Wonderful Things: Archaeologist Chris Scarre Finds Fascination in Discovering the Past by Examining Its Material Remains

Article excerpt

FOR ME, AS FOR MANY in my profession, archaeology is a lifelong commitment. My early teenage years were dominated by an enthusiasm for medieval buildings--especially those in a ruined state--and the option of a university degree course in history seemed as if it might be the obvious way forward. Archaeology, by contrast, was a much more esoteric subject--full of exciting places and peoples, but not something that was covered in the standard secondary school education. But I was always most attracted by the physical evidence, that allowed an encounter at first-hand with the places where people of the past had lived, and the objects that they had handled and used. My decision to become an archaeologist was largely down to this fascination with places and things, a fascination that was fuelled by my first visit to the British Museum at the time of the Tutankhamen exhibition in 1972.

It was on November 26th, 1922, that Howard Carter, after many seasons searching in the Valley of the Kings, had peered through a small hole in the sealed door of Tutankhamen's tomb and, in the light of a flickering candle, declared 'It is wonderful'. This famous story is now one of the romances of archaeological exploration, and a far cry from the kind of thing that most archaeologists experience in their daily lives. Tutankhamen's tomb and its contents are exceptional in a whole series of respects. Do they provide a special insight into the past, into the life of this individual ruler and his society? They certainly attract the crowds, and the fiftieth anniversary exhibition in 1972 was marked by long queues of people waiting to file past the carefully selected series of spectacular objects that had been specially flown from Cairo to London for the occasion.

Along with most museum exhibitions, the Tutankhamen exhibition was more art-historical than archaeological in concept. It displayed the special objects in carefully lit cases as individual works of ancient artistry. Archaeology, by contrast, places emphasis on context--on the precise location and interrelationship of different objects and structures. Furthermore, archaeology is not only or predominantly about famous or powerful kings and rulers, but can tell us as much about the lives of ordinary individuals.

After the Tutankhamen exhibition I read much more about ancient Egyptian history and archaeology. But while studying archaeology at university I was increasingly drawn to the European past, and in particular to the period between the first farmers (the so-called 'Neolithic') and the expansion of the Roman empire. This became my chief preoccupation in the decades that followed, when far from studying the richly furnished graves of rulers and lords I turned my attention to prehistoric landscapes and megalithic monuments.

My first encounter with a megalithic monument was a visit to Newgrange in 1969. Newgrange is one of the most spectacular megalithic tombs in northwest Europe, a massive oval cairn 60m across enclosing a cruciform burial chamber roofed by a corbelled vault soaring six metres up into the shadows. Around the edge of the cairn runs a kerb of ninety-seven large horizontally-laid slabs up to 4.5m long and a metre tall, many of them decorated with carvings of spirals, lozenges, zigzags and other geometrical shapes. The most elaborate is the stone directly in front of the entrance to the passage grave, where the designs have been executed in raised relief, the background pecked away to leave the design standing out. The psychedelic nature of the patterns may have been enhanced still further if they were originally picked out in paint, but of that all traces have long since disappeared.

Entering the tomb takes the visitor into another world. The long passage, flanked either side by upright slabs and roofed by massive megalithic capstones, leads to the burial chamber, covered by the corbelled vault. This structure is emphatic evidence of the skill of the builders who created New-grange just over 5,000 years ago. …