Archaeology

Archaeology Today



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Archaeology today, involves not only a systematic and meticulous excavation, but perhaps more importantly, cooperation with a variety of specialist scientific and historical disciplines to analyse and synthesise evidence of the human past in a way that reflects history accurately. It is only through working collaboratively and examining an artefact from all perspectives that many of the problems regarding misinterpretations of evidence can be duly avoided and historical integrity preserved. Ultimately, it is through this alliance that archaeologists are able to reconstruct the past from a tangible accumulation of material such as trash, tools, ornaments and buildings' and maximise their understanding of the diverse human ways of survival, religious beliefs, family structure and social organisation.

Essentially, a significant portion of problems threatening the physical remains of the past is caused by the follies of mankind whether it be through ruthless, avaricious looting, the destruction of wars, vandalism, modern development, human induced pollution such the acid rain attacking Rome's Coloseum, urban explosion threatening the formidable features of Egypt, or simply through the adverse effects of the plethora of curious tourists. As a result, much of the precious collection of artefacts are fragmentary and therefore subject to a extensive range of personal interpretations, all of which strive to emerge from the tumultuous multitude, but only one of which is historically correct. This lack of consensus between scholars due to incomplete evidence can be demonstrated by the controversies raised by the Iceman's occupation, manner of death and his habitat. Eventually, it was the CT scan a decade after his discovery that revealed a flint arrowhead imbedded in his shoulder which had caused his demise, but as of today, the other mysteries shrouding the Iceman remains without a definite conclusion. Thus, it is even more critical for archaeologists to attain all the information possible from the examinations of other fields of expertise to overcome at least a few difficulties created by the fragmentary archaeological record.

Fundamentally, the dramatic transformation of an archaeologist's mentality from the tomb-robbing' era of Belzoni to the detailed examinations of evidence today has been facilitated by the extraordinary developments in science. Both the Persian mummy and the Iceman demonstrate the phenomenal role played by science in overcoming many of the difficulties in archaeology's construction of the past through its material remains. In both cases, the perfection of absolute dating methods such as radiocarbon dating and dendrochronolgy, have allowed archaeologists to establish an accurate historical context for the findings, and subsequently the conclusions they draw from the artefact will be more reliable. For instance, the carbon dating by physicists on the Persian mummy exposed the finding as a fraud the mat she lay upon was no more than fifty years old, dispelling the archaeologist Ibrahim's prediction of the body's ancient origin. Likewise, carbon analysis of the Iceman and his artefacts, coupled with metallurgists' identification of a copper axe blade, revealed the Iceman to be a Neolithic body from a 3200 3300 BC, more than a thousand years older than even Konrad Spindler, a distinguished archaeologist, had estimated. Therefore, this vast disparity between a personal subjective viewpoint and scientific fact, highlights the unparalleled significance of science and technology for an archaeologist's understanding of the past.

Furthermore, the advent of computers has dramatically affected the amount of information archaeologists are able to extract from a single artefact. For instance, the CT scans of the Persian mummy provided a detailed cross-section of the body and it showed that the heart, the medium of the soul in the Underworld to recreate the earthly body, was missing from its habitual resting place. This disproved the authenticity of the mummy and prevented archaeologists from committing a serious error in their conclusions. For certainly, without the assistance of these scientific techniques, Ibrahim was on the verge of establishing a non-existent connection between Egypt and Persia, which would have effected undesirable repercussions on the historical truth of these two ancient powers.

Similarly, the bulk of the information obtained from the Iceman was from scientific examinations, especially in view of the relative paucity of archaeological and historical knowledge regarding Neolithic history. Modern technology was thus able to overcome the problems posed by the age of the evidence to create a detailed and reliable reflection of the world from which the Iceman had sprung. For example, palaeo-botanists were able to identify the remarkable diversity of natural sources the Iceman utilised from his equipment birch, ash, yew, hazel, larch, Norway maple trees - as well as classifying the pollen and grains adhered to his clothing. Archaeologists were thus able to infer the Iceman had traveled extensively to collect these specimens, propose an educated guess as to the region in which the Iceman interacted and establish that he had at least temporary contact with a community that domesticated cereals. In addition, body scans not only determined fundamental information such as sex, age, age at death and height, but Spindler interpreted the rib fractures as a result of a violent conflict', which could also potentially shed light on the fate of his entire community. Thus archaeologists gained the necessary knowledge required to begin to reconstruct aspects of a Neolithic history, accurately and validly.

Apart from yielding such a considerable amount of information concerning an artefact, science and technology has a final, crucial role in conserving the findings. Due to the fact that the archaeological context of a site can never be reproduced after excavation, archaeologists have a professional and ethical responsibility to record their discoveries and conserve all recovered objects for other scholars. The Iceman provides an excellent example of the meticulous process involved in conservation his refrigeration chamber is adjusted to the identical conditions in which he had presided for five millennia, monitored incessantly by staff members. The purpose of this costly procedure, the first of its kind in the world, is to maintain the Iceman in a state which will enable future generations of researchers to perform studies which are beyond our capacity today,' and hence, possible errors committed by factors such as inferior technology will be ameliorated and historical reliability enhanced.

However, due to the sheer complexity and depth involved in the study of such ancient remains, archaeologists often also require assistance from the humanities, such as history, and other specialists such as cryptologists, cuneiform experts or linguists. The Persian mummy provides an ideal example of how the consultation of such experts prevented a misinterpretation from disastrously tainting the history of ancient Persia. Most notably, Professor Sim-Williams, the cuneiform expert stumbled upon the extraordinary revelation of many obvious mistakes in the tenses of the nouns on the sarcophagus and from historical knowledge, the meticulous stonemasons of ancient Persia would never have succumbed to such amateur blunders. Furthermore, scholars of Persian carvings compared the sarcophagus engravings to the genuine ones on the gates of the Persepolis and again, the crudely shaped hands and beards indicated suspicious errors. Professor Briar, the expert on Egyptian mummification also noticed the peculiar incidence of the unbroken ethnoid bone, which indicated the brain was abnormally extracted, and that the conventional natron was not used in the drying process. The synthesis of all these fragments of incriminating evidence ultimately exposed the reality behind the enigma and speculation inspired by the Persian mummy as nothing but a fraud.

Conversely, it can also be argued that the existing perceptions of history often are the very factors which blind scholars to revolutionary evidence challenging these accepted versions. For instance, in their hasty, over-reading of the Biblical text, archaeologists immediately assumed that the Megiddo stables belonged to King Solomon, without subjecting their conclusions to the extensive scientific tests required. Thus, it was only many years later that Yadin questioned the unconventional structure of the Solomonic wall,' and discovered a previously overlooked casement wall, which he proved to be of the true Solomonic Megiddo, one which had no connection to the mystical opulence of the stables. Similarly, the Dead Sea Scrolls created intense controversy because they revealed that early Christianity developed upon Jewish soil and that the two communities were both zealous Jewish sects emerging from the world of the late Second Temple Judaism. Consequently, many scholars were initially unable to accept this because it challenged several fundamental tenets of the two age-old faiths, and the lack of consensus between scholars contributed significantly to the extensive delays in the publication of the scrolls.

Ultimately, these examples have demonstrated the utmost importance of an archaeologist's awareness of the human condition of prejudice, and to endeavour to prevent it from affecting their scholarship by viewing the evidence from a variety of perspectives. Archaeologists have to take further precautions especially because of the fractured nature of the past is extremely vulnerable to misinterpretation. And as the renowned archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler said, archaeology is concerned with methodical digging for systematic information, not with the upturning of earth in a hunt for the bones of saints and giants or the armoury of heroes or just plainly for treasure.' Therefore, archaeology is a problem solving process that aims to analyse data that reflects the vast diversity of human societies and human beings, and it is a process that relies heavily on assistance from sciences, history and other fields of expertise to prevent the incidence of misinterpretations of evidence and their disastrous consequences on the quest for historical truth.

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