Back to the Past

An object only becomes a mere object or an artefact, as archaeologists call it, when it becomes divorced from its original context by time, distance, or cultural change.  For example, if the goddess statue is in the temple being worshipped, it is just that but when a people who do not believe come across it; it becomes an artefact.    

This week my attention was caught by the restoration of an Ancient Egyptian tomb, not a royal person, this time but an important servant.

Archaeology is an enthusiasm of mine but the topic will always be controversial because historically it often entailed looting by military conquest or a form of intellectual souvenir hunting for the wandering rich.  In the same way that trophy prisoners were displayed so were cultural artefacts.  Countless metal items must have been melted down for cash by people who found no meaning in them but in rarer cases these items were recognised as treasures and were proudly displayed.

The famous lions of St Mark’s Square in Venice, for example, were looted from Byzantium.  Perhaps there is some sense in which the new dominant civilizations try to identify with the glorious past of an older civilization as the Romans did with Troy.

We do seem to have a need to find a connection to the past, cultural, or genealogical.   Modern attitudes to the past probably share a lot of these common themes to a lesser or greater extent. Fortunately, however, we have also recently inherited a Victorian belief in the need for public education and the right of all the experience their heritage first hand and make of it what they will.

Flinders Petrie in Egypt

The Victorians also gave us Archaeology as a science.   The father of modern Archaeology is generally reckoned to be William Flinders Petrie (alas, not a direct relation). Flinders-Petrie treasured the small objects, the trivial household things that were often overlooked.  He could sequence them by observing subtle changes in style and technology.  Many items became, for example, more ornate and complicated as time went on.  The Petrie Museum is in London but much is available to see online.


Flinders-Petrie, in turn mentored many of the next generation of Egyptologists including Howard Carter discoverer of course, of the fantastical Tuthankhamun’s tomb.

Pretty much everyone has seen images the famous death mask, perhaps the most beautiful object ever made by human hands.

Britain, however, is not devoid of archaeological itself.  Unfortunately, our climate, is not ideal for the preservation of much.  Most of our buildings were wood and little of it survives unless waterlogged like the 2000 mile long Sweet- track, in Somerset.  Of course, the great icon of Britain, Stonehenge, stands tall and plain to see.


Some problem in Britain’s ancient people was that, in common with many indigenous societies, there was some belief that you should not leave permanent evidence of your existence since the world belonged to the gods of nature.    Much UK archaeology involves looking at discolouration in earth to find post holes of buildings.   Nonetheless, in 1939 a land owner had a dream about some mounds on her land at Sutton Hoo and asked a local archaeologist to investigate.  What he found was the grave of Ragnar a 7th Century Saxon king untouched.  This not only contained a great treasure but also proved the tales of riches in the contemporary fable, Beowulf, as no tall story.  This grave is also known for its famous death mask.

We can now see the faces of people thousands of years ago, we can see how they lived, what they ate, how they worked and we can even read their letters.  Technology moved and now we do not even unwrap mummies to see inside; CT scans used in medicine can do that from the outside.  In addition, thanks to forensic science we now can do DNA analysis too.   We also have aerial archaeology that finds sites from the air, noting patterns of crop growth which might leave the shape of a dwelling in times of drought.

Archaeology’s relationship with other sciences in not all one way, however, the police now employ forensic archaeologists, for example, who are able to notice subtle soil changes indicating graves, amongst other things.  In many ways, archaeology and forensic science are only separated by the fact that one looks at the recent past and the other the distant.  I do think it is vital to preserve the distant past because we can learn what sustains civilizations and what destroys them.   Many civilizations have died but I think it shows respect to the lives of the people to preserve what we can.  Personally, however, I feel a wonder at the things I have in common with people thousands of years ago and a fascination with the differences.