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  Archaeology (Greek, ‘study of ancient things’) is a comparatively recent study, dating from the rediscovery and first excavations of Pompeii in the 18th century. At first archaeology was little more than organized treasure-hunting, financed by rich Europeans anxious to own originals of the vases and statues previously only known from description or from Renaissance imitations. But from the beginning of the 19th century (with Belzoni\'s work in Egypt), it became more and more systematic, and now adds a huge range of geographical, scientific, statistical and technological skills to the crude trowels and inspired guesswork which have been its main tools since the beginning. Also, nowadays, the reports of past excavations, and the presence in museums and university collections of the objects found in sites throughout the world, give archaeologists a huge weight of past experience and conjecture to draw on.

The archaeologist begins either with evidence (for example, documents or other historical accounts) or with an informed hunch about a particular site. (In modern urban societies, the first call can sometimes be an appeal by builders who have found ancient remains while excavating foundations, and want ‘rescue archaeology’ done to document the site and remove remains before they continue building over it.) The site is then prospected, surveyed and photographed before any digging takes place. Exacavation itself is systematic: a grid is prepared of the site, and each layer is carefully uncovered and documented before any lower ones are touched. (This is in contrast to the methods of earlier archaeologists, such as Schliemann, who cheerfuly dug up and threw away upper layers until they reached the one they wanted.) The prime task at this stage is to establish a context for every piece of evidence unearthed, by describing, drawing, mapping, numbering and photographing. Found objects may be in their primary position (that is, where they were placed or used by the original people of the site), or in secondary positions (for example on rubbish-heaps), or they may have been disturbed by natural phenomena or animals after their original owners left them. They are sometimes then removed for further analysis (for instance, dating by such methods as radiocarbon analysis or typology—comparing them with like finds from a known period), and sometimes left in situ. As the work proceeds, a stratigraphy of the site is built up: a vertical drawing of the layers, either a scale drawing or a matrix (graphic chart something like a family tree), with each layer and object meticulously entered and dated.

Archaeology is enormously expensive, and many sites remain only partially explored (Luxor in Egypt and Ankhor Wat in Thailand are cases in point) or not explored at all. Because of its costs, and because its activities impinge on land use of other kinds, it is a politically sensitive discipline. But in the 200 years of its existence, archaeology has united with work in fine art, history and the study of languages, literatures and religions to refocus, with scientific clarity and objectivity, our view of almost every aspect of the past. KMcL

Further reading Brian Hayden, Archaeology: the Science of Once and Future Things.



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