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Seekers of ancient artifacts and the emergence of archeology
Seekers of ancient artifacts and the emergence of archeology

Modern archeology is a discipline that strictly regulates how to carry out excavations, how to store and restore finds, how to handle animals and human bones, and how to museumize an excavation site. But until recently, archaeological interest was not much different from the excitement of a treasure hunter.

And tomb robbers do not need nondescript shards or old bones - after all, unique objects of art and ancient luxury are at stake. On the occasion of the Day of the Archaeologist, Yuli Uletova talks about how and why the diggers of the past gradually adopted practices, without which no self-respecting archaeologist can do today.

The fact that even the little things of the material culture of the past can have a cognitive value, the world did not come at once. The fascination with antiquities in Europe became especially popular during the Renaissance.

Antiquaries (the term is taken from ancient Roman life) in the XIV-XV centuries systematize the accumulated knowledge about the past, search for and compile catalogs of ancient written sources, translate them into European languages, compare old and new information about various areas of life, collect coins, paintings and books.

Humanists, in addition to literary monuments of antiquity, are also interested in other traces of civilizations that have vanished in centuries: for example, Petrarch traveled around Europe in the retinue of the papal cardinal, studying people, culture, architecture, rewriting ancient texts, collecting coins. And the heads of the Holy See themselves - the Pope - had a deep interest in antiquities. The Vatican Museums were founded by Pope Julius II at the beginning of the 16th century and are now the largest in the world.


The Florentine Medici dynasty is no less famous for its antique collections. The collection of art treasures was initiated by the father of Cosimo the Elder, Giovanni di Bicci, who made a fortune in the banking field. His sons got a huge financial fortune, which they multiplied - and collecting exquisite objects of art allowed the Medici family to clearly demonstrate their education and delicate taste to the entire European aristocracy.

The Medici's interests were not limited to the Roman heritage alone: ​​Cosimo the Elder, for example, was seriously interested in the culture of the Etruscans - a people who lived in northern Italy in the 1st millennium BC - under him the famous Minerva and Chimera from Arezzo and the ancient Roman statue of Aulus Metellus entered the Medici collection …


All this passion of the Renaissance for antiquities was purely descriptive and cumulative. Antiquity was dug to diversify home interiors and demonstrate the subtlety of their taste. Shovels remained a tool of enrichment - for someone literal, for someone symbolic.

Antique quarry

When the Age of Enlightenment begins, an interest in antiquity in its various manifestations becomes an obligatory inclination of any educated person.

We have already talked about how the Neapolitan Bourbon dynasty in the 18th-19th centuries turned Pompeii and Herculaneum into quarries for the extraction of antiques, which so gloriously adorned the chambers of the royal palaces. It was the antiquities that were the target of the excavations, which were often carried out by completely barbaric methods. For Pompeii and Herculaneum, their excavators have chosen the so-called "system of tunnels", due to the properties of volcanic deposits over these cities.

The diggers did not stand on ceremony with the cultural layer: the tunnels broke the walls of houses, disfigured and destroyed the frescoes.The discoverers took away only whole and beautiful things - archaeologists of subsequent generations found abandoned, spoiled by the eruption, or simply nondescript objects of ancient Roman life in places already excavated under the Bourbons. Their predecessors were not interested in them - you cannot decorate the interior with something like that.


There was no need to talk about a responsible attitude to the excavation site. The soil removed from the next tunnel was poured into the abandoned passages. Individual portraits, subject panels, simply liked or well-preserved fragments were cut out of the wall paintings.

The "archaeologists" of the Bourbons, who then controlled Naples, were most often prisoners who could work in shackles - just in case. The diggers' work was very difficult. For example, in Herculaneum, a layer of volcanic deposits is so thick (up to 25 meters) and hard that it has to be cut down. Nobody was going to cleanse the entire territory of the ancient city from this soil consistently. In the thickness of these layers from the modern 18th century, the ground level was pierced by vertical adits, until they reached something interesting - an ancient wall, for example.

Then, from the well, tunnels were dug in different directions up to two meters high and a meter and a half wide. In addition to the difficulties in this work, there were also many dangers. The area around Vesuvius is seismically active, earthquakes are not uncommon here - tunnels often collapse. The air inside was already unimportant, but much worse were the exits of suffocating gases. The workers did not have any benefit from this hard work and, of course, they did not have any desire to perform it efficiently. The work was supervised by a military engineer by the name of Alcubierre.

The finds were assessed personally by King Charles VII - whether they are good enough for his bright gaze. If the object was pleasing to the eye of the king, then the curator of the excavations, Camillo Paderni, took the find with precautions to the royal museum. The rest, as a rule, automatically became unnecessary junk. No one kept any records about the excavations, did not leave marks about the places of the finds, did not show attention to the open spaces.


After a couple of children, Alcubierra had to leave his post, handing over the reins of the excavation in Herculaneum to Pierre Bard de Villeneuve. It would seem that little can change in the methods of finding treasures for the king. But, as we can see from a distance of three hundred years, the first "glimpses" of archeology are always a personal initiative.

In the monotonous cycle of "digging-finding-digging-finding" additional procedures appear, which the head of the excavation undertakes. De Villeneuve's decisions are not carried out under any banner of the Enlightenment: the officer simply decides that it is more expedient to dig along the streets in order to less damage the ancient walls and more easily find the entrances to the houses. And in order to figure out where, in fact, these streets run, they had to draw plans for the location and directions of the tunnels, point out the discovered buildings to them. And then, of course, the idea came to draw up plans for these houses.

About four years of work in Herculaneum were accompanied by such "unnecessary paperwork" - until the return of Alcubierra, who immediately canceled it, but instead came up with a new bureaucratic obligation: to record where and what items were found.

The early days of Pompeii

A few years later, the "antique quarry" on the site of ancient Herculaneum dried up, and Alcubierre decided to try his luck elsewhere - near the town of Civita, where, according to rumors, some antiquities were also found. So in 1748 excavations began in Pompeii.

True, they were still very far from being "archeological". Alcubierre's method has not changed much: select a point on the ground, dig a well, and then - tunnels to the sides. But it turned out that the eruption of Vesuvius in 79, which buried Pompeii, left behind here not 25 meters of solid soil, but only about 10. The rest was light free-flowing lapilli - volcanic pumice.Digging in Pompeii was much easier than in Herculaneum.


Alcubierre is conducting excavations in Herculaneum, Pompeii, and in several other places, from where news about the finds of ancient artifacts came. His military career also does not stand still - less and less time is left to control the excavation. Therefore, a new field commander appears in Herculaneum - the Swiss Karl Weber, also a military engineer. For several years he has been working as one of Alcubierre's assistants, now he has a chance to move up the career ladder too.

Weber needs to regularly report to his superiors who have trusted him. He copes with this so well that at the same time he helps the science that has not yet arisen. The officer continues to keep the usual records of workers, tools, quantities of work, number of finds, manages supplies for his small earth-moving army, and writes regular reports for Alcubierre. And he also takes on the hard work of putting the documents of predecessors in order and begins to document, as far as possible, his activities. This is how a completely systematic "paper trail" appears at the excavations.

In the same year, 1750, under Herculaneum, diggers make an amazing discovery - they find an ancient Roman villa. All work on it Karl Weber meticulously documents. Despite the fact that the only method of its research continues to be the tunnels, and the villa has not yet been fully excavated, Weber recorded and sketched everything so completely that this information is still used by archaeologists and historians.


No archeology still exists, but an ordinary military engineer already draws plans for tunnels, mines and discovered rooms and keeps detailed records of finds in the villa, where he adds their descriptions, sizes and locations when opened.

Not being a specialist in ancient Roman architecture, Weber realized that certain types of mosaics could indicate the thresholds of doorways. He notes on the plans which places, in his opinion, need additional research and in some places even indicated the alleged functions of the premises that the tunnels touched.

An impressive find was the owner's impressive papyrus library. Because of this discovery, it was named the Villa of the Papyri. This moment can be considered the birth of a new scientific discipline - papyrology.


In Pompeii, by this time, the Villa of Cicero and the amphitheater were opened - however, both buildings did not justify the hopes for valuable artifacts. On the other hand, an impressive collection of sculptures - marble and bronze - was discovered at the Villa of the Papyri. The king could be pleased with the work of Alcubierre.

The next significant "stops" in the excavations of Pompeii are the Possession of Julia Felix and Villa Diomedes. Despite three years of excavations and rich finds in the first house, after extracting everything of value, it is covered with soil back. But everything that happened during these excavations was meticulously documented by Karl Weber, who also oversees Pompeii.

Alcubierre and Weber's assistant for excavations in Pompeii, Italian Francesco La Vega, shares the Swiss views on the importance of records, plans, drawings, drawings and descriptions. After the death of first Alcubierre, and then Weber in the early 1760s, it was on his shoulders that responsibility for further excavations of the Roman cities buried by the eruption of Vesuvius would fall.

Puff troy

By the end of the 18th century, there were so many changes in the methods of excavation of Pompeii that, perhaps, it was this time that can be considered a turning point for views on the study of the material culture of antiquity. The excavated houses stopped filling up after the antiquities were removed, the soil does not move inside the excavation zone, but is taken out of their territory, finds not suitable for the royal museum are shown to rare high-ranking guests (there is no free access to the excavations), even attempts are made to restore the excavated houses.

Francesco La Vega gives the new king - Ferdinand IV - a project of innovations (expropriation of private land over the ancient city in favor of the king, excursion routes in the excavated territory). But the time for such drastic changes has not yet come - Pompeii remains only a source of replenishment of the Bourbon art collections.


At the very end of the 18th century, the Kingdom of Naples enters into a war with France, and therefore in January 1799 the French army under the command of General Championnay entered Naples - he showed an unexpected interest in Pompeii, thanks to which excavations there continued.

After a short period of the return of the Spanish dynasty to Naples, the French again seized the kingdom, and Michele Arditi was appointed the head of the excavations in Pompeii - not an archaeologist, but a very educated and erudite jurist with a great penchant for history.

For the next 30+ years, archaeological exploration of the entire region around the Gulf of Naples is his concern. A comprehensive plan for studying traces of ancient cultures from Qom to Paestum has been developed. In Pompeii, plots are excavated systematically and carefully, using first conveyor excavation of soil with baskets, and then with the help of trolleys. Documenting any work in this area becomes almost mandatory.

The French queen of Naples is Bonaparte's sister Caroline, wife of the new king Joachim Murat. She is an active woman, enlightened and very involved in the process of freeing Pompeii from the burden of millennia. True to humanistic traditions, she maintains extensive correspondence with representatives of other ruling houses, famous educators and scientists, invites the artist to excavations and initiates the preparation of a large illustrated work based on the results of half a century of work.

And although the Spanish dynasty of Bourbons regains the Neapolitan throne already in 1815, significantly reduces funding for excavations, and turns off many projects of Arditi and his successors as head of Pompeii, the chaos of treasure hunting has already degenerated into archeology. Further, the position of the scientific approach to any excavation will only strengthen.

Fieldwork in Pompeii, Mesopotamia and Egypt impresses the entire enlightened world. In the second half of the 18th century, both professional archaeologists and self-taught enthusiasts are engaged in the excavation of ancient cities.

In the 1870s, Heinrich Schliemann was already looking for Homeric Troy on the Turkish hill of Hisarlik. Starting with a deep (15 meters) trench through the excavation site, he later came to more gentle methods of soil removal. Being neither an engineer nor an archaeologist, he nevertheless drew drawings and plans for excavations, noted the locations and depths of discoveries, and even published reports about his work in newspapers. True, in the sacrifice of his enthusiasm for the Homeric era, he often sacrificed layers and finds from other historical periods (remember, for example, The Treasure of Priam).


In the first third of the 20th century, the British historian Arthur Evans, also a self-taught archaeologist, selflessly dug the palace of the legendary King Minos in Crete - his assistant archaeologist Mackenzie kept field diaries, wrote excavation reports, leaving Evans to do more great accomplishments, such as the rather controversial reconstruction of the Palace of Knossos. …

The results of their activities are so grandiose that it may seem that the era of amateur archaeologists continues, but this is not at all the case. Schliemann in Troy is assisted by a young German architect Wilhelm Dörpfeld, who has just finished work in Olympia. And in Crete, not so far from Knossos, an expedition of no less young Italian archaeologist Federico Halbherra is working in Festa.


Dörpfeld is considered a pioneer in the use of stratigraphy in excavation. So in archeology is called the order of stratification of cultural layers and other deposits.The study of their successive growth, for example, at a settlement, allows (together with the archaeological context) to establish the relative dating of the layers.

At the excavations of Hisarlik, these layers were called Troy IV, Troy III, Troy II, Troy I - the lower the layer, the older it is. Schliemann understood this and kept the documentation, linking these layers to periods or "cities" (that is, Three different eras). Dörpfeld introduced improvements to this method - the accuracy of measurements (for example, Schliemann indicated only the distance from the edge of the hill to the excavation and the depth from the surface) and a graphical display of the complex of deposition of layers - and later he clarified the entire stratigraphy of Troy.


By the end of the 19th century, archeology finally received a whole set of methods that make it possible to most accurately display the discovered monument in documents, which later made it possible to work with this data much more efficiently.

For example, the German archaeologist Friedrich Wilhelm Eduard Gerhard, who excavated the Etruscan necropolis at Vulchi, established the chronology of the painted pottery. And the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie, who began work in Egypt, pointed out the significance of all fragments of ceramics, without exception, including even the simplest. A grid of squares with edges was settled, which made it possible to more accurately record everything discovered at the excavation. Layer-by-layer soil stripping is becoming the norm.

In the future, archeology becomes more and more professional. Any excavation requires the use of community-approved techniques, which are constantly being improved at the same time. The invention, distribution and cheapening of photography significantly increased the quality of fixation and expanded the possibilities of documenting work.

The norms for the restoration and reconstruction of antiquities, both finds and architectural monuments, are becoming stricter. States, one after another, are adopting legislation for the protection of historical values. The speed of information exchange in the professional environment is growing, which is also facilitated by regular scientific publications on archaeological research.


In the overwhelming majority of European countries, excavation without government permission is prohibited by law. In Russia, excavation can only be carried out by the specialist who has received a government-issued document for these actions - the so-called open sheet.

All the other excavators, no matter how well, in their opinion, they were digging “what the state does not need”, are outside the law. Unfortunately, the technical equipment of the "black diggers" (the language does not dare to call them "black archaeologists") is often better than the equipment in official expeditions, and they prudently do not advertise their actions. And although many of them are familiar with the history and archeology of the region in which they "work", and also have the skills of professionals, they cannot be considered archaeologists.

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