1 Turning as always to the definition in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, erudition “is comprised of three main branches: knowledge of history, of languages, and of books.” When seen from this perspective, archaeology broadly falls into the first of these three categories. Having been closely associated with art history ever since the two disciplines emerged from hibernation during the Renaissance, when the first cabinets of curiosities were established, archaeology was defined by historians in the nineteenth century as “an auxiliary discipline to history,” at the very moment that modern science, with all of its universities and manuals, really began to take shape. The truth was held in the texts that archaeology was simply supposed to illustrate with its unearthed discoveries. In particular, the traveling historian Pausanias, in his Description of Greece, written in the second century CE based on his numerous voyages, told us about a certain number of great places in his country, and the role of the archaeologist and his shovel was simply to provide illustrations, to put some flesh on the bones of the text.
From accumulation to classification
2 The reality is obviously more complicated. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, archaeology was occupied with the disorganized accumulation of anything that seemed “old” or even “curious.” Real archaeological excavations only began with Pompeii and Herculaneum at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when field techniques were still very inaccurate. Until then, discoveries were mostly a matter of pure chance, the result of random digs around the city of Rome, in particular. This explains the early interest of the popes, who were in fact some of the most dedicated collectors. Among the most highly celebrated discoveries was the Laocoön Group, a set of marble statues found in Rome in 1506 which depict the Trojan priest and his sons being killed by sea monsters after he tried to convince his compatriots not to allow the infamous wooden horse filled with hidden warriors into the city. The finds at this time were often misinterpreted. Mammoth bones for example were attributed to Hannibal and his elephants. Stone axes from the Neolithic period were considered to be “thunderstones” made from lightning strikes. Flint arrowheads dating from around the same period were believed to be fossilized snake tongues, known as glossopetrae.
3 The first public museums appeared toward the end of the seventeenth century, with the Kunstmuseum Basel being founded in Switzerland in 1661 and the Ashmolean Museum, part of the university, being founded in Oxford in 1683. With the arrival of the Enlightenment, knowledge became increasingly systematized—we refer to the brilliant scholars who started categorizing finds by the name of “antiquarians.” In France, the comte de Caylus, more precisely Anne-Claude-Philippe de Tubières de Grimoard de Pestels de Lévis de Caylus, marquis d’Esternay, baron de Branzac, friend of the painter Watteau and author of more than a few erotic tales, published his impressive Recueil des antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, grecques et romaines in seven volumes between 1752 and 1767. This work was based not only on the huge private collection he had assembled, but also on the discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum. In much the same way, the Benedictine monk Bernard de Montfaucon, a fellow member of the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, published his Antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures in ten volumes based on his research trips, as well as his Monumens de la monarchie françoise in five volumes between 1729 and 1733. We owe him a great deal of thanks for publishing an account of the oldest known prehistoric excavation, that of a mass burial site dating to the Neolithic period that was discovered in Houlbec-Cocherel, Normandy.
4 While the very idea of prehistory was still in its infancy at this time and the megalithic monuments were generally attributed to the Gauls—the oldest known (according to textual evidence) inhabitants of France—, the chronological dating of finds was gradually becoming established. In this way, the German scholar Johann Jakob Winckelmann, employed in the service of the pope, offered the first chronology of Greek art in his Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums in 1764, praising this art to high heavens and considering it unsurpassable. This was how, over time, “antiquarians” became “archaeologists,” and archaeology, just like the other sciences, went on to develop many of its tools during the nineteenth century, moving from mere erudite accumulation to a real understanding of the past.
Expansion in space and time
5 As the European powers extended their political and economic hold on the world, new places were opened up to archaeology—first the Middle East, then the whole of Asia, Africa, and soon the Americas. At the same time, as the Bible lost much of its credibility, at least in terms of its literal reading, time in its turn came to be conquered. Long chronologies were developed by scholars like Gabriel de Mortillet in France and Sir John Lubbock in the United Kingdom. This newly born prehistoric archaeology was unable to rely on textual evidence because none existed, and it was instead forced to develop its own methods of inquiry, calling on the natural sciences to date finds, analyze chemical composition, establish function, and determine origin, among other things.
6 There were two scientific traditions that developed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Historical archaeology continued to base itself primarily on textual evidence, in the tradition of the humanities, which have always focused on works of art, temples, statues, and fine ceramics. In fact, the big digs toward the end of the nineteenth century, whether in Egypt, Greece, or Italy, were mostly aimed at uncovering the walls of buildings and recovering any well-preserved statues or works of art. The erudite archaeologist had first and foremost to master the ancient texts and, working for example with inscriptions engraved in stone (epigraphy), to remember, eventually with the help of huge compilations (corpora), the name of a given person who may have been mentioned elsewhere in order to determine the course of their life. This is what we call prosopography.
7 Prehistoric archaeology, on the other hand, born from a greater emphasis on the ground and everyday objects, adopted a geological model in what came to be known as “historico-cultural” interpretation. In particular, it aimed to define a series of “cultures” (Acheulean, Mousterian, Magdalenian, etc.) that were each defined by a list of characteristic objects or “fossiles-directeurs” (carinated scrapers, double barbed harpoons, etc.). In the humanistic tradition, texts alone could provide the key to understanding ancient societies, and so huge erudite corpora (inscriptions, vases, etc.) had to be meticulously assembled. But the prehistoric tradition often ended up simply describing objects, with a few references here and there, by way of comparison, to the primitive societies described by ethnologists.
New definition, new methods
8 Our relationship to knowledge slowly changed over the course of the twentieth century. Historical archaeology developed a critique of the texts uncovered, which were often judged to be “partial and partisan,” in that they were almost always a product of the ruling class—religious verses, royal exploits, or epics—rather than anything concerning daily life—technical matters, the economy, or food. As a result, the research methods used by prehistorians were slowly adopted and brought into general practice, making recourse to the natural sciences, chemical physics, or computer science increasingly commonplace, along with an interest not only in prestigious sites (palaces, temples, big cities), but also in much more modest sites in rural areas, which revealed themselves to be equally informative.
9 We also continued our march forward through time. Following the Second World War, the archaeology of the Middle Ages, limited up until this point to castles, cathedrals, and tapestries, turned to villages and technical matters, then to the material remains of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries (with the excavation under the glass pyramid of the Louvre, for example), then to those of the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, and finally to the vestiges of the world wars in the twentieth century. There have even been studies of wasteful behaviors through the analysis of contemporary trash cans.
10 In this way, little by little, there emerged a new definition of archaeology, that of the study of human societies, regardless of how old they are, through their material remains—just like how history studies them through their texts or how sociology studies them through their behaviors. This approach not only drew from the methods and techniques of other sciences, but it grew increasingly systematic in its collection of material evidence.
11 Today, the smallest shard of pottery is carefully recorded and soil samples are taken which are then studied microscopically to look for pollen from the surrounding landscape, phosphates resulting from human occupation, or even traces of DNA from plants and animals. It is no coincidence that archaeology, a discipline dealing with millions of objects (shards of pottery, for example) that are highly repetitive but still important to quantify, was one of the first social sciences to draw on computer science back in the 1960s. Consequently, archaeologists are often overwhelmed not only with enormous amounts of information, but also with objects that fill up the storage rooms of museums (in the best of cases) or huge hangars known as excavation warehouses. The situation is becoming increasingly critical because the publication of all these fragments in a scholarly book is now out of the question due to the fact that archaeological monographs are very costly to produce on account of their indispensable illustrations and their small readership outside the walls of university libraries. Increasingly, the only paper books published are syntheses, and most information is stored and accessible online only. Erudition is thus being in a sense exteriorized or even externalized, introducing a great deal of uncertainty as to the long-term conservation of this precious dematerialized documentation.
An uncertain future
12 Some would say that we know enough about the history of human societies and that we no longer need to keep on accumulating material. There are two arguments we can put forward to counter this. First, archaeological sites are finite in number and increasingly face destruction. We disturb (we artificialize) around 600 km2 of land each year in France, whether for roads, quarries, buildings, or industrial zones—equivalent to the surface area of an entire département every eight years. Yet we find on average one important archaeological site for every kilometer of planned highway. Second, archaeological discoveries, frequently accidental, have never stopped being made. A whole series of archaic human species have been discovered over the last decade that we had no idea about before (Denisovan, Homo floresiensis, Homo luzonensis, Homo naledi) and that have completely transformed the traditional concept of straight-line evolution, shifting our understanding toward a branching sort of evolution that seems to have been the result of constant interbreeding. While the destruction of archaeological sites to make way for major public works remains relatively controlled in the most industrialized nations, the situation is catastrophic in developing countries. Archaeology is therefore perhaps the only scientific discipline that is witnessing the gradual disappearance of its very objects of study.
13 The exponential growth of information, even digital, makes the mastery of vast chronological and geographical domains increasingly difficult, resulting in more and more specialization, as in so many other cases. But at the same time, faced with such a complicated and even troubled state of affairs in the world, the public is clearly calling out for more history and for lessons from the past. This means that at least some archaeologists have to accept their civic duty to enlighten and explain.