Archeological effect on the present and the past
We must be under no illusions that archaeology is a brand new occurrence , and as Paul Bahn states, from “curiosity about the past seems to be widespread among human beings, and is by no means a new found phenomenon” (Bahn 1996,1).
Paul Bahn who is a leading authority in archaeology also claimed that “archaeology has no fixed point of origin”(Bahn 1996, 1). What Bahn was attempting to clarify, was that archaeology did not originate from one particular area, and then branch off to influence other areas. To put it another way, people all over the world thousands of years ago were interested in civilisations that came before theirs. Peter Woodhead further strengthens Bahn’s claim “There have always, of course, been people interested in ancient things”(Woodhead 1985,3). How has archaeology contributed towards the study of the past? Archaeology has been instrumental in bringing about the study of the past, and its contribution in some cases is underestimated. To many people archaeology is purely a technique of digging up mass amounts of soil to unearth ancient artefacts, as Richard Colt Hoare states “merely dug holes in burrows to produce the chief relics at the greatest possible speed”(Harris 1979,15).
However the true work of an archaeologist is to try and piece together how ancient civilisations survived, and how they operated. It is through the artefacts and other relics that the archaeologist finds in the field which forms the basis of their interpretation, and enables them to be placed in the archaeological record. Archaeologists follow a series of procedures – including mapping the site, dividing the site into uniform units, and excavating these units in levels – to ensure the greatest amount of information is recovered. All the information recovered is then analysed and patterns are looked for and compared. Various methods of dating are also employed.
In this study I believe that two factors have contributed towards the study of the past:
• Scientific techniques in archaeology.
• Technological revolutions.
Scientific techniques in archaeology.
Scientific techniques have proved to be very significant to archaeologists, in some cases accurate dates have been very significant in the development of archaeology. Two of the best known dating techniques, (which have been extremely useful to archaeologists), are tree ring dating and radiocarbon dating. Tree ring dating was the first dating technique to be developed, while the more recent radiocarbon dating is probably considered the most useful method of dating to archaeologists. Tree ring dating was developed in the twentieth century, and was of particular importance to archaeologists when wood was recovered from excavated from sites. In tree ring dating, climate played an important role in the width and formation of each tree ring after every new year. For example if a tree ring was very thin, then archaeologists would know that the climate for that year was not favourable for the tree, and so effected its development.
If a tree ring is wide then the climate was favourable for the tree and its development was not affected. In tree ring dating archaeologists examined the tree rings and then drew up a chronology. Trees that grew in the same area were examined and then compared to see if they have matching sequences. This has enabled archaeologists to construct a tree chronology, by comparing tree rings, and then producing a complete chronology (Bahn 1996). Tree ring dating was significant because it enabled archaeologists to establish dates for wood that was found in excavated sites, by comparing them to the complete tree chronology chart. For example one such site in which tree ring dating was used to great effect was in a late bronze age settlement of Cortailloid –est. in Switzerland. By using this method archaeologists found that the site was founded in 1010 BC and began with four dwellings and could date when its fence was added in 985 BC
However, the greatest dating technique that has revolutionised archaeology, was the invention of radiocarbon dating. It was through this method of dating that enabled archaeologists to establish the age of any site in the world that was undated (Renfrew and Bahn 2000). Radiocarbon dating was such a successful method of dating because it was dependent on radioactive carbon that was found in dead organic material. What made the technique even more useful was that carbon exists in every living system, therefore when an organism dies it is possible to date it. The radiocarbon technique is very useful on organic materials such as charcoal, wood, seeds, plant remains and also on human and animal bone. When such materials were uncovered from an excavated site it was possible to date them accurately using the radiocarbon technique. In addition carbon that was found in animal and plant remains can provide us with information on the diet of the individual by studying minute particles of carbon found in the stomachs of well preserved remains and indeed finding out what the person ate before his untimely death. It can also provide us with an insight into the environment of a site and how the surrounding area was exploited for food resources (Bahn1996). As Renfrew and Bahn state, “nevertheless radiocarbon has transformed our understanding of the past, helping archaeologists to establish for the first time a reliable chronology of world cultures”(Renfrew and Bahn 2000, 138).
Various other dating techniques have provided us with adequate information on the past. Techniques such as pollen dating in which grains of pollen, that have been adequately preserved in lakes or march lands, can provide us with information on past vegetation and climate as well as being an important method of dating (Renfrew and Bahn 2000).
Technological revolutions. Technological revolutions have also been important in the development of archaeology and central towards the study of the past. With more and more sophisticated techniques being developed, archaeologists can trace archaeological evidence at their disposal, “over recent decades, archaeology has seen a tremendous development in its ability to extract information from the material remains of the past using a whole barrage of ever more sophisticated techniques”(Bahn 1996, 281). Aerial photography is one such technique that has proved to be useful to archaeologists. Aerial photography has been useful to archaeologists as is provided a greater perspective of an area. In many cases through the use of aerial photography old forts, roads and other sites that can’t be detected from the ground have been uncovered. Computers have also aided archaeologists.
Photographs can be scanned into the computer and alterations can be made to the enhancement of the photograph, either by changing its contrast or sharpness (Renfrew and Bahn 2000).
Also revolutions to satellite imagery have helped archaeologists. With this the amount of reflected light and the infrared radiation of the earth’s surface are measured and then converted into photographic images, these images have also contributed to finds that can not be detected from ground level. Surface remote sensors are also useful in locating archaeological evidence with metal detectors being one of the most effective. These operate by sending an electric pulse into the ground, buried artefacts will reflect the pulse and send it back to the detector. This is a fast and very effective way for archaeologists to detect archaeological remains (Renfrew and Bahn 2000). Electromagnetic methods, seismic and acoustic methods use the same technique to detect buried artefacts and are also employed by archaeologists. Improvements in technology have been a great innovation to archaeologists and have helped them continue with their study of the past.
How does archaeology continue to exert an influence on the present? In today’s society, archaeology still bears a popular interest of past societies, and it continues to exert influence. As Brian Fagan states “popular interest in the past has sharply increased in recent decades”(Fagan 1985, 9). Much of this increased interest in archaeology has come from newly independent nations trying to create a national identity for their new country and to stir a sense of nationalism into its people. A good example of this can be seen in Macedonia’s national symbol the gold star. This symbol was adopted from the gold tomb casket of Phillip 11 of Macedon, father of Alexander the great. In essence this symbol was chosen to portray how great this nation once stood and to fill its people with pride and honour. Increasingly Archaeology has indeed played an important role in the definition of national identity and define a nation’s greatness and undoubted grandeur seen in countries such as Greece and Egypt.
By unearthing these great archaeological artefacts and monuments many countries now use these features to bring tourism to their region and boost their local economies. This indeed shows how archaeology has and still does exert a considerable influence on the present. Many countries such as Greece, Egypt and even Peru all promote their country for tourism and many hundreds of thousands of people come each year to visit these ancient sites and help boost their economies. This is very much evident as in Peru some 300,000 tourists visited its scared Machu Picchu site last year.
The great interest in archaeology has been encouraged by the numerous organisations that have been established today. Organisations such as Government bodies, schools, societies, professional institutions and museums have all been established due to the ever-increasing interest in archaeology in the present society. Government bodies were set up due to the escalating three of archaeological evidence being destroyed by those countries that wanted to protect their cultural heritage and to reduce the loss of archaeological artefacts.
The work of government bodies is to supervise archaeological sites, excavations and the general control over areas of special interest. Schools have also been set up due to increasing interest in archaeology. The establishment of archaeological schools has resulted in an increase in research in archaeology, and has had the knock on effect of new centres, societies and associations being founded. Professional institutions have also arisen from the increase in archaeological interest. These institutions aim to enhance the practice of archaeology and to provide training and education to those interested in a career in archaeology. However probably the best way to display the ever increasing interest in archaeology, is the establishment of museums that are dedicated to archaeology.
In conclusion, archaeology has indeed helped to bring about the study of the past and it continues to exert an influence to the present day. In fact archaeology has helped in many cases the creation of a nation’s identity by discovering so many important facts the past in which countries try to base their national culture and heritage on. Essentially archaeology is trying to attach a meaning to the past and asks what the past means for us. However this meaning can be fragmented into many different views and ancient monuments and scared sites can be used as political tools in propaganda battles between two cultures. This has been seen all around the globe from Australia between the white male and the aborigines to India and the Hindu’s and the Muslims.
Improvements in technology and archaeological techniques have both been significant developments in the field of archaeology and have helped towards the study of past civilisations and its people. It is also through archaeological interpretations or archaeological thoughts that past civilisations are understood. However, although such techniques in archaeology help piece together the past, much of it is still being lost. Through ploughing, treasure hunting and construction wok, archaeological evidence is being destroyed and never to appear in the archaeological record. It is important therefore that this is taken into consideration when studying the artefacts. However archaeology will always be the phenomenon of the past being valued and affecting the present and will thus always play an important role in our society.