Skip to main content
K12 LibreTexts

1.1: Introduction

  • Page ID
    3292
  • Student Learning Objectives

    At the end of this section the student will be able to

    • Identify methods used by archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, and geographers to analyze evidence.

    Why study the past?

    Stories about ourselves are always intriguing. Where did we come from? How did people from thousands of different cultures, over tens of thousands of years, live? How were their concerns different from or similar to our own? The past is full of surprises, but they never fall far from home. By learning more about who we were — and how we came to be here — we become more fully human.

    Archaeologists and Their Artifacts

    "Archaeology is the science of rubbish." - archaeologist Stuart Piggot

    The Forma Urbis Romae, or Severan Marble Plan, may just be the world's biggest jigsaw-puzzle. Carved across marble slabs 45 feet high and 60 feet long, it is a map of ancient Rome showing every street, building, room, and staircase. Eighteen-hundred years ago it hung in the Roman census bureau, the most detailed map of the city ever produced.

    At least, it used to be. Today it languishes in the basement of a museum, smashed. Now a team of American researchers have devised a novel way of pasting it together again — by scanning it into a computer.

    For hundreds of years after the fall of Rome, hunks of marble were hacked off the map for building material. Then the building housing the map collapsed. In 1562, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese made a valiant attempt to collect the surviving sections. Since then every attempt to piece together the 1,163 fragments has failed. It is one of classical archaeology's great unsolved problems.

    This mock-up of an archaeological dig site gives an impression of what the important elements and basic tools are. Even in this age of computers and x-rays, archaeologists still have to use basic methods like digging and measuring to ensure that they collect the best information possible.

    The first task of the American researchers was simple: 3-D scan each individual block into their computer. Now it gets harder. The computer must find a way to fit them together. So far the database contains "8 billion polygons and 6 thousand color images, occupying 40 gigabytes." Solving the puzzle, says the team, "will take months, possibly years."

    This approach is light years away from the traditional methods of archaeologists whom spend their time carefully sifting through the dirt, but today a battery of new tools is helping to bring the past back to life.

    Archaeology, notes one of its practitioners, "has a long disreputable line of descent; its ancestors were, quite literally, grave robbers and adventurers." Most notorious amongst these early archaeologists is the Italian Giovanni Belzoni. In the early 1800s he looted hundreds of ancient Egyptian tombs, candidly admitting: "The purpose of my researches was to rob the Egyptians of their papyri." Papyri were the ancient papers of the Egyptians. They were made from a plant that grew along the Nile Valley.

    Modern archaeologists proceed with more caution. Still, few can claim the delicacy of Sir Leonard Woolley, who in the 1920s excavated the great Sumerian city of Ur. While digging in the royal cemetery, he noticed a small hole just below where a small gold cap and some gold nails had been found. Woolley filled the hole with liquid plaster. When the soil was cleared away, the shaft of a lyre — preserved as a plaster cast — emerged. Woolley was able to reconstruct the entire instrument, even though its original wood had long since vanished.

    You Want a Date?

    Before starting a dig the first step is to map a site, dividing it into small squares. Careful notes are kept of changes in sediment, and of each object (however fragmentary) found within each square. The idea is to create a 3-D picture of the area — a picture through time. Younger remains usually lie closer to the surface, older ones beneath. Fortunately, archaeologists no longer have to rely on position alone for judging an object's age.

    In the late 1940s, the physicist Willard Libby invented C-14 or radiocarbon dating. It transformed the study of the past. For the first time organic material — charcoal, wood, shell and bone, even clothing — from 500 to 50,000 years old could be reliably dated. Through radiocarbon dating, archaeologists built a world-wide chronology of human activity.

    How C-14 dating works

    Carbon exists in the atmosphere in two forms — ordinary carbon, C-12; and carbon-14. Carbon-14 is radioactive and decays with a half-life of 5730 years (it takes 5730 years for half of the C-14 in a sample to become C-12). Plants and animals contain carbon in the same mixture as the atmosphere. When they die, C-14 continues to decay. By measuring how much — or, rather, how little — C-14 remains, researchers can calculate how much time has elapsed since death occurred.

    There are traps, of course. An object may be contaminated by carbon from another source. Or, it may not "belong" at the level where the carbon-containing material was found. Perhaps it was carried there by erosion, or dislodged by a careless archaeologist. It happens. All this causes archaeologists to go on arguing about ages, for ages.

    How do archaeologists know where to dig? Often they don't. They know where not to dig — where nothing interesting exists. But how do you tell one from the other? Excavation is expensive, and there is nothing an archaeologist likes less than staring at an empty hole. The ideal solution is to look underground before you start. Astonishingly, techniques are coming along to do just that.

    Most archaeologists rely on buried buildings, bodies, ancient hearths, or iron tools, having different physical "signatures" from the surrounding soil. Ground penetrating radar, for example, directs radio waves into the earth then measures the patterns reflected back. For example, by coupling his scanner to a special computer program, anthropology professor Lawrence B. Conyers has produced striking images of otherwise invisible structures. One day, he promises, he will generate moving 3-D pictures and take us on underground video "tours" of archaeological sites.

    The great English archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler used to remind his students, "The archeologist is not digging up things, he is digging up people." Regardless of the changes in methods, archaeological aims remain the same: to illuminate the past and bring back to life the experiences and cultures of people long gone.

    Anthropologists and Their People

    Finding them didn't come as much of a surprise. Not to David Roberts, anyway. Winding its way across a 117,000-year-old former sand dune was a trail of footprints made by human feet. They are the oldest human footprints ever found.

    Roberts is a South African geologist. Previously, he had come across fossilized carnivore tracks in the rock fringing Langebaan Lagoon 60 miles north of Cape Town. And he had noticed rock fragments which showed signs of human use. So, "On a hunch, I began searching for hominid footprints — and found them!"

    When did it all begin? If you had asked Dr. John Lightfoot in 1644, he would have given you a precise answer. The world was created on October 23, 4004 B.C.E., promptly "at nine o'clock in the morning." Lightfoot, a Hebrew scholar, arrived at the date through exhaustive study of Scripture.

    Today we know this underestimates our planet's true age a million-fold. The earth formed 4.6 billion years ago — an almost unimaginably long time ago. But what of our human past? How far back does it stretch? There are several answers — a series of "firsts":

    • 2 million+ years: First Hominids
    • 100,000+ years: First Humans
    • 9,000 years: First Settlements
    • 6,000 years: First Civilizations

    In 1572, scientists recovered a strange fossil: the skull of what they thought was an ancient Cyclops. This engraving was made to depict the live creature. As it turned out, the skull they found was simply from an elephant!

    All this and more is the province of anthropology. The word means literally "the study of man." We are a complicated species, and anthropologists poke into every aspect of our human nature.

    The Caretakers of Culture

    Some anthropologists live for years at a time with aboriginal peoples, recording how they organize their lives with the overlay of civilization absent. Margaret Mead, the most celebrated anthropologist of her generation, pioneered this approach in the 1920s when she lived among the Samoan Islanders of the South Pacific. She returned to tell a scandalized world that they practiced free love. Later experts have suggested her adolescent informants fooled the rather earnest young Mead. They were just leading her on. Still, Mead's methods revolutionized the field of anthropology.

    Other researchers look to our nearest surviving relatives, the great apes, and seek clues to human behavior there. For 40 years Jane Goodall has lived alongside the chimpanzees of Gombe National park in Tanzania. Chimps may look cuddly and cute, but they are not above thievery, infanticide, and murder.

    Who owns the past? It may sound an odd question, but it is one anthropologists, especially in North America, are having to face. American museums are filled with the skeletons of Native Americans exhumed — looted, if you like — without the permission of their living descendants. In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) ordered that this material be returned to the tribes.

    This is the upper right third molar of an unidentified species discovered at the Aramis site in Ethiopia in 1992. The species was later named Australopithecus ramidus and dates back 4.4 million years.

    Kennewick Man is at the center of this bitter dispute. A near-complete human skeleton, it was found along the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, in July 1996. James C. Chatters, the forensic anthropologist who first examined it observed that its characteristics reflected European — not Native American — ancestry.

    To Chatters' astonishment when the skeleton was dated, it turned out to be over 9,000 years old. The story made headlines around the world — and a coalition of Indian tribes immediately sued for possession. Ever since the case has been mired in court.

    Kennewick Man's discovery may reveal fundamentally new facts about the earliest inhabitants of the Americas. If the tribal leaders have their way, he will be reburied at a secret site and his story lost to us all forever. What's the solution? To begin, more trusting relationships between researchers and the people they study must be forged.

    Historians and Their Time

    "On the 24th of August ... between 2 and 3 in the afternoon my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance...I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long "trunk" from which spread some "branches"...The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it from closer at hand." – Pliny the Younger describing his uncle's death in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, 79 C.E.

    There wasn't any history before 3000 B.C.E.

    In a literal sense that is true. Historians mostly rely on written documents to reconstruct the past. Before 3000 B.C.E. writing did not exist, as far as we know. Accordingly, events earlier than this time are referred to as "pre-history," before written history!

    Why C.E. and B.C.E.?

    You may be used to seeing dates with B.C. or A.D. (for example, 2750 B.C. or A.D. 476). So why don't you see those abbreviations here?

    The abbreviation B.C. stands for "Before Christ," and A.D. stands for the Latin phrase Anno Domini, which means, "the Year of Our Lord." Because history belongs to everyone, and because not everyone is a Christian, many historians have been using the new terms, B.C.E. and C.E

    The abbreviation C.E. stands for the "Common Era" and is used in place of A.D. For example, 1492 C.E. is the same as A.D. 1492 (which is sometimes incorrectly written as 1492 A.D.). The abbreviation B.C.E. stands for "Before the Common Era," and is used in place of B.C. The year 1625 B.C.E is the same as 1625 B.C.

    Clay and the Sumerians

    The Sumerians of Mesopotamia were among the first people to develop a written language. They recorded events and religious information on wet clay tablets using styluses.

    The Sumerians invented the first known writing system. At first they used pictographs to represent words — little pictures drawn on wet clay. A picture of a bird represents mushen, "bird;" a fish, the word ha, "fish." Sumerian scribes quickly discovered how to write new words by joining pictures together: the signs for "woman" and "mountain" produced geme, "slave-girl" — the Sumerians took their slaves from the mountain tribes to the east. Eventually the pictures evolved into abstract patterns made by a wedge-shaped stylus. This is called cuneiform writing, from the Latin word cuneus = "wedge."

    What did the Sumerians write? Mostly lists. Inventories of people and possessions, of goods to trade, of food rations for slaves. There are legal documents: marriage records, wills, contracts, deeds of sale — and tax returns by the score (one Sumerian proverb reads "You can have a lord, You can have a king, But the man to fear is the tax collector"). Of the 1,500,000 clay tablets recovered so far, 75 percent deal with such matters.

    Did they have laptop computers in 480 B.C.E.? Hardly. The youth in this image is writing on a folded tablet using a stylus (sort of like an ancient fountain pen).

    Scattered amongst them, though, are poems and epics — the world's first literature. There is a farmer's almanac, even recipes. This one comes from Akkad around 1700 B.C.E. It is for "Tuhu Beets" — beets boiled in beer (don't knock it until you've tried it), and begins: Tuhu shirum saqum izzaz me tukan lipia tanadi tusammat tabaum... Roughly, you boil beets with onions in beer, add herbs, mush everything into a porridge, then sprinkle with raw shuhutinnu . What's shuhutinnu? — "an unidentified member of the onion family."

    The Sumerians never wrote history in the sense of trying to explain how the past happened by the deed of men and women, economic factors, natural disasters or pestilence. They believed their society had been there since the universe began, planned and decreed by the gods. It never occurred to them that their land had once been scattered villages occupying desolate marshland, its greatness coming from human toil, invention, vision and determination.

    Herodotus is widely credited as being the first historian. He traveled widely in the Greek world and wrote down what he saw and the stories he heard. Herodotus coined the word history, which is Greek for "inquiries."

    Herodotus, born c. 484 C.E., is the earliest known historian, in the modern sense of the word. He lived in Athens while the Parthenon was being built. He seems to have been a trader and a compulsive story-teller who traveled widely throughout the Greek empire. He must have made an enchanting companion, engaging in conversation everyone he met. "My business is to record what people say," he explains, "but I am no means bound to believe it." Officially he wrote an account of the war between the Persians and Greeks. Along the way, he found time to be fascinated by ancient Egyptian religion, the flooding of the Nile — and gnats, on which he offers sound advice:

    Everyone provides himself with a net, which during the day he uses for fishing, and at night fixes up around his bed, and creeps in under it before he goes to sleep. For anyone to sleep wrapped in a cloak or linen would be useless, for the gnats would bite through them; but they do no even attempt to get through the net.

    "What made him the first serious historian," says classical scholar and poet Peter Levi, "is his combination of great scope and precise focus, his imaginative power as a story-teller and his rationalism, his concern with truth."

    Vesuvius: A Case Study in History

    It might not look like much, but this 316-pound rock was to the ancient Greeks what the Heisman Trophy is to a collegiate football player. The inscription reveals who won the weight lifting competition in one of the first Olympics: "Bybon has lifted me over his head with one hand." Did Bybon know his victory would make for some heavy history over 26 centuries later?

    In Roman times, Pliny-the-Younger proved a worthy successor with his brilliant description of the eruption of Vesuvius quoted above. He was just 17 years old when the volcano exploded, destroying the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. His account has helped modern volcanologists reconstruct the event. It lasted about 18 hours, Pliny tells them. There was a cloud shaped like "a pine tree" — a dense column of hot gas, rock and ash, tossed 20 miles up into the sky. After about 12 hours, the force of the blast slackened. The column collapsed, hurtling a gigantic surge cloud of hot ash down Vesuvius' western slope at 100 mph. Within four minutes it reached Herculaneum, blasting buildings, burning or suffocating the people. A second surge devastated Pompeii.

    During the 1981 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, scientists were amazed at the speed and power of these so-called "pyroclastic flows." They overturned forests and engulfed a car speeding away at 80 mph. Pliny reports one of these surges and was fortunate not to have perished in it: "I look back: a dense cloud looms behind us, following us like a flood poured across the land... The fire itself actually stopped some distance away, but darkness and ashes came again, a great weight of them..." His uncle was not so lucky and died across the Gulf of Naples at Stabiae.

    Vesuvius will erupt again. The only question is when. Millions of people now living in the shadow of the volcano will be at risk.

    The philosopher George Santayana remarked: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it." Henry Ford dismissed history as "bunk." Ralph Waldo Emerson maintained "There is properly no history; only biography." Percy Bysshe Shelley put it poetically: "History is a cyclic poem written by Time upon the memories of man." Shakespeare is briefest: "What's past is prologue." The future begins here.

    Herodotus, the first historian, claimed modest goals for his work: "that the doings of men may not be forgotten." On the title page he wrote Historia, Greek for "inquiries" or "researches." Inquiring into the past has been called history ever since.

    Geographers and Their Space

    The desire to know how people in distant cultures live is an ancient one. Before photography, the internet, and airline travel, how did people learn about far off lands? During the Renaissance, mapmaking was the answer! An explorer would chart his path, bring home the information, and hire a mapmaker to bring his memories to life.

    They set out on April 7, 1805, from Fort Mandan, North Dakota, near present-day Bismarck. Two young army captains, 28-year-old Merriweather Lewis and his partner William Clark, rounded up their party and headed west. They took a map showing just three points — the Mississippi as far as Mandan, the position of St. Louis, and the location of the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. It was Lewis and Clark's task to fill in the rest.

    "Your observations are to be taken with great pains and accuracy," President Thomas Jefferson instructed. "In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner." To this end, the expedition's supplies included 4,600 sewing needles, 144 small scissors, 8 brass kettles, 33 pounds of colored beads, and vermilion face paint.

    Traveling with Lewis and Clark were 32 men and a young Shoshone woman named Sacagawea. When the expedition limped into St. Louis on September 23, 1806, it had covered 8,000 miles, bringing back priceless information about the rivers and mountains of the region, as well as information about the plants, animals, and people.

    Based on this picture of a woman in a traditional Russian coat, do you think the weather in Russia is more tropical or wintery? Do you think it is that way all the time in Russia? How would you find out?

    Humans are curious creatures, always wondering what lies beyond the horizon. Lewis and Clark did not describe themselves as geographers, but they could have. Geography is the study of the surface of the earth. It is about people and places. It is about the physical character of a country, its climates and landscapes, and its biological environment.

    Eratosthenes was the first to use the word "Geographica" as the title of his book in the 3rd century B.C.E. Eratosthenes figured out the size of the earth. His method was rather simple. He knew that on the summer solstice in Aswan, the sun shines directly overhead at noon. In Alexandria, 500 miles to the north, he found it cast a shadow, giving an angle of about 7.2 degrees. Assuming the sun is sufficiently distant that its rays are parallel, he calculated the earth's circumference by the ratios: 7.2/360 = 500/x. His figure of 25,000 miles was very close to reality.

    Mapping the World

    The geographer's most important tool is the map. Mapmaking went through a revolution in 15th and 16th centuries, when a marvelous age of exploration dawned. Bartolomeu Dias, the first European to discover the Cape of Good Hope in 1487, was followed by Vasco da Gama, who pioneered the route to India from Europe. In 1492, Columbus crossed the Atlantic. And in 1519, Magellan set out on his ambitious voyage to circumnavigate the planet.

    Magellan's venture was not a happy one. Approaching the tip of South America, his crew mutinied, terrified by ferocious weather. Magellan executed some, imprisoned others, and marooned the ringleader on a remote shore of South America. Rounding Tierra del Fuego — the southern tip of South America — Magellan headed into the Pacific. He trusted his maps and thought it would take only a few days to cross. But his trip took four months. Drinking water became putrid and turned yellow. The crew almost starved. They were reduced to eating sawdust, leather strips, and rats.

    As sailors returned and more information came in, more of the earth needed to be mapped. Cartographers — or mapmakers — faced a fascinating problem. How could the three-dimensional surface of the earth be represented on a two-dimensional page? They learned it could not be done without sacrificing shape, direction, or size.

    Have you ever been lost? How did you find your way back home? Did you ask someone, consult a map, or wander around until you recognized something?

    Mercator Plots the Course

    In 1569, Gerardus Mercator, a Flemish mapmaker, devised a brilliant solution and produced the earth's most famous map. On a globe, lines of longitude meet at the poles. Mercator opened them up to make them parallel, intersecting at right angles with lines of latitude. In another adjustment, he placed latitude lines farther part as they approached north and south.

    The map had certain drawbacks. Regions near the poles suffered gross distortions. Greenland, for example, appeared several times the size of South America. Sailors, for whom the map was prepared, did not much care. What mattered was that the map offered a simple way to plot a course.

    In 1585, Mercator began to publish his maps in book form. Engraved on the title page appeared the Greek god, Atlas, carrying the earth upon his back. Ever since, a book of maps has been known as an atlas.

    Review Challenges

    1. Describe the process archaeologists use to discover lost artifacts.
    2. Outline some of the ways anthropologists learn about society.
    3. Explain what the letters A.D., B.C., C.E., and B.C.E. mean.
    4. Explain why historians know or write so little about societies prior to 3000 B.C.
    5. Summarize the methods geographers use to study and organize information about the earth.

    Discussion and Study Questions

    1. Why do we study history?
    2. Why might Herodotus be considered the first world historian?
    3. How did geographers deal with issue of mapping a three-dimensional on a two-dimensional surface?
    4. Who are the various groups of experts that use history to complete their work?

    Vocabulary

    Quizlet Flashcard Vocabulary for Introduction

    anthropologist
    a scientist who studies artifacts in order to understand the origins, customs and beliefs of humankind.
    archaeologist
    a scientist who studies past human life and culture by the recovery and examination of artifacts.
    artifact
    anything created and left behind by humans that gives information about the culture of its creator.
    geographer
    a scientist who studies the earth and its features and of the distribution of life on the earth, including human life and the effects of human activity.
    historian
    one who records and interprets human events of the past.
    economics
    the study of the human behaviors practiced by people in order to meet their needs.
    era
    a segment of historical time.
    periodization
    the division of history into periods or segments of time.
    Stone Age
    a historical era existing before humans learned to develop metal technologies, characterized by a hunting and gathering way of life.
    turning point
    an event marking a unique or important historical change of course.

    Internet Resources

    ABC-CLIO provides a database of Daily Lifes throughout the World over different periods of time.

    Maps 101 provides collections, videos, map and other resources that can be downloaded, streamed, or printed for student use.

    ushistory.org provides the a free online textbook for complete readings of extracts included in the section

    References

    Image Reference Attributions

    [Figure 2]

    Source: http://www.ushistory.org/civ/1b.asp
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    [Figure 3]

    Source: http://www.ushistory.org/civ/1b.asp
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    [Figure 4]

    Source: http://www.ushistory.org/civ/1c.asp
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    [Figure 9]

    Source: http://www.ushistory.org/civ/1d.asp
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    [Figure 11]

    Source: http://www.ushistory.org/civ/1d.asp
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0
    • Was this article helpful?