The earliest points in history that the general population usually attribute to the beginning of archaeology would be somewhere in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the subject started to become extremely well known in popular culture. While this can be seen as the birth of what would become modern archaeology, the very foundations were laid much earlier. As early as the 6th century BC, the Babylonian king Nabonidus has been recorded to have excavated and restored various monuments and sites in what are now modern day Turkey and Iraq. He is even reported to have had an exhibition space where he would display his finds. St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor, Constantine also conducted various expeditions in Jerusalem in order to investigate the life of Jesus. As you can see, archaeology started out as an elite field reserved for only those who could afford ask questions about one’s history.
As civilizations developed, more and more people could devote themselves to other occupations besides agrarian and military based subjects. As can be seen in the Renaissance, many scholars became fascinated with Europe’s Classical past. Statues and other artefacts were revered more, and this fostered the idea of careful study and appreciation on archaeological objects. With the discovery of sites such as Pompeii, Herculaneum, etc. legends and stories passed down throughout the ages were becoming a reality. Excavations were led all over the Mediterranean to discover lost cities- the most famous of early archaeology being Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of Troy.
From here, we have Sir Flinders Petrie, the “Father of Modern Archaeology” and the development of placing finds in a chronological timeline, documentation of Thomas Jefferson conducting the first scientific excavation in Virginia and General Pitt Rivers continuing with careful, scientific study of human history. Other theories were also developed that aided in the development of the study of our past: Jacques Boucher de Perthes with his claims of human history beginning much earlier than 4004 BC (the standard old Christian timeline), the development of the Three Age System, and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
With interest in the field rising, and these new discoveries in human thought, archaeology started to become a more academic profession. With extremely large finds such as in Egypt and Rome, the world started to pay attention to our past, allowing scientific thought and process to develop archaeology into what it is today.
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Looking to Find Out More?
History Extra, Who was the First Archaeologist by Johnny Wilkes
University College London, History of Archaeology
Age of the Sage, An Outline History of Archaeology
The Palestine Exploration Fund, Sir William M. Flinders Petrie
Books and Articles
The Parkers of Heytesbury: Archaeological Pioneers. Antiquaries Journal 90: 441-53, by Everill, P. 2010.
General Pitt Rivers: The Father of Scientific Archaeology by Mark Bowden
A History of Archaeological Thought by Bruce Trigger
The Cambridge Illustrated History of Archaeology by Bahn, P.G. (ed.) L996.
Eyewitness to Discovery by Fagan, B.M. 1996.