5 Pillars of Archaeological Method

William Flinders Petrie in His Lab
Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

"I was horrified at hearing of the rough shoveling out of the contents and protested that the earth ought to be pared away inch by inch to see all that was in it, and how it lay." WM Flinders Petrie, describing how he felt at eight years of age, on seeing the excavation of a Roman villa.

Between 1860 and the turn of the century, five basic pillars of scientific archaeology were enunciated: the ever-growing importance of stratigraphic excavation; the significance of the "small find" and "plain artifact"; the diligent use of field notes, photography and plan maps to record excavation processes; the publication of results; and the rudiments of cooperative excavation and indigenous rights.

The 'Big Dig'

Undoubtedly the first move in all of these directions included the invention of the "big dig." Up until that point, most excavations were haphazard, driven by the recovery of single artifacts, generally for private or state museums. But when Italian archaeologist Guiseppe Fiorelli [1823-1896] took over the excavations at Pompeii in 1860, he began excavating entire room blocks, keeping track of stratigraphic layers, and preserving many features in place. Fiorelli believed that the art and artifacts were of secondary importance to the real purpose for excavating Pompeii--to learn about the city itself and all its inhabitants, rich and poor. And, most critical for the growth of the discipline, Fiorelli began a school for archaeological methods, passing along his strategies to Italians and foreigners alike.

It can't be said that Fiorelli invented the concept of the big dig. German archaeologist Ernst Curtius [1814-1896] had been attempting to amass funds for an extensive excavation since 1852, and by 1875 began excavating at Olympia. Like many sites in the classical world, the Greek site of Olympia had been the subject of much interest, especially its statuary, which found its way into museums all over Europe.

When Curtius came to work at Olympia, it was under the terms of a negotiated deal between the German and Greek governments. None of the artifacts would leave Greece (except for "duplicates"). A small museum would be built on the grounds. And the German government could recoup the costs of the "big dig" by selling reproductions. The costs were indeed horrific, and German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was forced to terminate the excavations in 1880, but the seeds of cooperative scientific investigations had been planted. So had the seeds of political influence in archaeology, which were to profoundly affect the young science during the early years of the 20th century.

Scientific Methods

The real increases in techniques and methodology of what we think of as modern archaeology were primarily the work of three Europeans: Schliemann, Pitt-Rivers, and Petrie. Although Heinrich Schliemann's [1822-1890] early techniques are today often disparaged as not much better than a treasure-hunter, by the latter years of his work at the site of Troy, he took on a German assistant, Wilhelm Dörpfeld [1853-1940], who had worked at Olympia with Curtius. Dörpfeld's influence on Schliemann led to refinements in his technique and, by the end of his career, Schliemann carefully recorded his excavations, preserved the ordinary along with the extraordinary, and was prompt about publishing his reports.

A military man who spent a great deal of his early career studying the improvement of British fire-arms, Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers [1827-1900] brought military precision and rigor to his archaeological excavations. He spent a not-inconsiderable inheritance building the first extensive comparative artifact collection, including contemporary ethnographic materials. His collection was decidedly not for beauty's sake; as he quoted T.H. Huxley: "The word importance ought to be struck out of scientific dictionaries; that which is important is that which is persistent."

Chronological Methods

William Matthew Flinders Petrie [1853-1942], known most for the dating technique he invented known as seriation or sequence dating, also held high standards of excavation technique. Petrie recognized the inherent problems with large excavations and assiduously planned them out ahead of time. A generation younger than Schliemann and Pitt-Rivers, Petrie was able to apply the basics of stratigraphic excavation and comparative artifact analysis to his own work. He synchronized the occupation levels at Tell el-Hesi with Egyptian dynastic data and was able to successfully develop an absolute chronology for sixty feet of occupational debris. Petrie, like Schliemann and Pitt-Rivers, published his excavation findings in detail.

While the revolutionary concepts of archaeological technique advocated by these scholars gained acceptance slowly around the world, there is no doubt that without them, it would have been a much longer wait.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "5 Pillars of Archaeological Method." ThoughtCo, Nov. 24, 2020, thoughtco.com/pillars-of-archaeological-method-167137. Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, November 24). 5 Pillars of Archaeological Method. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pillars-of-archaeological-method-167137 Hirst, K. Kris. "5 Pillars of Archaeological Method." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/pillars-of-archaeological-method-167137 (accessed June 3, 2023).