1902 Encyclopedia > Archaeology > Evidence of Early Man's Activities from Archaeology, History, etc.

(Part 7)


Evidence of Early Man's Activities from Archaeology, History, etc.

The whole evidence of history points to the seats of earliest civilisation in warm climates, on the banks of the Nile, the Euphrates, the Tigris, the Indus, and the Ganges. The shores of the Mediterranean succeeded in later centuries to their inheritance, and were the seats of long-enduring empires, whose intellectual bequests are the life of all later civilization. But trans-Alpine Europe, which is now yielding up to us the record of its prehistoric ages, is entirely of modern growth so far as its historic civilization is concerned, and wherever it extends towards the northern verge of the temperate zone it is even now in its infancy. Here, then, we trace our way back to the first progressive efforts of reason, and find man primeval, in a state of nature, in the midst of the abundance pertaining to a genial and fertile climate, which rather stimulates his aesthetic faculty than enforces him by any rigorous necessity to cultivate the arts for the purposes of clothing and building. Thus employing his intellectual leisure, he begins that progressive elevation which is as consistent with his natural endowments as a rational being as it is foreign to the instincts of all other animals. He increases and multiplies, spreads abroad over the face of the earth, clears its forests, drains its swamps, makes its rivers and seas his highways, and its valleys and plains his fertile fields and pasture-grounds. Cities rise, with all the fostering influences of accumulated wealth and settled leisure, and with all the stimulating influences of acquired tastes and luxurious desires. The rude pictorial art - not ruder on the graven ivory of the troglodytes of the Madelaine cave than on many a hieroglyhic drawing of the catacombs and temples of Egypt-employed in picture-writings, passes by a natural and inevitable transition from the literal representations of objects to the symbolic suggestion of ideas, to a word-alphabet, and then to pure phonetic signs. The whole process is manifest from the very infancy of Egyptian picture-writing, as crude as that with which the Indian savage still records his deeds of arms on his buffalo-robe or carves the honours of the buried warrior on his grave post. Letters lie at the foundation of all high and enduring civilization, yet we can thus trace them back to their infantile origin; and so onward in their slow transformations, as in the mingled pictorial and phonetic writing of the Rosetta stone hieroglyphics of the age of the Ptolemies. Through Phoenician, Greek, and Roman modifications, they have come down to us as the arbitrary symbols of sounds which the voice combines into articulate speech.

And as it is with letters so it is with man's arts, - his drawing, carving, sculpture, architecture, weaving, pottery, metallurgy; and so with this science, - his astrology, astronomy, geometry, alchemy, and all else. The beginnings of all of them lie with our reach. We can trace back the measurements of solar time to the crudest beginnings of more than one than one ancient nation, with a year of 360 days. This, corrected to the definite approximation to the true solar year of a period of 365 days, became the vague year of the Egyptians, with the great Sothiac cycle of 1460 years, clearly pointing to a system of chronology which could not have been perpetuated through many centuries without conflicting with the most obvious astronomical phenomena as well as with the recurring seasons of the year.

Man, is after all, according to the boldest speculations of the geologist, among the most modern of living creatures. If indeed the theory or evolution from lower forms of animal life is accepted as the true history of his origin, time may well be prolonged through unnumbered ages to admit of the process which is to develop the irrational brute into man. But regarding him still as a being called into existence as the lord of creation, endowed with reason, the demonstration of a prolonged existence of the race, with all its known varieties, its diversities of language, and its wide geographical distribution under conditions so diverse, tends to remove greater difficulties than it creates. No essential doctrine, or principle in morals, is involved in the acceptance or rejection of any term of duration for the human race; and the idea of its unity, which for a time was scornfully rejected from the creed of the ethnologist, is now advocated by the evolutionist as alone consistent with the physical, mental, and moral characteristics common to savage and civilized man, whether we study him amid the traces of palaeolithic osteology and arts, or among the most diverse races of living men.

The process of research and inductive reasoning thus applied by the archaeologist to the traces of primitive art and the dawn of civilization, is to less applicable to all periods. The songs and legends of the peasantry, the half-obliterated traces of ancient manners, the fragments of older languages, the relics of obsolete art, are all parts of what has been fitly styled "unwritten history," and furnish the means of recovering many records of past periods which must remain for ever a blank to those who will recognize none but written or monumental evidence.

Proceeding to the investigation of this later and, in most of the higher requirements of history, this more important branch of historical evidence the archaeologist has still his own special departments of investigation. Tracing the various alphabets in their gradual development through Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and other sources, and the changing forms which followed under the influences of Byzantine and mediaeval art, a complete system of paleography has been deduced, calculated to prove an important auxiliary in the investigation of monumental and written records. Palaeography has its own rules of criticism, supplying an element of chronological classification altogether independent of style in works of arts, or of internal evidence in graven or written inscriptions, and a test genuineness often invaluable to the historian.

Architecture, sculpture, and pottery have each their historical value, their periods of pure and mixed art, their successions of style, and their traces of borrowed forms and ornamentation, suggestive of Indian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Phoenician, Punic, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Arabian, Byzantine, Norman, or Renaissance influences Subordinate to those are the pictorial arts combined with sculpture and pottery, from earliest Egyptian, Greek, or Etruscan art to the frescoes and paintings of mediaeval centuries; and the rise of the art of the engraver, traceable through ancient chasing on metals, mediaeval niello-work, graven sepulchral brasses, and so on to the wood blocks, whence at length the art of printing with movable types originated. And as in the Old World so in the New, the progress of man is traceable from rudest arts of stone and copper to the bronze period of Mexico and Peru, where also architecture, sculpture, and pottery preserve for us invaluable materials for the elucidation of that prehistoric time which only came to an end there in the year 1492 A.D.

Heraldry is another element by means of which archaeology provides trustworthy canons of criticism in relation to written and unwritten mediaeval records. The seals and matrices, sepulchral sculptures, and engraved brasses, along with an extensive class of the decorations of ecclesiastical and domestic architecture, all supply evidence whereby names and dates, with confirmatory collateral evidence of various kinds, are frequently recoverable. From the same sources also the changing costume of successive periods can be traced, ad thus a new light be thrown on the manners and customs of past ages. The enthusiastic devotee is indeed apt at times to attach an undue importance to such auxiliary branches of study; but it is a still greater excess to pronounce them valueless, and to reject the useful aids they are capable of affording.

No less important are the illustrations of history, and the guides in the right course of research, which numismatics supplies, both in relation to early and mediaeval times. But on this and other sections into which the study of antiquities is divided, the requisite information will be found under the several heads of research. On many of those points the historian and the archaeologist necessarily occupy the same field; and indeed, when that primitive period wherein archaeology deals with the whole elements of our knowledge regarding it, as a branch of inductive science, and not of critical history, is past, the student of antiquities becomes to a great extent the pioneer of the historian. He deals with the raw materials: the charters, deeds, wills, grants of land, of privileges or immunities, the royal, monastic, and baronial accounts of expenditure, and the like trustworthy documents; by means of their palaeography, seals, illuminations, and other evidence, he fixes their dates, traces out the genealogical relationships of their authors, and in various ways prepares and sifts the evidence which is to be employed anew by the historian in revivifying the past. Architecture and all departments of the fine arts, in like manner, supply much evidence which, when investigated and systematized by a similar process, adds valuable materials to the stock of the historian, and furnishes new sources for the illumination of past ages. Such is a sketch of the comprehensive investigations embraced under the name of archaeology, which, carried on by many independent labourers, and in widely varied fields of research, have contributed important chapters of human history, and revivified ages long buried in oblivion, or at best but dimly seen through distorting media of myth and fable. (D. W.)

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