Digging up the Past #
In 1798, French soldiers dug up the Rosetta stone. When Napoleon was defeated, the British shipped it to the British Museum. After years of research, the code was finally cracked so that now we can translate other excavations of ancient Egypt.
Hilary Mantel gives us a sense of the real. She digs down beneath public history to generate something resembling the lived experience of the past.
You have to dig up the past to find out what has been deliberately buried.
Our parent’s children, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
Ceridwin Dovey: #
“We express ourselves to excavate our past to acknowledge and expiate our complicity with the randomness of life; to dispel wilful amnesia, to deal with or reckon with the secret guilt of our good fortune.”
We are always coming to terms with the past by animating the present, by constantly changing he narrative of history. Influenced by Freud’s theories of suppression, we need to cannabalise history, accounting for different wrong doing.
She uses the analogy of archaeology to demonstrate that in excavating our past, we need to do it delicately, with scalpels and brushes, not mammoth earth moving equipment, so as to not destroy valuable evidence.
Dovey speculates on the lives of archaeologists; who are not so much interested in living people, rather in the dead, through the dry slow methods of piecing together the fragments of the past. Many appeared estranged from their own families. Perhaps we dig to fill the void. (97)
Ceridwin has Kitty say on the past:
“letting the past remain peculiar, rather than forcing it to become relatable. ..ancient people seem fathomless to us. Over the centuries the key to unlock the truth of how they lived has been lost…. Artefacts were more like pieces of alien matter dropped from outer space. (149)
We are extremely fortunate in the recovery of ancient history by recent advances in Archaeology, re-enactments and decipherment of artefacts.
In the 1850’s a British adventurer, Austen Henry Layard, on his way to Ceylon, stopped by the present day city of Mosul in Iraq, earlier – Babylonian - Nineveh and earlier Akkadian - Uruk, where he began digging into some ruin mounds where he found sun dried clay tablets with picture writing. Intrigued he sent them back to the British Museum. They were also interested and offered money for more. Over the next fifty some years eager inhabitants of Iraq dug up mounds and eventually more than 90,000 cuneiform tablets were unearthed ending up in various museums throughout the world.
Two problems emerged. Many tablets were broken and putting them back together was a giant jigsaw puzzle – even today parts are missing. The next problem was that the cuneiform writing was unique and no one knew how to decipher it.
By 1866, the Museum hired a George Smith who learned to translate the tablets into English. Since then, a small number of decipherers have engaged in the painstaking task of piecing together and translating the tablets. The first reliable one published in 1912. Some versions are Akkadian, some Babylonian, others Sumerian. All appear to have been written some 500 years after the events. This results in fragmentation of research as well as an aggregation of collective knowledge.
The city of Ur was first excavated in the eighteen-fifties. But much of it went unexplored until 1922, when a British archaeologist, Leonard Woolley, led a joint expedition funded by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania. Wooley was drawn to Ur as the Biblical home of Abraham and the ancient pagan kings. (His account of the dig, “Ur of the Chaldees: A Record of Seven Years of Excavation,” alludes to Genesis:
“And Terah took Abram . . . and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees.”
Woolley’s great find was the royal cemetery, where his team unearthed the tombs of kings and queens, along with jewelry, weapons, pottery, musical instruments, and other treasures.
Ur was also, of course, the adopted home of Enheduanna. In 1927, five years into the dig, the excavators discovered the ruins of a temple. Inside, they found the defaced shards of a stone disk—the disk depicting Enheduanna—and, nearby, three other objects naming the priestess: cylinder seals belonging to her servants. Elsewhere in the temple were clay tablets covered in cuneiform script.
“Here was definite proof that the priestesses kept a school on their premises,” Woolley wrote. But he missed the full import of the discovery, calling the temple a “nunnery” and a “harem.”
Some of the tablets found in Ur were copies of Enheduanna’s texts, but Woolley, intent on Great Man history—political dynasties, Biblical patriarchs—seems to have taken no interest in the priestess, treating her as an inconsequential appendage of her famous father. His book doesn’t even name Enheduanna, referring to her merely as the daughter of Sargon.
In the years that followed, archaeologists and looters unearthed other tablets with Enheduanna’s words, in cities such as Nippur and Larsa. But her body of work wasn’t transcribed, published, and attributed to her until the late fifties and sixties.
In 1968, the first translation of her writing from Sumerian into English appeared.
“We can now discern a corpus of poetry of the very first rank which not only reveals its author’s name, but delineates that author for us in truly autobiographical fashion,” Hallo and van Dijk wrote in their introduction to the translation.
“In the person of Enheduanna, we are confronted by a woman who was at once princess, priestess, and poetess.”
The pair acknowledged that the picture assembled by scholars might be incomplete.
“We still do not know the full extent of Enheduanna’s literary oeuvre,”
Modern discoveries #
Farmers have often unearthed archaeological finds while plowing their fields, and accidental discovery by construction crews is common.
The famous painted and engraved Upper Paleolithic cave of Lascaux in southern France was discovered by chance in 1940 when four French schoolboys decided to investigate a hole left by an uprooted tree. They widened a smaller shaft at the base of the hole and jumped through to find themselves in the middle of this remarkable pagan sanctuary.
Similarly, the first cache of the Dead Sea Scrolls was discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin looking for a stray animal.
The remains of Richard III were discovered under a parking lot.
The French geologist Ferdinand Fouqué dug at Santorin in 1862 and found fresco-covered walls of houses and painted pottery beneath 26 feet (8 metres) of pumice, the result of the great vulcanic eruption
Geologists at that time dated the Santorin eruption to 2000 BCE.
Heinrich Schlieman #
In 1871 Schliemann began his search for Homeric Troy. His uncritically digging through the upper levels caused a lot of damage. In 1873 he uncovered fortifications and the remains of a city of great antiquity, and he discovered a treasure of gold jewelry (as well as vessels of bronze, gold, and silver), Priam’s Treasure which he smuggled out of Turkey.
It proved to predate the era he thought it to be. Troy VI (the sixth layer) rather than Troy I (the lowest layer) was later identified as Homeric Troy (1500–1000 BCE).
Excavation at Mycenae.
In August 1876 he began work in the tholoi, digging by the Lion Gate and then inside the citadel walls, where he found a double ring of slabs and, within that ring, five shaft graves (a sixth was found immediately after his departure). Buried with 16 bodies in the circle of shaft graves was a large treasure of gold, silver, bronze, and ivory objects. Schliemann had hoped to find—and believed he had found—the tombs of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Britannica
Sir Arthur Evans #
British archaeologist who excavated the ruins of the ancient city of Knossos in Crete and uncovered evidence of a sophisticated Bronze Age civilization, which he named Minoan. His work was one of archaeology’s major achievements and greatly advanced the study of European and eastern Mediterranean prehistory.
In 1896 he suggested that the Mycenaean civilization of the Greek mainland had its origins in Crete. Three years later he purchased a tract of land that included the site of Knossos, and after a year’s digging he had unearthed palace ruins covering 5.5 acres (2.2 hectares). The size and splendour of the findings indicated that Knossos had been an ancient cultural capital.
The complex ground plan of the palace suggested the labyrinth associated with the legendary King Minos, prompting Evans to name the civilization Minoan.
The first excavation in the area of Pompeii, from the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, dates back to the age of the emperor Alessandro Severo but the works failed because of the thick blanket of lapillus. It was only between 1594 and 1600 that the excavations started to discover traces of buildings, inscriptions and coins.
Systematic excavation began there in 1738, marking the start of the modern science of archaeology.
Recently casts of fugitives made by pouring plaster into the archaeological cavities left by decaying bodies attempting to flee the lava have been preserved as they lay where they had died. Some of the bodies showed facial expressions and occasionally finer details of clothing and jewelry.
Unfortunately, many of the casts on display were destroyed or badly damaged by bombings in 1943. The casts that survived the war are not hosted in the new Antiquarium, opened in 1948.