Are 18th- and 19th-century archaeologists all viewed as adventurers who were interested more in personal wealth and glory than scientific fact? Did they leave any positive legacy?
Jeremy, Web post
Dr. dig responds:
It is very difficult for us to look back on the archaeologists of the past without imposing our own cultural expectations on them. Certainly, the earliest archaeologists were, by our modern terms, extremely destructive, and many should be classed as antiquities dealers, adventurers, or even tomb robbers rather than scientists. However, some made honest efforts to preserve and record what they found, and certainly by the late 19th century, the need for scientific excavation and recording was being recognized. Here are just a few examples of good early archaeologists: William Cunningham (1754-¬1810) and Richard Colt-Hoare (1758¬-1838) conducted the detailed scientific excavation of a series of barrows near Stonehenge, England. They took care to leave a small plaque in each barrow so that future archaeologists would not be confused by their work. In Italy, the scientific exploration of Herculaneum started in 1738, with Pompeii excavated soon after.
It was the 19th-century archaeologist Guiseppe Fiorelli who developed the technique of using plaster to preserve the shapes of the dead of Pompeii. In Egypt, the French invasion of 1798 saw a detailed recording of the ancient monuments. In Egypt also, Flinders Petrie, the "father of scientific excavation’" started his work in 1880 with a survey of the Great Pyramid.