Introduction to Classical Archaeology

(Figure 1.1) The Acropolis.Classical Archaeology is the study of past societies in the Mediterranean region on the basis of surviving material evidence. What this means, for all practical purposes, is that classical archaeologists - as opposed to other kinds of archaeologists - focus primarily on the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome: the glory of Athens, the greatness of Rome, and many other cities and locations in the Mediterranean area (Figure 1.1). Oftentimes classical archaeology is extended to the area of the Near East, especially to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt, and what is often called "Biblical Archaeology" (the archaeology of "Bible Lands" has close connections with Classical Archaeology). In addition, an important branch of Classical Archaeology focuses on the prehistoric cultures of the Mediterranean: the Minoans, Mycenaeans, and others. Finally, many Classical Archaeologists today look well beyond the ancient period, and study the archaeology of the region in the medieval and modern ages. The classical periods of Greece and Rome, however, still provide the primary focus for Classical Archaeology and, for that reason, Classical Archaeology is closely related to the study of the classical languages, Greek and Latin, as well as the study of ancient art (i.e., history of art).

Nonetheless, what gives all archaeology its distinct focus, indeed that which differentiates it from other branches of study, is the emphasis on the physical evidence that has survived, buried in the soil or hidden in remote locations, providing for us a direct - but fragmentary - contact with past ages. This evidence includes all the "things" left behind by the people of antiquity, including such items as buildings, pottery, coins, fortifications, farmsteads, and even whole landscapes. Naturally, most of these objects were not left behind "on purpose," but rather they were thrown away, lost, or abandoned as a result of the natural course of life or from natural or man-made disaster or rapid change. As a result, most objects found in an archaeological context are broken, and often exist in very small parts.

(Figure 1.2) Greek ceramics.Archaeologists study all these things for the clues they provide about the past. Naturally, this analysis is normally not easy or straightforward--the objects never really "speak for themselves," but rather they have to be interpreted. This process always involves careful description and categorization of the objects and consideration of a series of inferences about the date of the objects and how they were originally used. The dating process is an absolutely important first step, since it is necessary to understand whether an object should be related to society 100 years ago, or 1,000 or 5,000 years ago. Beyond that, the archaeologist seeks to determine the purpose or use of an object. In some cases that is fairly easy--if the object is shaped like an arrowhead or a coin, for example--but in many cases this is more difficult, in part because the objects have been broken nearly beyond recognition. Also,this may be a difficult task because certain objects appear strange to us today due to the fact that they are not used in our own societies. One type of archeological object--or artifact--most commonly found is pottery; ancient people used pottery for many different purposes, ranging from trade to household or kitchen use (Figure 1.2). Pottery remains are prevalent due to the fact that clay was always available, and it could be used to make many durable and useful objects. In addition, pottery survives longer than most other materials. Many types of pottery have been studied and dated, and their appearance forms the basis of chronology at many sites. Other kinds of artifacts, such as coins and stone tools, have been studied and dated, and archaeologists try to make associations between the various types of artifacts in order to understand the places they are exploring.

(Figure 1.3) Archaeologists working in an excavation site.Putting these objects and features together to "tell the story" of an individual site is the most challenging part of archaeological analysis. Again, this is sometimes relatively easy since certain kinds of artifacts immediately lend themselves to interpretation: for example, the discovery of large quantities of transport vessels called "amphoras" suggests that a particular place had significant trading connections, while small buildings with the remains of cooking fires might suggest houses and a residential area. Classical archaeologists often focus their attention on large public buildings such as temples, theaters, stoas, and palaces (Figure 1.3). It is, however, often difficult to identify even these, and sometimes a building's purpose cannot be determined with certainty unless an identifying inscription is found. The shape and size of a building is an important clue to its identification, but the kinds of objects found in and around a building are also significant: thus, expensive objects such as gold and luxurious furnishings suggest a place of special importance, while simple cooking pots or handmade pottery may indicate a building of modest purpose. Objects for religious use, such as statues or small "votives" that were gifts for the gods suggest religious activity of some kind.

In any case, the archaeologist is never content simply with discovering things and assigning dates and names to them. Rather, archaeologists constantly seek to use these bits of information to try to understand details about life in the past: how people worshipped, how they worked, how they died, and many more things besides. Naturally, determining these is much more difficult than simply providing a date for a piece of pottery, and the analysis of the archaeological data is the most important part of the archaeologist's work.

You will notice how these goals contrast strikingly with the popular conception of archaeology as a hunt for valuable "treasures." The image of an Indiana Jones is very far from the reality of what classical archaeologists do: instead of the "Lost Ark" or pots of gold, real archaeologists search for information to help them understand the people of the past.

(Figure 1.4) Greek sculpture.Through this web site, we will investigate a number of the methods used by archaeologists. First, the archaeologist gathers all information possible in order to understand what the archaeological features and artifacts were as well as how they were used. A particularly important aspect of this is what is called the archaeological "context." This "context" means, above all, where the artifact was found and what it was found with. All this requires careful recording and a concern for detail that may seem excessive to outsiders but it is a necessary part of the archeologist's job. In addition, the archaeologist tries to draw logical conclusions from what he/she can observe about the artifacts. This requires considerable care and an ability to "get outside of" one's own time. For example, an archaeologist might find an object that looks like an automobile headlight in an ancient context, but we know immediately that it cannot be a headlight since such things did not exist in antiquity. But what do we conclude if we find an object that looks like a drinking cup? Maybe it was a cup for household use, but maybe it was a ritual object (something used in a ceremony, usually religious) or used to store medicines or powders. Likewise, what if we find a small statue of a human made out of clay? Was this a child's toy, or a religious object, or an artist's model for a larger representation? It would obviously be hard to tell, but the place where the artifact was found, and the other things with it, might help.

Furthermore, how can we date the objects we find in an archaeological context? By themselves the artifacts almost never provide a date and you cannot just say which artifacts "look old" unless they have a date on them or an inscription that can be dated. Rather, archaeologists have discovered many ways to provide dates, and some of these are quite complex; many of these methods will be discussed at other points in this website, but it is enough here to say simply that all of them require care and critical observation.

(Figure 1.5) The Hephaisteion.Architecture is an especially important "branch" of classical archaeology, since buildings are often the most significant kind of finds archaeologists make. We do, in fact, know quite a lot about how the Greeks and Romans built structures, and this knowledge is very helpful in archaeological analysis (Figure 1.5).

Because classical archaeology deals with the complex cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and particularly of Greece and Rome, we frequently study cities and an urban environment, rather than the simpler social structures encountered in other kinds of archaeology. It is true that classical archaeology can concern itself with villages and simple farms (where a majority of Greeks and Romans actually lived), but it more commonly looks at the great centers of civilization and their religious and cultural manifestations. Frequently these centers were occupied over long periods of time, commonly for many centuries, and this makes the archaeologist's job particularly difficult, since it is important to separate the various periods, and this often means the disentangling of layer after layer of human habitation.

Despite all this detail, and often-tiresome study, the work of the archaeologist can still be exciting. The discoveries may be small and the study of material often takes year of work, but each new piece of evidence, each new interpretation, adds to our knowledge about the past and the people who lived in classical times. In addition, archaeologists living today are obviously influenced by the questions and issues that are important in our own time and they therefore ask questions from archaeology that are different from those that were asked 50 years or 100 years ago (or even more). Thus, archaeologists are constantly revising their views of antiquity and presenting new ways of looking at the past and our relationship to it. As a result, in archaeology there are no really "right" answers (although there may be wrong ones). As our own society shifts and changes, what we ask of archaeology also changes and we look at the past differently. This is not at all a bad thing, but one of the aspects that keeps archaeology constantly changing and always "new." Another aspect of the excitement of archaeology is in fact the excitement of discovery: every shovel full of earth, every new exploration, may bring something strikingly new. And at every turn the archaeologist is face-to-face (or hand-to-hand) with the people of antiquity, walking where they walked, touching things they touched, and oftentimes seeing things that have not been seen for thousands of years. Despite the scientific rigor of archaeology today, archaeological exploration is still an art and an adventure of the human mind. We invite you to share a little of that excitement with us here.