The History of Archaeology: How Ancient Relic Hunting Became Science

19th Century Woodcut Print of Excavations at Pompeii
19th Century Woodcut Print of Excavations at Pompeii. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The history of archaeology is a long and checkered one. If there is anything archaeology teaches us, it is to look to the past to learn from our mistakes and, if we can find any, our successes. What we today think of as the modern science of archaeology has its roots in religion and treasure hunting, and it was born out of centuries of curiosity about the past and where we all came from.

This introduction to the history of archaeology describes the first few hundred years of this fairly new science, as it developed in the western world. It begins by tracing its development from the first evidence of a concern with the past during the Bronze Age and concludes with the development of the five pillars of archaeology's scientific method in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Historical interest in the past was not solely the purview of Europeans: but that's another story. 

Part 1: The First Archaeologists

Part 1 of the History of Archaeology covers the earliest evidence that we have for excavation and preservation of ancient architecture: believe it or not, in the Late Bronze Age of New Kingdom Egypt, when the first archaeologists excavated and repaired the Old Kingdom Sphinx.

Part 2: The Effects of the Enlightenment

In Part 2, I look at how The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, caused scholars to take their first tentative steps towards the serious study of the ancient past. Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries saw an explosion of scientific and natural exploration, and a chunk of that was revisiting the classical ruins and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome. The sharp revival of interest in the past was a crucial leap forward in the history of archaeology, but also, regrettably, part of an ugly step backward in terms of class warfare and the privileges of the white, male European.

Part 3: Is the Bible Fact or Fiction?

In Part 3, I describe how ancient history texts began to drive archaeological interest. Many religious and secular legends from ancient cultures all over the world have come down to us in some form today. Ancient stories in the Bible and other sacred texts, as well as secular texts such as Gilgamesh, the Mabinogion, the Shi Ji and the Viking Eddas have survived in some form for several centuries or even thousands of years. A question first posed in the 19th century was how much of the ancient texts that survive today is fact and how much fiction? This investigation of ancient history is at the absolute heart of the history of archaeology, central to the growth and development of the science. And the answers get more archaeologists into trouble than any other.

Part 4: The Astounding Effects of Orderly Men

By the start of the 19th century, the museums of Europe were beginning to be inundated with relics from all over the world. These artifacts, picked up (um, okay, looted) from archaeological ruins all over the world by wandering wealthy Europeans, were brought triumphantly into museums with almost no provenience at all. Museums all over Europe found themselves overrun with artifacts, completely lacking in order or sense. Something had to be done: and in Part 4, I tell you what the curators, biologists, and geologists did to figure out what that might be and how that changed the course of archaeology.

Part 5: The Five Pillars of Archaeological Method

Finally, in Part 5, I look at the five pillars that make up modern archaeology today: conducting stratigraphic excavations; keeping detailed records including maps and photographs; preserving and studying plain and small artifacts; cooperative excavation between funding and hosting governments; and the complete and prompt publishing of results. These mainly grew out of the work of three European scholars: Heinrich Schliemann (albeit brought to it by Wilhelm Dörpfeld), Augustus Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, and William Matthew Flinders Petrie.


I've collected a list of books and articles about archaeology's history so you can dive in for your own research.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "The History of Archaeology: How Ancient Relic Hunting Became Science." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). The History of Archaeology: How Ancient Relic Hunting Became Science. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "The History of Archaeology: How Ancient Relic Hunting Became Science." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).