Archaeology and Its Problems

Archaeology and Its Problems

Archaeology and Its Problems

Archaeology and Its Problems

Excerpt

For many people the word 'archaeologist' immediately conjures up the memory of Labiche's character, M. Poitrinas, solemn of speech, vulgar in appearance, puffed up with empty and pretentious learning; who passed for a harmless and amusing lunatic, without malice save at the expense of his colleagues. For other people, however, an archaeologist wears a romantic halo: he is the man who searches for cities lost in the jungle, or buried in the desert; who discovers at one stroke of the pick, dazzling works of art or fabulous treasures. Both these conceptions are false. Doubtless such as M. Poitrinas, who would trace a safety match back to the Romans, still exist -- I shall, alas, have occasion to refer to him again. It also happens that an excavator, lighting by good fortune on some rare treasure, may find it glamorized by the Press. But just as a bone-setter is not representative of the medical profession, so the bearded and sententious dilettante has no right to be dubbed archaeologist. Sensational discoveries, such as that of the tomb of Tutankhamun, to cite only the most celebrated of them, are often but the crowning achievement of long years of research and are not, for the archaeologist, an end in themselves. The task of archaeology lies on an entirely different plane, and it is the part of this book to define it.

There are still many misconceptions as to the nature of archaeology, even among members of the profession. These may be partly explained by the origins of this discipline, in particular the assimilation of archaeology by art-history in the time of the Renaissance and of the Humanistic Movement. At that time, scholars and men of letters full of an unbounded enthusiasm for ancient Greece and Rome, confined their archaeological interests to works of art and buildings of aesthetic value. Archaeology, to their eyes, was identical with the history of ancient classical art. Other humanists regarded archaeology merely as an illustrative commentary on the texts which they were editing. This subordination of archaeology to philology, especially evident during the Renaissance, continued throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was not until the nineteenth century, and the birth of prehistory as a scientific discipline, that the archaeologist found at last his own sphere of research: the study and historical interpretation of all the material remains that vanished civilizations have left in the ground. These remains, from the magnificent Colosseum to the humble sherd . . .

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