1902 Encyclopedia > Archaeology > Archaeology - Introduction

(Part 1)


Archaeology - Introduction

Archaeology, from archaios [Gk.], ancient, and logos [Gk.], a description. The term Archoeology, like that of Antiquities, has been employed, until a very recent period, in a sense so restricted and arbitrary as strikingly to contrast with the latitude admissible according to the original derivation of the word. Literally it signifies the study of antiquity or ancient things; but its precise significance has been determined from time to time by the range of study and research most in favour. To some extent it has always been recognized as embracing whatever pertained to the early history of any nation, but in its details it was applied almost exclusively to the study of Greek and Roman art, or of classical antiquities generally. The progress of geology, and the application of sound principles of induction to the study of primitive antiquities, have wrought a great revolution, and few studies now rival archaeology in comprehensive interest.

In looking at the succession of strata of the earth's crust it was assumed till recently that the student of man and his remains is limited to the latest superficial formation of post-tertiary strata. To the paleontologist was assigned all ancient animal life of the fossiliferous strata, while the archaeologist treated of man and his works as things essentially distinct. The diverse functions of the two sciences are still clearly recognized; but the archaeologist is no longer supposed to be excluded either from quaternary or tertiary strata in his search not only for the remains of human art, but for the osteological evidences of man's presence contemporaneous with the fauna of such geological periods. One class of archaeologists, accordingly, confidently anticipate the recovery not only of works of are, but of the fossil remains of man himself, in the Pliocene, or even the miocene strata. So far, however, as any reliable evidence can guide opinion, it scarcely admits of question that neither has hitherto been found in older deposits than the later tertiary, or quaternary.

The actual remains of man, the specific from of his osseous structure, and above all of his skull, now receive the minutest attention; and the department of anthropology to which such investigations are specially assigned has latterly acquired a fresh interest from the inquiries suggested by novel theories as to the possible evolution of man from lower animal organizations. Nevertheless, the researches of the palaeontologist and of the archaeologist are based on essentially distinct evidence. The life of geological periods is investigated by means of the fossil bones and teeth which alone survive. Or if to these have to be added such illustrations of habits, food, and structure as are furnished by means of footprints, coprolites, and the like subsidiary evidence, still all are traceable, directly or indirectly, to the living organism. Man, on the n contrary, in times altogether preceding history, is chiefly studied by means of his work. Archaeology thus forms the intermediate link between geology and history, though the reaction, at the revival of learning in the 16th century, which tended for a time to subordinate arts and science alike to classical authority, reduced it within greatly narrower limits. Nevertheless the fitness of the term for the most comprehensive definition in relation to all which pertains to the past could not be entirely overlooked, and it is even employed repeatedly by Dr. Prichard as nearly synonymous with palaeontology. In this, however, he has not been followed, and the name is now universally adopted to designate the science which deduces the history of man from the relics of the past. So comprehensive a subject necessarily admits of great subdivision. The most important general division will be treated of separately in the article on CLASSICAL ARCHAEOLOGY (p. 343, sqq.), while interesting branches of the study will be reviewed under the heads of Egyptian, Etruscan, Assyrian, Mexican, and Indian antiquities. Numismatics, pottery, heraldry, hieroglyphics, palaeography, and other subdivisions in like manner deal with important details, and help to illustrate the comprehensiveness of the subject.

The innate cravings of the human mind for an insight into the future have shaped themselves into many forms of divination and astrology. But this desire is not more universal than that which prompts man to aim at a recovery of the secrets of the past. The question Whence? Even more than that of Whither? is found to give shape to the mythic legends of the rude barbarian, and to constitute an important element in the poetry and mythology of every nation's oral and written history. With the progress of society such indices of the past are subjected anew to critical analyses; and we accordingly find abundant traces of an archaeological spirit in the literature of every civilized nation. The influence of the same craving for a mastery of the past is seen adapting itself to the spirit of the age at every epoch of great progress. The revival of art and letters in the 14th and 15th centuries was signalized by a renewed appreciation of Greek and Roman models; and while the progress of opinion in the 16th century was accompanied by a abandonment of mediaeval for classic art, the tendency of Europe in our own day, amid many elements of progress, has been singularly consentaneous in the return not merely to mediaeval art, but to mediaeval modes and standards of thought, and in the attempt to attain to higher excellence than has been yet achieved by a more perfect development of the ideal of the middle ages.

The alliance of archaeology with geology, and the direction of geological research to the evidences of the antiquity of man, have largely contributed to its expansion, until in its comprehensive unity it embraces the entire range of human progress from the infantile stage of primeval arts to the earliest periods of written records. It has thus been developed into a systematic science, by which the intelligent investigator is enabled to pursue his researches with the aid of evidence older than all written chronicles, and to recover chapters of national infancy and youth heretofore deemed beyond recall. The geologist, with no aid from written records, follows out his inquiries through successive periods of the earth's history, and reveals the changes it has undergone, and the character of the living beings which animated epochs of the globe ages before man was called into being. Beginning with the traces of life in the primary fossiliferous strata, he passes on from system to system, disclosing a vast succession of long extinct life, until in the latest diluvial formations he points to the remains of animals identical with existing species, and even to traces of human art- the evidence of the close of geological and the beginning of archaeological periods. Here archaeological science ought to be ready to take up the narrative, and with a more comprehensive minuteness of detail and greater certainty as to the conclusions arrived at. Such, however, until very recently, has not been the case. The geologist himself long confused the records of the transitional period by his mistaken reference of all diluvial traces to the Noachian deluge; and when, pausing, as he thus believed, at the dawn of the historic period, he turned to the archaeologist for the subsequent chapters of the history of life on our globe, it was only to receive a record of Roman traces at best but meagerly supplementing the minuter details of the historian. Nearly the same was the case with all historic antiquity, with the single exception of the wonderful monuments of Egypt, which preserve to us the records of a civilization in which we can recognize the origin of arts, letters, and all else to which the culture of the oldest historical nations may be traced.
Nevertheless, the evidences of the primitive arts, and the traces of a native civilization originating among the prehistoric races of Europe, had been long familiar to the antiquary, though he failed to form any intelligent conception of their significance as historical records. Their interpretation on an intelligent and systematic principle is mainly due to the archaeologists and ethnologists of Denmark and Sweden, who from their very geographical position were happily freed from the confusing element of classical prejudices, and were compelled to seek in other than Roman sources an origin for the abundant traces of metallurgic art. Zealous British coadjutors speedily caught the hint, and freed themselves from the trammels which had so long narrowed their aim; the remains of primitive art were referred to true sources, or at least arranged under an intelligent system of chronological sequence; and thus the desultory and often misdirected labours of the antiquary have given place to researches characterized by scientific accuracy.

The system of primitive archaeology introduced has since been modified and carried out into ampler details, as the fruit of more extended discoveries, chiefly effected in France and England; but the three primary divisions, the Stone, the Bronze, and the Iron Periods, are still retained. The arrangement is warranted alike by evidence and by its practical convenience, though later research has given to the stone period a comprehensiveness undreamt of before, and so led to its subdivision into two ages of prolonged duration, with distinctive characteristics of primitive art. (1.) The Stone Period, as the name implies, is that in which the rude aboriginal arts, which the commonest necessities of men call into operation, are assumed to have been employed entirely on such available materials as stone, horn, bone, &c. (2) The Bronze Period may in like manner admit of subdivision, though the term is conveniently employed, in its most comprehensive sense, for that era of progress in which the metallurgic arts appear to have been introduced and slowly developed-first, by the simple use of native copper, followed by the application of fire, the construction of moulds, and the discovery of such chemical processes as the alloying of cooper and tin, and the consequent production of the beautiful and useful alloy which gives name to this the earlier metallurgic era. (3.) The Iron Period marks the era of matured metallurgic arts, and the accompanying progress consequent on the degree of civilization which is the inevitable concomitant of such a state of things. While, however , those divisions hold good in their general application, they must not in every case the applied too rigidly. The archaelogist is constantly recalled to the distinction between the researches of the palaeontologist, as dealing with the traces of organic life, and his own study of the works of a rational being marked by all the diversities traceable to the reasoning and volition of the individual workman. Local facilities have also modified the arts of primitive man in various ways. In some localities, as in North America, pure native copper abounds; while on the other hand, it certain districts of Africa iron occurs in such a condition that it appears to have been wrought by the primitive metallurgist from very remote times.

All those periods embrace eras concerning which no contemporary written records exist; and in relation to most of them nearly as little is known directly as of the older periods with which the geologist exclusively deals. It need not therefore excite surprise that the process of induction established on this basis has been challenged by historical writers of high standing, but whose exclusive labours on the records of periods admitting of documentary evidence and charter proof render them little disposed to sympathize with a course of reasoning relative to the history of man, such as has, in the hands of the geologists, revealed so much in relation to more ancient life. The further, however, that research is pursued, alike into the habits of living raced of savages, and into the characteristics of the oldest traces of primitive art, the more clearly does such a process of development, from the first rude working in stone to the highest arts of the skilled metallurgist, become manifest.

The Australians, the Maories of New Zealand, and the whole widely-scattered races of the Polynesian Islands, the caribs and other natives of the American archipelago, with all the nomade tribes of the New World, from Patagonia to the Arctic circle, were, when first discovered, without any knowledge of the metals as such, and supplied their wants by means of implements and weapons of stone, shell, bone, or wood. The civilized Mexicans and Peruviars, on the contrary, when first visited by the Spaniards in the 16th century, were familiar with the working of copper as well as gold, - though totally ignorant of iron, and also retaining for common purposes many of the primitive stone weapons and implements, only substituting the abundant obsidian of their volcanic region for flint. Greece passed from its bronze to its iron age within the period embraced in its literary history; and the mastery of the art of working the intractable iron ore is traceable with tolerable clearness in the early history of Rome, not very long before it came in contact with the trans-Alpine barbarians. Among most of the Germanic and Celtic tribes iron appears to have been already known when they first came in contact with the aggressive civilization of the south; and from one of them, the Norici (in whose country, in the Austrian valleys of the Danube, this metal is still wrought with the highest skill), there is reason to believe that the Romans acquired the art of making steel.

If history is only to begin, as that of Britain has been made to do, with the date of the first collision with invading Rome, then, no doubt , stone and bronze periods are as meaningless as are Eocene and Miocene periods to the geologist who assigns the Mosaic deluge as the source of the earliest phenomena of his science. To those, however, who are willing to follow inductive reasoning to its legitimate conclusions it must be apparent that it is no visionary theory, but a system founded in well established truth, which arranges the archaeological records of primitive history and the remains of human art into stone, bronze, and iron periods. Even here, however, an important distinction in the employment of such materials as a basis of inductive reasoning indicates the greatness of the revolution involved in the introduction among the living creature inhabiting this earth of a being endowed with intelligence, and supplementing the natural resources of animal life by arts even of the most primitive kind. It must indeed be borne in remembrance that geological and historical chronology are very different things, and that the idea implied in the contemporaneousness of strata bears a very slight approximation to the coincidence of contemporaneous events and productions of an historical era. The doctrine of geological continuity is indeed-challenged in certain respects; but on the whole, the geological formations, with their included organic remains, may be assumed to obey a natural and unvarying order; and so, within the compass of geological periods, to be of contemporaneous origin. But, notwithstanding certain extreme assumptions, based on the theory of evolution, and involving the consequent existence of man in remote geological eras, so far as all actual evidence can yet guide us, it is correct to say that, geologically speaking, the entire history of man is embraced in one period. But in the works of art, which form the bases of archaeological induction, a new element-that of mind, or the reasoning faculty, along with the imitative and social arts - is introduced, and greatly complicates its subdivisions. The stone period of Britain or Denmark is analogous to that of the Polynesian Islands. So closely do their tools and weapons resemble each other that it requires a practiced eye to distinguish the stone axe or flint lance-head found in an ancient British barrow from implements brought by some recent voyager from the islands of the Southern Ocean. Nor could the most experienced archaeologist undertake in every case to discriminate between the flint arrow-head dug from some primitive barrow of undated centuries before the Christian era, and the corresponding weapon brought by some recent traveler from Tierra del Fuego or regions beyond the Rocky Mountains. The inference is therefore legitimate, that in those Polynesians, Fuegians, or Indians of the North-West, we have examples of tribes in the same primitive stage as were the aborigines of Europe during its stone period. Chronologically, however, the stone period of Europe and that of the Pacific islands or the American continent are separated by thousands of years. In like manner, the bronze age of Mexico was undisturbed by all later element when first brought into contact with the matured civilization of Europe in the 16th century, while the close of that of Britain preceded the 1st century of our era. The same rule is applicable to primitive archaeology of all countries; and a fertile source of error and misconception has already had its rise in the assumption that because Greece and Italy, Germany, Gaul, Scandinavia, and Britain, have all had their primitive stone and bronze periods, therefore the whole must have been contemporaneous. It cannot therefore be too strongly enforced as one of the most essential points of variance in the reasoning of the geologist and the archaeologist, that the periods of the latter, though synonymous, are not necessarily synchronous; but that, on the contrary, nearly all the phenomena which pertain to the natural history of man, and to the historic development of the race, may be witnessed in their various stages in contemporary races of our won day - from rudimentary barbarism, and the absence of all arts essential to the first dawn of civilization, to a state of greatest advancement in the knowledge and employment of such arts.

Some progress has already been made in an approximation to certain chronological data of much importance relative to such primitive periods of the history of nations. But the archaeologist, as well as the geologist, is leaning to deal with periods of time which cannot always be measured either by years or centuries, but rather must be gauged by those chronological stages in the history of our planet in which epochs and periods take the place of definite subdivisions of solar time. Nevertheless, geological evidence of changes which are known to have occurred within the historic period supplies an important key to the approximate duration of certain eras characterized by traces of human art; and while by the intelligent observation of such remains in the superficial strata, mingling with the fossil evidences of extinct and familiar species of animal life, the link is supplied by which man takes his place in an unbroken chain of creative existence, sweeping back into so remote a past, the evidences of matured art pertaining to periods unrecorded by history supply later links of the same chain, and reunite the present with all former ages.

The system of primitive archaeology which is found applicable to British antiquities so closely corresponds in all its essential features to that of Europe prior to the era of authentic history, that the purpose of such an abstract as this will be most conveniently accomplished by presenting its leading points as examples of the whole, illustrating these in passing by the analogous remains discovered in other countries. The apparent simplicity of a primitive stone period has been considerably modified by recent research; and the careful study of the remains of ancient art, in their relation to accompanying geological phenomena, or of the evidences of artificial deposition in caves, barrows, chambered cromlechs, cairns, or other sepulchral structures, suggests the subdivision of prehistoric archaeology into a succession of epochs included within the period of non-metallurgic arts.

But before defining the archaeological subdivisions of time it is indispensable to glance at the palaeontological elements of the question, and the evidences they supply in relation to comparative chronology. One of the t most remarkable phenomena affecting the conditions of life in Europe in recent geologist epochs is the existence of a period, of long duration throughout the northern hemisphere, of a temperature resembling that of the Arctic regions at the present time. After a period more nearly approximating in its conditions the heat of the tropics at the present day, though otherwise under varying states towards the end of the tertiary epoch the temperature of the whole northern hemisphere gradually diminished, until the mountainous regions of Scotland and Wales - then probably of a much higher elevation- resembled Greenland at the present time; and this Arctic temperature gradually extended southwards to the Alps and the Pyrenees. The glaciers formed under the influence of perpetual frost and snow descended from those and other mountains into the valleys and plains over the greater portion of central Europe and northern Asia; and this condition of things, pertaining to what is known as the glacial period, was one of greatly prolonged duration.

After some partial modifications of this low temperature, and a consequent advance and retrocession of the glacial influences in France and elsewhere, along what was then the border lines of a north temperature zone, the glacial period drew to a close; a gradual but persistent rise of temperature carried the lines of ice and perpetual snow further and further northward, excepting in regions of great elevation, as in the Swiss Alps. This was necessarily accompanied by the melting of the vast glaciers accumulated in the mountain valleys throughout the protracted period of cold. The broken rocks and soil of the highlands were swept into the valleys by torrents of melted ice and snow; the lower valleys were hollowed, out and re-formed under this novel agent; and the landscape received its present outliners of valley, estuary, and river-beds from the changes wrought in this diluvian epoch. The enormous power of the torrents thus acting continuously throughout a period of prolonged duration, and the vast deposits of sand, gravel, and clay, with the embedded remains of contemporaneous animal and vegetable life with which they everywhere covered the plains, were viewed till recently solely in relation to the Mosaic narrative of a universal deluge, and were referred implicitly to that source. But recent though the epoch is when compared with older geological periods, its antiquity is enormous in relation to historic chronology; and instead of being the product of a sudden catalysm of brief duration, it represents phenomena which required a period of long protracted centuries for their evolution.

Within this late tertiary, or quaternary, period are found the remains of animal contemporary with primeval man and his earliest of animal life contemporary with primeval man and his earliest arts. The very characteristic of some of the fossil mammals of the period, so diverse from all that we have been accustomed to associate with man, help to suggest ideas of even an exaggerated antiquity for the era to which they are assignable, and to relegate it to the remotest conceivable antiquity consistent with all other evidence of the oldest traces of man of man or his arts seemingly contemporaneous with them. of those now wholly extinct, the mammoth or Elephas primigenius, the Elephas antiquus, the Rhinoceros tichnorinus, the Hippopotamus major, and such great cave carnivora as the Ursus speloeus and the Felis speloea, are most noticeable for their great size, and in some cases for their enormous destructive powers, in striking contrast to the seemingly helpless condition of primitive man. Yet even some of those formidable mammalia probably owed their extinction fully as much to the presence of man as to any change in temperature and consequent alteration in the required conditions of climate and habitat. We are accustomed to regard the lion, tiger, leopard, panther, and others of the great Felidoe as pertaining exclusively to tropical countries. They are in reality limited to tropical jungles and uncultivated regions of great extent, where the abundance of wild vegetable-feeding animals supplies their food. The existence of neither is compatible with the presence of man in any great number; but in his absence those beasts of prey greatly extend their range. The Indian tiger not only follows the antelope and deer in the Himalayan chain to the verge of perpetual snow, but the tiger, leopard, panther, and cheetah hunt their prey beyond that mountain range, even into Siberia.

The influence of man in the extirpation of the wild fauna is illustrated by another class of extinct animals of many historical regions, which yet survive in more favourable localities. The discovery of abundant evidence of a period in the history of central and southern France when the reindeer (Cervus tarandus) formed one of the chief sources both for the food of man and for the materials from which his weapons and implements were made, seems to carry us back to an era, inconceivably remote, when central France was in the condition of Lapland in mediaeval or still earlier centuries. But the climate of North Britain is not even now incompatible with the existence of the reindeer, and its favourite moss abounds in many parts of the Highlands. It need not therefore surprise us to learn that traces of the reindeer are by no means rare in Scotland; and numerous examples of its horns have recently been recovered in more than one Caithness locality, with the marks of sawing and cutting for artificial use, and lying among other remains in stone-built structures of a primitive population of North Britain. How old they are may not be strictly determination, but they help us to the acceptance of a very modern date for the presence of the reindeer there; for Torfaeus states that so recently as the twelfth century the Jarls of Orkney were wont to cross the Pentland Firth to chase the roe and the reindeer in the wilds of Caithness. At the same date also we find the skin of the beaver rated for customs duties amongst articles of Scottish export specified in an Act of the reign of David I.

Another very characteristic animal pertaining to the prehistoric era of European man is the Megaceros Hibernicus, or gigantic Irish elk. Its bones occurred with those of the Elephas primigenius, the Rhinoceros tichorinus, the Ursus speloeus, and other extinct mammals, alongside of human remains and works of art, in the famous Aurignac cave of the Pyrenees; and in the recently-explored Brixham cave, on the Devonshire coast, similar remains of the fossil rhinovora, lay embedded in the same breccia with flint knives. And not only have the horns and bones of the Megaceros Hibernicus been recovered from Irish bogs and marl-pits, with marks of artificial cutting, but a rude Irish lyre, found in the moat of Desmond Castle, Adara has been pronounced by Professor Owen to be made from the bone of this extinct deer.

So is it with the ancient Bovidoe, not only adapted for the chase, but suitable for demostication; such as the Bosprimigenius, the Bos longifrons, and the Bison priscus. Their remains have been found in submarine forests, or mingling in the drift or cave deposits with the Elephas primigenius, the Felis speloea, and others of the most gigantic fossil mammals; while abundant traces reveal their existence not merely contemporaneous with man, but within definite historical periods.

The great alluvial valley of the river Forth has yielded another class of relics connecting the gigantic fossil mammalia of a prehistoric epoch with man. The disclosures of the Carse of Falkirk have repeatedly included remains of the Elephas primigenius: and in at least one case its tusks were found in such perfect condition as to be available for the ivory-turner, though lying embedded at a depth of 20 feet in the boulder clay. But in the neighbouring valley of the Forth the fossil whale (Baloenoptera) has not only been repeatedly found far inland, buried in the alluvial soil, at levels varying from 20 to 25 feet above high-water mark, but in at least two instances the rude lance or harpoon of deer's horn lay alongside of the skeletons; and near another of them were found pieces of stag's horn, artificially cut, and one of them perforated with a hole about an inch in diameter. Flint implements, an oaken, quern, and other ingenious traces of primitive art, recovered from the same alluvial soil, all tell of a time when the British savage hunted the whale in the shallows of a tide at the base of the Ochil hills, now between 20 and 30 feet above the highest tides and 7 miles distant from the sea.

There is no doubt that the disappearance of the whale from the British shores, like the reindeer from its northern valleys, is due far more to the presence of man than to any change of temperature so greatly affecting the conditions of the as to involve their extinction. Nevertheless it is convenient to recognize in the disappearance of such emigrant species from the historic areas the close of the palaeontological age. The Urus, the Aurochs, the Bos longifrons, or native ox of the Roman period, and others of that important class of animals which man first began to turn to account for domestication, have also ceased to exist among European fauna; but this is clearly traceable to the destructive presence of man. Within three or four centuries the Urus (Bos primigenius) was still known in Germany; the Aurochs (Bos priscus) is even now preserved under special protection in Lithuania; and herds of British wild cattle in Cadzow forest, Lanarkshire, and at Chillingham Park, Northumberland, perpetuate varieties otherwise extinct.

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