THE TERRACOTTA ARMY, the royal tombs of Ur, and Olduvai Gorge's Zinjanthropus boisei: some archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century are household names. However, for the most part, we excavators work in quiet anonymity, far from the blaring headlines, despite the efforts of university public relations officers to promote even a minor find as being of international significance. In the popular eye we're still romantic figures, perhaps a trifle eccentric, who poke into royal tombs and dig in the shadow of pyramids. The epic work of Austen Henry Layard at Nineveh and of John Lloyd Stephens in the Maya rainforest in the 1840s, and of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy and Mycenae a generation later, set the tone. Lost civilizations emerging from clinging vines, and, above all, pharaohs' gold, are irresistible lures for the romantically inclined. That redoubtable traveller Rose Macaulay was seduced by her rambles through long-deserted cities, and wrote in her classic travelogue The Pleasure of Ruins (1953) of 'the marble and gold of palaces, the laurel and jasmine of gardens, [that] are now brambles and lagoons; the house built for Caesar is now dwelt in by lizards.' The study of the past, though now a highly specialized science, will never escape the lure of ruins.
Part of the romance of discovery comes from the personalities of the major archaeologists of a century ago. Hollywood's Indiana Jones is said to be a composite of at least three genuine excavators of yesteryear. Many of the great discoverers were compelling figures, such as Leonard Woolley of Ur (1880-1960) or Harriet Hawes (1871-1945) who excavated the Minoan village at Gournia on Crete almost alone in the first years of the twentieth century, when the site was inaccessible except by mule; or palaeoanthropologists Louis (1880-1960) and Mary Leakey (1913-96) of Olduvai Gorge fame.
The world of archaeology was an intellectual village in their day, where everyone knew everyone else and the gossip was ferocious. Just a handful worked outside the narrow confines of Europe, the Mediterranean, and North America. In 1959, the year Mary Leakey found Zinjanthropus, there were under a dozen archaeologists in sub-Saharan Africa and less than a handful in Australia and New Zealand. Considering the small numbers and the shoestring budgets, the quantity of important discoveries was astonishing.
Today, the number of archaeologists working around the world has mushroomed to perhaps 10,000. Many of them are engaged in heritage and monuments administration, but a large number are actively involved in excavation and discovery. The great expansion of archaeology coincided with the explosion of higher education during the 1960s, at the same time as radiocarbon dating burst on the study of the remote past like a thunderclap. I vividly remember the nervous frisson that swept through our comfortable world when radiocarbon samples suddenly dated the beginnings of agriculture in southwestern Asia previously thought to have occurred in the fifth millennium BC--to 6,000 BC and then even earlier. Soon afterward another new method, potassium argon dating, pushed human origins back to at least 2 million years ago. More recently, even earlier human ancestors date to at least 4 million.
Today's archaeology bears less and less resemblance to that of a half century ago. The best excavators of the 1950s were maestros of their craft. Their successors have refined digging and archaeological survey into a fine-grained science, by the use of subsurface radar and other technologies to probe the earth, and by close collaboration with scientists from many disciplines--everyone from botanists to ice-core climatologists, even beetle and earthworm specialists. Many recent discoveries have come from the laboratory rather than the trench, through work on hominin fossils, artefacts, on human bone and occasionally surviving tissue, and from cutting-edge research on ancient DNA. …