Archaeology

Ozymandias

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Percy Bysshe Shelley

 

Archaeology is a field of endeavor arousing diverse images within any group of people: treasure hunts, grave robbing, hoary legends, curses, jealousy, scholars, lecturers, sandy excavations, jungle shrouded cities, laborers, guards, speculation, scaffolding, tour guides… this list is endless. It is not difficult to expose the reasoning and associations leading to any of these perceptions.

Consistent with megatrends in recent centuries, Archaeology has become much more scientific, less speculative. But the romance of archaeology remains: the thrill of new insights into the lives of our predecessors over the 12,000 years since the Holocene began. The discoveries are stunning, and coming faster than we can digest. No more guesswork about dating artifacts and ruins; anything organic can be tested by increasingly sophisticated Carbon 14 analysis; the tree rings of wooden artifacts can be compared to a lengthening archive of wood ring data; and weather data from ice cores taken at the poles. A piece of flint or obsidian can be traced to the rock deposits from whence it came; the clay used in pottery can be traced to its source; the tools now exist to trace an ever-growing list of basic materials to their geographic sources.  Deep water no longer makes sunken ships or submerged structures inaccessible. Artifacts from previous excavations are revealing unsuspected connections and commerce, and affirming or challenging prior hypotheses. Thus, the impact of a new scientific test can be comparable to excavating a new site, or more so.

The physical science being applied to archaeology is coming from many unrelated fields. Its application is being stimulated by archaeologists seeking tools which can assist them in interpreting the structures and artifacts they are discovering, and the horde already unearthed. This progress will be paced by the individual character, training, talent, and energy of the archaeologists themselves, as it always has been.

The first drop-down list is “Archaeologists.” There, I call your attention to those who have blazed the trail in the past, and those pushing the frontiers in the Middle East at the present.

The second topic on the drop-down list is “Excavations.” Here, I focus on Middle-Eastern excavations, where the horizon of “civilization” has been pushed back to 12,000 years B.P.