The Effects of the Enlightenment on Archaeology

What Does Thomas Jefferson Have to Do With the History of Archaeology?

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by John Trumbull (American, 1756 - 1843); oil on panel, 1788, from the White House collection, Washington DC
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by John Trumbull (American, 1756 - 1843); oil on panel, 1788, from the White House collection, Washington DC. GraphicArtis / Archive Photos / Getty Images

The Enlightenment of 18th century Europe had a profound effect on people interested in nature and philosophy, leading to the creation of the first sciences including the study of archaeology.

The first tentative step forward towards archaeology as a science took place during the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason. Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries was a time of great growth in scientific and natural exploration.

Scientists, poets, philosophers, and painters reached back into classical antiquity, particularly Greece, to wonder how rationalism, what they considered the supreme human reason, ever came to be realized. Human society everywhere must develop linearly, it was felt, beginning with stone tools, growing with the invention of agriculture, and ending with the pinnacle of human culture--European scientific society (at least according to European scientific society).

The only systematic archaeological investigation during the Enlightenment project was Thomas Jefferson's excavations in Virginia in 1784; most antiquarians were content to theorize. The Enlightenment ended with the American and French Revolutions, but the main concept of the Enlightenment--that of the "Great Chain of Being"--was to lead men (rich European men) to investigate the globe over the next century.

A "Natural" Sovereignty

Unfortunately, the concept of equality, that all societies were the same, just at different levels of evolution, was dropped.

Instead, a classificatory system was developed, producing both studies of the individual histories of various societies, and a fierce underlying chauvinism in the scientists themselves of the "natural" sovereignty of the European peoples.

One of those lit by the fires of the Enlightenment was Jacques Boucher de Perthes, a French customs officer.

During the 1830s-1850s, he discovered a mess of extinct animal bones, numerous handaxes, and other artifacts in Ice Age deposits at the site of Abbeville along the Somme River in France, and had the nerve to call them "Ante-Diluvian" (that is, "before the flood"). To make any kind of claim questioning the purely factual basis of the Bible was, well, heresy. In 1847, de Perthes published a long rambling account of these artifacts, arguing that they were clear evidence that humanity was clearly older than 6,000 years. He was widely ignored until 12 years later when two British archaeologists visited Abbeville, found elephant bones in situ with stone axes, and published a treatise supporting de Perthe's assertions of the antiquity of humans.

Schliemann, Botta and Layard

Better known to the general public, partly because of Irving Stone, and partly because of rudiments of his own sense of PT Barnum, is Heinrich Schliemann, a German archaeologist whose insatiable search for the Troy of the Iliad led him to Turkey to the site of Hisarlik. Schliemann spent 20 years beginning in the early 1870s digging through nine levels of occupation at Hisarlik, too quickly: he excavated right through the Mycenaean occupation (when the Trojan War likely occurred) without recognizing it in the process.

Other early scientists who excavated for answers to questions, not necessarily gold artifacts, included Paul Emile Botta, an Italian who excavated the Palace of Sargon II of Assyria in the 1840s, under the mistaken impression that he had found the biblical site of Nineveh.

A few years later, Austen Henry Layard, an Englishman fired up by Botta's research, went searching and actually did find Nineveh.

The Three Age System

Christian J. Thomsen and Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae, succeeding curators of the National Museum of Denmark argued against the prevailing theory that in prehistoric times, iron tools were for poor people and bronze for rich, and in the 1840s looked for and provided the evidence for the Three Age System (Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages) throughout Europe.

The modern science of archaeology still grapples with three issues believed by European antiquarians in the century after the Enlightenment.

First, they firmly believed that all white, propertied men were equal--but nobody else. Secondly, they believed European scientific society was the pinnacle of human endeavor, and that any society not there yet was inferior in some way. Thirdly, due to their efforts, much of the artifacts they found are in European museums, far from their countries of origin. It is only relatively recently that archaeology has begun to let go of these tenets, and, to some extent, returned to the original notions of equality of the Enlightenment itself.


A bibliography of the history of archaeology has been assembled for this project.

History of Archaeology

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Hirst, K. Kris. "The Effects of the Enlightenment on Archaeology." ThoughtCo, Apr. 8, 2016, Hirst, K. Kris. (2016, April 8). The Effects of the Enlightenment on Archaeology. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "The Effects of the Enlightenment on Archaeology." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 20, 2017).