Why is archaeology useful? An approach


What does archaeology mean? What is archaeology studying? What does it serve for?

Well, I ‘m not going to surprise any archaeologist with what I will say next, because he or she will know much more about this subject than me, and please, feel free to comment or criticize. Maybe there is some confusion about this term and I would like to clarify it a bit, and if possible, contribute to non-archaeologists’, as I am, understanding it better, adding even more value to archaeology. And as I’m writing I’m also learning.

I’m going to face a word, archaeology, which is just a word that has two clearly identified parts: on the left the root or if you like the prefix «archaeo-» which comes from the Greek archaios and means ancient, and to the right the suffix «-logy» which also comes from the Greek, from logos, which means science or treaty. In this light we can conclude that archaeology is a science that deals with things from the past, and archaeology, in particular, studies old objects. So far the definition seems to be correct (archaeology is considered a method rather than a science), but still incomplete, as what exactly means old?

Archaeology studies objects from the past, and that past should be a few years old, but how many? I would surely exaggerate if I would say that a letter I just wrote and sent is an archaeological object, although it belongs to my immediate past. While I do not think that it contains anything interesting, as I am its author, it has a material contents (a sheet of paper, the envelope and the ink) and an intangible one (my writing, my words), and both can be analysed. For sure everyone would laugh loudly. Who would consider it an archaeological artifact? Well, the debate is open, but this approach to study the contents from an archaeological point of view is not misguided.

When today, in the 21st century, someone talks of archaeology, we, the non-illustrated, think of Ancient History: Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, etc. We might go a few years ahead covering the Middle Ages (which were supposed to end with the fall of Constantinople in 1453) and today we also speak of industrial archaeology, which reaches nearly present times. What a scope! If we take a few years back (Oh! Watch out!), we reach Prehistory, and soon we began to mix up concepts, because archaeology should not be compared to Prehistory, because we speak of different though closely related things. We are speaking of topics on different levels. Prehistory can be related to other Histories: Protohistory, Ancient History, Medieval, Modern or Contemporary History. And what does distinguish Prehistory from archaeology? Prehistory begins with the appearance of man’s history, the first human beings considered hominids, and ends with the arrival of writing, which happened in different times depending on the geographic area which is considered.

What about archaeology? Archaeology is rather a method to study ancient artifacts, a system to analyse them. Therefore the different «Histories» will use this method to obtain interpretable information about those artifacts, inferring what may have occurred in the past. Objects can be a single edge of a bone, the chippings of a stone, even the most sophisticated movable property (pottery, jewelry, panoplies, etc.) or (non-movable) property (buildings, walls, roads, bridges or other singular monuments). What is really important is not just to get in touch with or meet these objects, but to find them in a specific place. Objects gain value in archaeology especially in relation to a context.

Each object in itself, isolated and out of context, can be of great value as it can be compared with other similar objects, similarities between them could be deduced, and small differences can give rise to a study to analyse the reason for it. But if that artifact is found in a certain geographical area, in a particular place, in a stratigraphic layer, in a certain position, in a certain state of preservation, perhaps lacking some of its features, alone or together with another set of objects; the information retrieved is of much higher value to “unearth” past events, thus we obtain the archaeological record. An archaeologist analyses the initial state in which the objects are found, and will start an excavation following an organised plan, a method.

He or she will write down everything he or she saw and how, in which circumstances, it appeared. He or she will sent it to be examined or examine it himself or herself (the so called lab-work), looking for answers and finding support in other sciences. These sciences may be palynology to study pollen remains; physics for dating; geology to get data about the geological evolution of certain areas, etc. The archaeologist may also be specialised in numismatics, epigraphy (also linked to numismatics), in ancient art in general; in ancient architecture; in a culture: Roman, Iberian, Egyptian, etc.; ceramics; poliorcetica and any ancient war related matters; on religious issues or the world of the dead (burials, necropolis), just to name a few.
Maybe we must clarify what a historian and what an archaeologist does, though to tell the truth, in the end, archaeologists do the same as historians, trying to figure out past events. But trying to separate each concept, a historian has the following sources: oral transmissions, ancient writings (historiography), today also voice recordings, images, and the archaeological record, from which he or she infers historical events. Strictly speaking, an archaeologist prepares the information about past events which then can be interpreted. It should be noted that when speaking of interpretations, we should talk of hypotheses, more or less accurate, more or less verified and supported by evidence, and many of these assumptions end up having an academic widespread recognition. History is created by people, and that sentence might have two meanings. Without people there is no history and people interpret history. But despite this drawback, this should not be an obstacle, as we all should be aware that history teaches us valuable things, it is a very useful source of information.

Human beings are not just living hand to mouth, thinking about present and future, what is a must, of course, because their survival depends on it. They need something else. Each person is different and this together with the circumstances with which he or she is confronted: geographical, climatic, cultural and economic, determine their level of interest in things. Even being different, human beings think and especially feel, and this is what makes them appreciate arts, aesthetics, which happened since time immemorial. Therefore humans admire and appreciate many ancient archaeological art objects. Without archaeology art objects would still be appreciated, but archaeology gives them a context, a meaning and a history which is more valuable. When a person enters an archaeological museum he or she will be get stunned especially by aesthetics, brightness, forms fineness or the grandeur of an object. This is the first thing you see, you get aware of, things catch your eye, and this is not bad, despite the fact that it is a publicity effect.

But archaeology does not end up here. What we see in a museum is merely the result of an excavation or an encounter with an ancient object, tangible things, which are interesting, of course, but they are not the crux of archaeology. Humans the more time they have to think and less to focus on survival, the more they need to look back towards their origins. They need to understand what happens around, without the urgent need to rely on pure acts of faith. This knowledge, always incomplete, delivered by history and archaeology is a source of information. Materials archaeologists find should be given life, and in my opinion that is the crux of archaeology. It analyses what it watches and tries to explain it to understand the past, knowledge about our past that we need to know to know more about our present and to be better prepared for the future.

This is the main argument to state the importance of archaeology. But this does not end here, we can learn more from archaeology. Behind an archaeologist there is an eagerness to discover things and therefore to improve themselves. It is inherent to any science and anyone. An archaeologist can therefore be a mirror to reflect ourselves, not in his or her personality, this is different, but in the ambition to find that we all need, which are answers. Behind an archaeological dig there is also a detailed working-system, a specific order that applies to many facets of individual and professional life that allow us to accurately learn facts.

Without going any further, Forensic experts do use archaeological scientific methods in their research. Archaeology, which is not considered a science, but rather a method or at most an auxiliary science, ends up being a science of sciences. It brings knowledge of every conceivable sciences together. Physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, astronomy, etc.; and Humanities: history, art, sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc. all focused on finding answers. What a wonderful combination of knowledge and collaboration among all! Thus, we find in archaeology all human knowledge to get answers. Do you think this work is important?

(C) Luis del Rey Schnitzler