Phrases like “he’s history” imply the past is something forgotten, out of reach, and irrelevant. But history is where we find the tragedies and triumphs, love stories, adventure, and drama that make up the story of humankind. It’s where we learn about ourselves.
But how do we really know what happened way back then? Sure, stories passed down through generations help, but they don’t give us a complete picture. That’s where archaeologists come in.
The field of archaeology brings the past to life, providing the accuracy and detail we need to truly understand history. You may be picturing khaki outfits, dinosaur fossils, and the great Indiana Jones. You’re sort of on the right track, but let’s clarify.
First, archaeology is commonly confused with paleontology, the study of fossils and extinct species. However, archaeology is focused on understanding human history, not other species. To explore the human past, yes, many archaeologists wear khaki and dig in the sand—but it’s also probably not quite as adventurous (nor dangerous!) as Indiana Jones made it look.
Instead, it’s filled with careful study and innovative technology that allow archaeologists to uncover and preserve artifacts, using them to learn more and more about our past, a little bit at a time.
Early archaeology sparks a cultural revolution
To better understand archaeology today, it helps to understand its beginnings. So, as confusing as this may sound, the study of history has a history of its own, and we’re going to study it.
Remnants of the past uncovered by scholars, scientists, and often the unintentional wanderer have always influenced society. Take the Renaissance, for example.
Commonly known as a time of creativity, beauty, and new ideas, the Renaissance was absolutely loaded with historical icons. Great minds like Galileo and Kepler studied the stars and proposed daring new ideas. Instantly recognizable artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo created masterpieces highlighting the natural beauty of the world and capturing the essence of the human experience.
But it didn’t happen randomly. Renaissance artists and thinkers were inspired by the past—in fact, the word renaissance is actually French for “rebirth.”
One especially important Renaissance man for archaeology was Petrarch, an Italian scholar and poet. Petrarch lived shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire, in a period known as the Middle Ages. He wasn’t an emperor, king, or even royalty at all. But he was a man who was intrigued by the ideas of classical Greece.
At its peak, ancient Greece was an advanced, powerful civilization rich in culture. It included lands and impressive cities across Europe. But its vast lands eventually broke apart, and its many cities and outposts were reduced to rubble. However, the Romans held on to Greek ideas, art, and architecture. Hundreds of years later, after the Roman Empire fell too, Petrarch and others like him rediscovered these Greek ideas and made them a centerpiece of the Renaissance.
Petrarch was a renowned writer and scholar, but ultimately, he was an archaeologist. As a priest, he was able to get money from the Church to pursue his interest in ancient literature. He traveled across Europe, amassing an immense collection of classical scrolls and texts and reveling in Greek culture
Though Petrarch’s methods probably weren’t as careful as today’s, the vast collection of ancient texts Petrarch unearthed played a major role in sparking the Renaissance.
Pompeii: frozen in time
One of the most astounding archaeological discoveries was the city of Pompeii, Italy. It was first discovered in 1599, a couple hundred years after Petrarch’s time, and is still being excavated today. Archaeologists got lucky with Pompeii, but it was thanks only to the terrible misfortune of the ancient city’s residents.
Pompeii was founded in the sixth or seventh century BC and became part of the Roman Empire. The city included an extensive water system, an amphitheater, and its own port—all tremendously advanced for an ancient society. But it was founded at the base of Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano, and its precarious position proved deadly.
In August of 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, spewing rock, ash, and fumes at a rate of 1.5 million tons every second. A thick layer of ash covered the city, suffocating and trapping people beneath. A mudslide took place after the eruption, which historians say buried the city.
Though devastating the city and killing thousands, the eruption also preserved much of the city for archaeologists. The same ash and mud that sealed the city’s fate also protected it from almost two thousand years of wear and tear. Buildings, artifacts, and even human remains were found in surprisingly good condition, making the site an archaeologist’s dream.
As a result, Pompeii gives us a snapshot of what life was like in the Roman Empire thousands of years ago. Casts were made from the pockets beneath the ash where human remains were trapped, showing positions, clothing, and even expressions of the people who perished on that day. The work of archaeologists at the site has provided a rare connection between us and people who lived in the city at the time of the eruption many years ago.
“At the end of a day of intense mental processing and physical labor, when the tools are being packed up and put away for the night, I often take a moment to remind myself of that connection with the individuals whose homes and workshops we’re digging up,” said Steven Ellis, an archaeologist leading excavations in Pompeii.
Though most sites aren’t as well preserved, Pompeii shows us what archaeology can offer.
Modern archaeologists have the same basic aim as Petrarch, but they go about it a little differently. Since Petrarch, archaeologists have long worked in the hot sun, slowly uncovering ancient artifacts with simple tools. There’s a beauty to that work, and it still makes up much of the work of archaeology. But archaeologists have other options, too.
Today, lasers, satellites, drones, scanners, and other gadgets recently added to archaeologists’ metaphorical utility belt give the field all the makings of a science fiction movie. It’s all aimed at making archaeology more efficient and less tedious.
Take carbon dating, for instance. Surprisingly, it isn’t atoms sharing a romantic dinner. (This joke gets a laugh, periodically). It is, however, a powerful tool for archaeologists.
First proposed by Willard Frank Libby in 1947, carbon dating lets scientists figure out the age of organic matter like bone, cloth, plants, and wood. It works because all living things absorb a certain amount of the chemical element carbon—specifically the carbon-14 and carbon-12 isotopes. Organisms don’t take in any more carbon after they die, and scientists know that carbon-14 decays at a specific rate while carbon-12 does not. So, by comparing the ratio of the two isotopes present, scientists can estimate the age of the organic matter.
Libby’s breakthrough has allowed archaeologists to date the age of human remains across the globe with relative accuracy, meaning we can better understand the timeline of history.
More recently, archaeologists have also started using lasers to map out historical sites. They do so by shooting lasers from planes—though not the kind of lasers you see in movies that destroy everything in their path. That would be the opposite of what archaeologists are trying to do.
Instead, archaeologists use an airborne laser-scanning technology called LIDAR. It’s similar to the echo-location used by bats and dolphins. LIDAR sends out lasers that reflect back to the plane, then uses GPS devices to track the lasers’ path. That process allows archaeologists to create three-dimensional topographical maps of vast areas of land without having to spend years surveying or cut down any trees.
It’s a huge time saver. To put things in perspective, it took two archaeologists, Arlen and Diane Chase, about ten hours to map 77 square miles of jungle at an ancient Maya site in Belize using LIDAR. Prior to their project, it took archaeologists about thirty years to map just 7.7 square miles with ground expeditions.
By combining these modern techniques with timeless curiosity, archaeologists can uncover even more ancient artifacts, teaching us more and more about our past.
Read more about archaeology’s origins and purpose.
Discover the life of Petrarch.
Check out Pompeii’s history and influence.