Humans have always been fascinated by what came before them, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the study of archaeology. As early as the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance, historians and other antiquarians examined the cultural remains of previous civilizations, particularly those of the Greeks and Romans, and attempted to understand what they saw. By the seventeenth or eighteenth century, tentative steps had been taken in the direction of making the study of the past based on the artifactual record more scientific.
By the nineteenth century, the field of archaeology was dominated by male scholars from upper class backgrounds. Many of these men were looking for artifacts of great monetary value: “The history of excavation began with a crude search for treasure and for artifacts which fell into the category of ‘curio’. These curios were the subject of interest of antiquarians.” Others, on the other hand, wanted to be the first to explore an abandoned place. While their scholarship provided them with the knowledge on where to dig to find their desired ends, most of the work was done by local, working class laborers.
As time progressed, the science of archaeology became more defined, and “excavation techniques … developed over the years from a treasure hunting process to one which seeks to fully understand the sequence of human activity on a given site and that site’s relationship with other sites and with the landscape in which it is set…. It was later appreciated that digging on a site destroyed the evidence of earlier people’s lives which it had contained. Once the curio had been removed from its context, most of the information it held was lost.” Archaeologists began to focus on that very context in the later parts of the nineteenth century.
One of the most prominent archaeologists who focused on stratigraphic excavations was Heinrich Schlieman, who believed that the written works of the ancient Greeks, such as Homer, could be used as maps to locate archaeological sites of great importance. He used Homer’s account of the Trojan War to locate the area where he believed Troy could be found, in what was by then a part of Turkey. The location he found was a type of hill known as a “tell,” named from the Arabic word for a hill or mound. A tell is “a man-made hill made up of the ruins of ancient dwellings, built one upon the another [sic], for millennia upon millennia.”
In excavating this tell, Schlieman focused on artifacts he found—broken pottery and metal objects—but also the layers of walls that he was certain had belonged to Troy. “In Schliemann’s day though, no one had ever done such a thing before: no one knew anything of dirt archaeology in the Middle East; no one could read the sides of the deep trenches he was cutting and recognise tell-tale changes in the earth’s colours and textures, changes you might only see in different angles of light. Such small changes, if excavated carefully and followed out across the excavation site, allow modern archaeologists to map real ancient living spaces once again, to walk carefully on the most fragile ancient floors, and to re-create, through analysis of animal bones, pollens and other spare remains, how the ancient people who once inhabited them had lived.” Though he may not have found Troy during his dig in the early 1870s, Schlieman revolutionized the way in which archaeology was conducted.