The Contributions of the Sciences to the Discovery of Ancient Rural Civilization1

By Carter, Joseph Coleman | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, March 2006 | Go to article overview

The Contributions of the Sciences to the Discovery of Ancient Rural Civilization1


Carter, Joseph Coleman, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


CLASSICAL ARCHAEOLOGY, a subdiscipline of the larger field of archaeology, is undergoing rapid changes that have recently been described as a "paradigm shift" (Snodgrass 2002). It is not what it was forty years ago when this writer was in graduate school, nor even what it was twenty years ago. The concerns of the discipline in the middle of the last century were mainly with urban culture in the major cities of the Greek and Roman worlds. Research was "text-driven," with the underlying goal of further expanding knowledge of those areas of ancient civilization illuminated in the ancient literature. It was also object-oriented, and in practice the focus of researchers could be extremely narrow, confined often enough to a single artifact class. The artifacts most frequently investigated and considered the highest priority were, like figured vases, intrinsically interesting as art, or historically significant, like coins or inscriptions.

The goals and focus of the discipline began to shift gradually in the second half of the last century. The horizon of research became much wider as attention turned to the previously ignored ancient countryside around the urban centers, and also to peripheral areas, including the Greek colonies, west and east (fig. 1). While objects and structures continued to be central, investigations expanded to include organic evidence of past life. As a result, the research agendas expanded to include specialties and subdisciplines, many of which were already familiar to non-Classical archaeologists, like palaeobotany and physical anthropology. That made a multidisciplinary team a virtual necessity. These changes were concomitant with the growing interest among social historians in how people lived-and not just the urban elite but the artisan class and farmers, in short, the majority of the ancient population previously "without a voice." While political history and major monuments continued to engage archaeologists and historians, they no longer enjoyed their former unquestioned preeminence.

What were the factors responsible for these decisive and everaccelerating innovations in the field? A fundamental role is often claimed for survey archaeology. Whether it was the cause or the result is difficult to say. The pioneering work of such scholars as John Ward Perkins in southern Etruria, Michael Jameson in the Argolid, and Dinu Adamesteanu in Sicily and South Italy certainly helped to reveal the extent to which the ancient countryside was populated and to stimulate interest in it, not only among archaeologists but also among ancient historians, such as M. I. Finley, S. C. Humphreys, and E. Lepore. A precocious interest in the rural population of the ancient world, and in related scientific research, had begun earlier in the last century in the area of the former Soviet Union and developed in very similar ways, but this tradition and the results of these investigations were virtually unknown in the West until very recently (fig. 2).

Survey archaeology has become a major field within Classical archaeology in the past forty years, but it alone, surely, cannot explain the concerted movement to a broader definition of archaeological research. A parallel and equally decisive role has also been played by the sciences, from biology to geology. Remote sensing and geophysical prospection technologies, too, are now increasingly in demand. Most research projects in Classical archaeology include a palaeobotanist, a faunal analyst, a physical anthropologist (when required), and a geomorphologist as a matter of course, as concerns with maximizing information and minimizing the escalating cost of excavation have grown. The big excavation of the mid-twentieth century is beyond the financial reach of most research institutions as labor and related costs continue to rise. Multidisciplinary research programs bring their own financial and logistical burdens, but by their nature these can be more widely shared with collaborating scientists and institutions. …

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