sources, or if that is not possible, assuming the site to be in some way flawed. Consider the example of Mykalessos in Boeotia, which according to Thucydides and Pausanias (who was writing six hundred years later) was completely pillaged and its inhabitants slaughtered by Thracian mercenaries in 413 BC, during the Peloponnesian War. Now, the site of Mykalessos has been identified with relative certainty, but intense excavations have yet to commence. If future excavators find traces of destruction on the site, they will most likely come to the conclusion that these are evidence of the incident in 413 BC, if pottery from that period (which accurate chronological pottery classifications exist for) is found in that layer too. However, it is well possible that such a pillaging may have left no significant traces at all, as perhaps simply booty was taken and the inhabitants killed, and the site was never resettled, and rotted away in abandonment. But if evidence of destruction is indeed found, it will almost automatically be associated with the pillaging, rather than perhaps a chance fire. A failure to find evidence of destruction may well even lead to scholars rejecting the site as being Mykalessos and looking for it elsewhere.

    As we can see, the problem is usually not the extraction of the material or its rough categorisation, but the inferences we draw from them, which are very prone to mistakes or false conclusions. A certain set of pieces of evidence can often lead to a number of different conclusions, some being more probable than others. Archaeologists or scholars will then frequently choose the ones which either magnify or possibly completely contradict the written sources or previous evidence. This is due to the fact that there is often a large pressure on archaeologists to find objects or evidence which either clearly confirm previous knowledge, or, if they are bold enough to propose it, completely negate it. When publishing the results, it would seem like it had been a waste of money or time to conclude that the excavation had produced no new evidence and had merely fallen in to established patterns, or had produced no notable or interesting objects. There is a certain element of luck involved in archaeology, and whether an archaeologist finds something notable or not is frequently not dependant on him but rather on what the site holds in store. An archaeology student who I am acquainted with recently told me about a dig he was involved in, which was the excavation of a site in England dating from the Anglo-Saxon period. Detailed analysis of the soil structure had revealed patterns which indicated that at some point there may have been a stone wall standing there. The leader of the dig then announced that this was very probably the first secular stone building from the Anglo-Saxon period every to be found in England. Regardless of how convinced he himself was about his conclusion, he may have just felt compelled to assign a large significance to the (chance) discovery he had made.

    But the purpose of this article is not to discredit classical archaeology, no, rather to explain the problematic influence of ancient history and writing on it. I can only reiterate, though, that without archaeology our understanding of ancient history would be extremely incomplete and patchy to say the least. The material itself is free from any bias or mistakes, only through wrong inference can false conclusions creep in, unlike ancient texts, which may offer some degree of truth, but may be much contested. Furthermore archaeology grants us access to the lower social classes who do not enjoy much representation in ancient literature. But archaeology is also quantifiable, and can lead us to build much more accurate and advanced statistics than the ancient sources. The number of graves can give us precise information on demographical developments and processes. Equally counting the relative frequency of animal bones can give us an idea of the animals that were kept and eaten. So archaeology is much more than just a complement to written sources or inscriptions, it is a self-sustaining method of exploring past cultures and processes which should try to become more and more independent of the written sources which seek to make archaeology conform to them.
     
  2. El_Tigre

    El_Tigre Prince

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    Thanks for the good read, Ciceronian! Your argument is very convincing and a pleasure to read. :)

    I have a question concerning the following parts of your article:

    If I understand you correctly, you are advocating for an archaeology that is more "emancipated" from written sources. You enumerate several misinterpretations that arose because archaeology and written sources were combinded too hastily. But does this really necessitate a greater distance between both schools of history in general? It seems to me that those misinterpretations call only for a more careful use of written sources in archaeology, but not for a more clear division between both kinds of sources. As long as every historical argument clearly states which sources are used (for every part of the argument), I don't see why both schools shouldn't work together as closely as possible. In the above mentioned cases, I would blame the historians for not working scientifically, but not the historic approach of combinding different sources into one argument itself.

    Anyway, I wholeheartedly agree that archaeology is on an equal footing with written sources.
     
  3. Volstag

    Volstag Chairman of the Bored

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    I may be off the mark but weren't L'Anse aux Meadows, and Troy, largely discovered through an examination of the written sources? And, ultimately, if all you have to go on is the written record and/or oral tradition, what recourse is left?

    IMO, archaeology is simply one tool, of many, for deciphering our past.
     
  4. Ciceronian

    Ciceronian Latin Scholar

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    Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. :)
    I'm not saying that archaeology should be completely severed from written evidence, but I'm saying that archaeology and written material should complement each other, but on an equal level, and that each should be weighed up independently before being brought together. But the two forms of evidence are often too hastily brought together and incoherences or problems overlooked. Furthermore, I think that the pressure which archaeologists face can be a problem - there is no guarantee that they will find anything significant or important, but yet they are receiving financial support from some institution - as a result they are extremely keen to compare each new find with what is already there, i.e. largely the written sources, to create the impression that their find is in some way special or affirmative of previous evidence.

    But yes, essentially the point is that archaeology is important and written sources should not be given precedence over it as a matter of fact.

    Yes, but the only other tool that comes to mind are surviving written sources. All the rest is archaeology - inscriptions, numismatics, the excavation of settlements, graves, animal bones etc. etc.
     
  5. El_Tigre

    El_Tigre Prince

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    I couldn't agree more, especially with the part I bolded. Sadly, this leaves us no room for a dialectic discussion. :(

    ;)
     
  6. Ciceronian

    Ciceronian Latin Scholar

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    :D I think that leaves us no other option but to officially invite any clever clogs who thinks they disagree with us to come and argue against us!
     
  7. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Being a wannabe clever clogs, I'll just ask how it's possible to evaluate material and textual evidence completely independently. After all, in order to know that they are relevant to each other, some kind of joint evaluation must take place.

    A good example for all of this is Mithraism, which is well documented from archaeology and which has various written witnesses as well (mostly hostile, of course). Mithraist beliefs have to be reconstructed by an analysis of the carvings and so on in their temples together with the reports in later writers. Balancing these can be tricky - for example, Mithraist carvings typically distinguish between Mithras himself and the sun, whereas most later reports of Mithraism identify Mithras as a sun god (this is the source of the erroneous claim, which I've seen bandied about on these very boards, that Mithras was believed to have been born on 25 December - this was the birthday of Sol Invictus, but that was a different cult). So quite often, interpretation of the material and the textual evidence must go hand in hand, rather than be done completely separately and then compared.
     
  8. Rambuchan

    Rambuchan The Funky President

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    Ciceronian: I read this article yesterday (was too busy to respond) and, as you mention, it is bang on-topic for 'what makes good history'. Thanks for rolling this one out. It is a good argument, well put and a good read to boot. I would say it's a little slim on specific examples for my liking, especially in the first paragraph in which you give quite a broad overview with only one specific, the Elgin Marbles. Not to say I disagree with your overview, I'd just like to have had more specifics. But that's just some constructive feedback for future and I appreciate you most likely had word count restraints.

    Anyway, I agree with clever-clogs directly above but also want to push it in another direction. Although your argument suggests that these two sources (archaeology and written) should be evaluated independently of each other before being interwoven, there is a problem with this. Archaeology may be "a self-sustaining method of exploring past cultures and processes" but only to a certain extent. It really has some limitations.

    The case of Harappa and Mohenjadaro is worth looking at here. There is plenty of archaeological evidence to draw upon but it's only able to tell us so much. There is still a major gap in our understanding here, for we do not know how to read their script. Sure there are lots of interpretations of what these archaeological 'artefacts' mean or tell us, but there is no direct written source from the Harappans themselves that we can understand. Hence we do not and cannot know so much about this civilisation in its own terms. There stands one limitation of this self-sustaining method. What advice would you give to an historian faced with this situation? (Not that I have any answers myself!)
     
  9. Stefan Haertel

    Stefan Haertel Title

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    An example which I think will please all the military freaks here.

    I think most of you know that during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, there was an attempt to create a province called "Germania Magna" which would stretch from Rhine and Danube to the Elbe river (i.e. most of present-day Germany). The actions failed when the Romans were defeated at the Teutoburg Forest, and, later, when Tiberius was distracted by revolts in Pannonia. The Roman historians tell us a bit about the military actions, but do not elaborate on any civilian or administrative efforts; nor do they tell much of the logistics of these undertakings. After all, a defeat is a defeat, it's not worth presenting to the broad public who should be entertained with tales of Rome's glory. The concept of "Germania Magna" was soon forgotten about, and remained mostly a footnote in the biographies of Augustus and Tiberius.

    However, recently, archaeologists in various parts of Germany have found traces of military and civilian settlements as far north as the Bavarian Main territory (which was never even close to the Roman Empire) and far eastwards of the Rhine. There are complete military camps, all ready to go for a legion to camp in, but were never used; there are military camps that were used; and there are traces of real towns with fora, thermes and other civilian buildings. The Romanization of Germania had in fact proceeded much further than anyone had ever thought. The sites can be dated precisely to the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius thanks to coins, fibulae and pieces of pottery. All these sites were found by accident (mostly thanks to aerial photography) because no Roman source makes any mention of them.
    And if that is not enough for militarists, archaeological methods have also uncovered some previously unknown battlefields.
     
  10. Ciceronian

    Ciceronian Latin Scholar

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    Thanks Plotinus, Rambuchan and Stefan Härtel for your feedback.

    @Plotinus: I think your example demonstrates my point pretty well. Analysing the newly discovered Mithraist carvings with certain (false) preconceptions from written sources would be a very poor approach. If those sources had been held to be credible, archaeologists may well have approached the carvings with the notion that Mithras was in fact a sun god, and may have tried to twist their finds to match this argument.

    @Rambuchan: I think I could have made the essay longer without problems, but the essay wasn't about the history of archaeology, but more about general problems. I just gave the historical overview as a convenient introduction (they're always hard!) and so I couldn't delve into the specifics too much.
    On the case you mention: There are many areas of history which we have little information about, and that's somethin we just have to live with. Until further material is excavated or their script is deciphered we will have to look at existing evidence and make conclusions of probability: object X is likely to have had the use Y, and therefore we can infer Z. As long as we remember that the step from X is to Y is based on guesswork, and we do not take Z as the gospel truth, we can only try to attempt a picture of what they would have most probably been like.

    @Stefan Härtel: Thank you for bringing up this example of the usefulness of archaeology in certain instances. Sources are often deliberately destroyed or not written to convey a biased view, but archaeology can outsmart them. And the archaeological evidence also lets us see that the Romans wanted to cover up those facts, which tells us a bit about them and their attitudes.
     

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