chapter  1
50 Pages

The Idea of the Past

It is important that the benet of hindsight does not make us forget the constraints of the social and intellectual context in which antiquaries lived and worked. For example, in the early nineteenth century the Danish scholars who rst organised prehistoric objects into three successive Ages (Stone, Bronze and Iron) assigned them to a very short time span. In mid-seventeenth-century Britain, Bishop Ussher had used the Bible to

calculate that the creation of the Earth took place in 4004 bc, and other estimates were not much earlier (Stiebing 1993: 32; Rowley-Conwy 2007: 6-7). Pressure from developments in geology and biology to adopt a much longer time-scale did not nally displace the biblical scheme until the 1860s. e dating of prehistory underwent major revisions aer the radiocarbon dating technique was introduced and accepted in the 1950s, while techniques such as potassium-argon dating revealed that some of the earliest sites with tools made by hominins were much earlier than had previously been suspected (Chapter 4). We may learn a great deal by examining how early antiquaries and archaeologists (the di­erence between the two will emerge later in this chapter) tackled the formidable problem of

making sense of the human past without the help of the libraries, museums, travel and technical facilities available today. At the same time we should take care not to look only at the origins of ideas we still consider important, and ignore the wider setting in which they were formulated. At the most fundamental level it is possible to see the whole idea of looking for origins of things as a peculiarly Western intellectual diversion (Foucault 1970; Trigger 2006: 9-10). We feel that it is important to place the development of archaeology within a broad intellectual, philosophical and historical framework; however, terms such as Renaissance, Enlightenment or Romanticism are less well known than they once were. Table 1.1 places onto a chronological scale the labels used in this chapter to indicate the cultural, political, philosophical or religious

context of a particular approach to archaeology; many of these labels were only invented in the nineteenth century and are used for convenience. It is also worth remembering that in, charting the development of archaeological thought, the contribution of female archaeologists to these advances has oen been underplayed because of the social context in which archaeology developed (Diaz-Andreu and Stig-Sørensen 1998; Kehoe and Emmerich 1999: 117). It is also true that this simplied account of intellectual history places Europe and America at its centre, and carries the implication that everything on the chart happened as part of a linear evolution towards the present. Although this kind of thinking can cause all sorts of problems (which are explored in Chapter 6), it may nevertheless be a useful starting point.