What's New in Archeology?

By Renfrew, Colin | UNESCO Courier, July 1985 | Go to article overview

What's New in Archeology?


Renfrew, Colin, UNESCO Courier


What's new in archaeology?

OVER the past two or three decades, archaeology--the study of the human past through the material remains of human activity--has changed profoundly in nature. Archaeology was once widely regarded as some sort of backward extension of recorded history. For times when written records were available it was seen as a useful addition, as simply some sort of illustration of the written narrative. For the prehistoric period, prior to the availability of written testimony, it offered some kind of shadowy reconstruction of the past, an illiterate substitute for a proper historical record.

Today, rather suddenly, archaeology, seems relevant and relevant in a very international way. Every continent has its own rich archaeology record, whether or not it has its own written records into the remote past. Moreover, we can see more clearly that what happened in the Americas, for instance, or in Africa two or three thousand years ago is just as relevant to our general understanding of human history as events occurring at that time in Asia or in Europe, areas with a longer written record.

Several developments have come together to create a new awareness that the archaeology of all these areas--and let us not leave out Australia and the Pacific--is part of our archaeology, the record of the history and achievements of our own species, and a part of the cultural heritage of our world.

In the first place, the development of new dating techniques, especially radiocarbon dating, has allowed the archaeological finds from every part of the globe to be dated reliably, without recourse to written history. The application of other techniques from the sciences, along with more rigorous excavation methods, has given the archaeologist a whole array of approaches which he or she can use to investigate past economies, the development of technology and early social systems (see article page 12).

Secondly, with the development of what has come to be called the "New Archaeology", research workers have redefined their aims. We are no longer simply seeking to reconstruct the past, and form some simple narrative of what happened in early times. We are trying in addition to understand why things changed and why they became what they are. This aim requires the development of a clearer theoretical framework for archaeology and involves the questioning of old beliefs. And if our goal is to understand how and why things change, the study of the processes at work in one part of the world may give us very valuable insights into those operating in another. The New Archaeology is therefore not ethnocentric, or at least it tries not to be.

Thirdly, with the increased pace of development in many parts of the world, both in towns and in the countryside through the mechanization and intensification of agriculture, many components of the archaeological record are under threat. The awareness that his is so has given rise to "rescue archaeology" as a national policy in many countries, sometimes referred to as Culture Resource Management. This implies both the effort to protect important sites against damage, and an acknowledgement of the need to conduct systematic excavations at those whose destruction cannot be prevented, so as to learn what we can from them before the site has been destroyed. Along with the national, public investment in rescue archaeology has come a deeper awareness of the significance of the early past for each nation's own identity. Our past matters: it is a fundamental part of what we have become. And archaeology is the only way we can find out about our early origins.

Up until a century ago, no-one had any very clear idea of how old the world was, and very little notion of the antiquity of humankind. In most countries there were creation stories, often suggesting that the first appearance of humankind was the act of god, or of the gods. But no one could say with any precision how long ago this occurred. …

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