The Real Life Adventure of Archaeology

If there is a romantic science, it has to be archaeology. Exotic locations, unexpected discoveries, reconstructing lost civilizations! It’s no coincidence that the most famous and popular scientists from Hollywood are archaeologists.

There is so much here, from Dinosaurs to Neanderthals to Pyramids to Viking Ships; lost civilizations, unknown creatures, exotic people.  (As well as fraud, fantasy, and smuggling.)

Let’s look at a few great books, though there are so many more that are worth reading.

The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor (Princeton University Press, 2000).

I heard Dr. Mayor speak on this topic a long time ago, [6], which is expanded in this full length book.  We know the ancients recognized and collected fossils as curiosities and wonders.  Mayor looks at the Greek and Roman understanding of fossils, especially fossilized extinct animals.  This is kind of “archaeology of archaeology”—cool.

These were interpreted in the light of various contemporary concepts, fitting into folk stories and protoscientific speculations. Some remains were seen to represent known species, albeit unusual and in unexpected locales. Mammoth bones were certainly recognized as giant elephants, but so were dinosaur bones, and stories were created to explain where they were found (on top of mountains, under thick lava deposits, etc.)

Other fossils required imaginative reconstruction, calling upon both natural and supernatural concepts.  Mermaids and centaurs were detected in these remains, confirming well know stories.

More naturalist-oriented thinkers faced questions about the mutability of species, migration, extinction, and deep time.  These remains could be seen to pose a problem for Aristotle and other’s assumptions about the immutability of species.  Should they be explained as “mistakes”, as supernatural phenomena (e.g., remains of gods and heroes), or reserve our fealty to not yet known natural explanations?

Mayor documents a most romantic case, the paleontological evidence for griffins.  Griffins are not known to contemporary natural science, but were well known to be real animals in ancient times.  Griffins have the body of a lion, with the wings and beaks like eagles. Further, they were known to inhabit the Gobi desert (and area traversed by trade routes).  Griffins nested on the ground, and were known to fiercely guard gold.

Mounted P. andrewsi skeleton, Carnegie Museum of Natural History  (Image from the Wikimedia Commons.)

This understanding was supported by traveler’s stories, artistic reconstructions, and fairly complete skeletons.  The fossil skeletons show a body similar in size and shape to a lion, with a birdlike head featuring a beak and a crest.  These remains were discovered in gold-bearing sands, and sometimes were accompanied by fossilized eggs.  Wow!

Today, we identify these remains as a Protoceratops, a species of dinosaur extinct many millions of years before humans.  The evidence was incorporated into folk tales and imaginative reconstructions, which, no doubt fed back to influence interpretation of additional finds.

It is possible that stories of living Griffins may have been propaganda with a quite mundane explanation. Mayor also notes that the gold-bearing sands were quite valuable, and jealously guarded resources. Local inhabitants had reason to let everyone know about the dangerous monsters lurking there, to keep people away.

Cool stuff.

Schliemann of Troy: treasure and deceit By David A.Traill ( St. Martin’s Press, 1995)

By far the most romantic story in archaeology, bar none, is the story of Troy.

Homer’s poems were the foundation of Greek identity, and are still known and loved thousands of years later.  But could the Trojan War be based on real events?  Most scholars believed it was mostly imaginative fiction, beautiful but not intended to be taken as historical.  Only romantics believed the events depicted were, in fact, actual events.

Traill tells the story of Heinrich Schliemann, one of the most famous archaeologists of all.  At the very dawn of modern archaeology, Schliemann followed tenuous evidence to identify the hill at Hissarlik in what is now Turkey as the ancient site of Troy.  He maneuvered and manipulated, and gained access to the site.

In 1870 he dug into the hill and discovered the remains of not one, but many cities, one on top of the other. These represented repeated destruction and rebuilding on the site. In subsequent years he dug through the layers (in a hasty, careless and destructive rush).  Ultimately he identified one of the buried cities (Troy II) as the city of Troy destroyed in the Homeric poems!

Archeological plan of Hisarlik (Image from Wikipedia Common).

From the ruins Schliemann was able to reconstruct (in his mind) the great walls and towers described by Homer, destroyed by fire, as in the story.  He believed he had identified key locations mentioned in the poem. He even uncovered artifacts that appeared to be the accouterments of the famous personalities, including a (we now know) fabricated horde he presented as “Priam’s Treasure”.  (His excavations are now viewed as incompetant even by the standards of his own time.)

Wow!  Schliemann quickly became one of the most famous men in the world.  He also became a model for the iconoclastic archaeologist, defying conventional wisdom and single-handedly proving his own romantic visions.

Furthermore, he proved that ancient literature and folklore is not pure fiction!  If Troy really existed, and the Trojan War happened, what other lost civilizations awaited discovery?

Of course, we now know that Schliemann most likely misinterpreted the ruins, and, ironically, may well have dug right through and accidentally destroyed the best evidence for Homer’s Troy (Troy.VI ?)  Where he saw evidence of war, social disorder, and desperation, we realize that he was influenced by his own anxieties about contemporary society. We also know that some of his “discoveries” were probably modern fakes, planted at the site to support his understanding of the site.  (It seems that he went on to make similar mistakes and questionable discoveries at Agamemnon’s capital at Mycenae on the Greek mainland.)

His findings have forever created the romantic archetype.  We may be able to uncover real, physical remains of even the most romantic and attractive stories from past.  We must never dismiss folklore as completely fictional without carefully considering all the evidence.

Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth by Joseph Alexander MacGillvray (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000).

The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margaret Fox (HarperCollins, 2013)

Mysteries Of The Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, And The Forging Of History by  Kenneth D. S. Lapatin (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)

Knossos And The Prophets Of Modernism by Cathy Gere (The University Of Chicago Press, 2009)

If Troy was real, then certainly we should expect to find remains of other lost civilizations, right?  What about, say, Crete? The capital Knossos was famed as the home of King Minos, and center of a major empire that was apparently wiped out before the Achaean Greeks rose to greatness.  But who were they, and what really happened?  Was King Minos real or mythical?

MacGillivray tells us the romantic life of Sir Arthur Evans, who uncovered the remains of Knossos. Following in Schliemann’s footsteps (almost literally), Arthur Evans pursued his dream of Cretan civilization, the Minoans. Navigating the political storms of the early twentieth century, he outmaneuvered rivals, purchased the site, and initiated excavations near Knossos.

There he found remains of a large and advanced city, center of a well-organized agrarian and seafaring empire—just as described in Herodotus and Thucydides. The city Evans found was flattened, perhaps by a major Earthquake, war, or other catastrophe.  Over many years of excavation there, he found indoor plumbing, remains of frescos, unknown writing, and evidence of centralized bureaucracy.  He believed he could identify the famous labyrinth of myth, as well as a number of “royal” rooms.  From these remains, Evans reconstructed and popularized a charming and romantic “Minoan” civilization.

Over a number of years, Evans developed his understandings of Crete. In this process he re-imagined the site in twentieth century, very much influenced by interwar anxieties of the late period British empire. His beautiful constructions invoked a golden age of a preindustrial goddess worshiping society, not unlike Victorian England, except with prominent roles for beautiful, motherly women.  The marvelously “restored” buildings, frescos, statues, and furnishings have since been recognized as some of the finest Art Deco works of the twentieth century (what they have to do with ancient Knossos is not apparent).

Minoan Snake Goddess figurines c 1600 BCE. Heraklion Archaeological Museum (Image form Wikipedia Commons)

Much of what Evans imagined is now known to be incorrect and/or forged. Lapatin and Gere (among others) document the story of the famous snake goddess, and many other charming artifacts that were obligingly produced by twentieth century artisans. These artifacts may be “Greek”, and perhaps even “Cretan”, but probably not as old as the admiring public wishes to believe.

Evans “restored” the site to create a sort of “Minoan-land” theme park, complete with souvenirs. While completely divorced from any actual prehistoric Crete, the result is a compelling and beautiful embodiment of a primitive golden age.  The deep past was called up to invoke hopes and dreams for a better future.

Lapatin and Gere point out the important contributions Evans made, arguing that his dreams of the “Minoans”, realized as they were through the beautiful (twentieth century) artifacts, were both influenced by the turn of the century European culture, and in turn influenced cultural ideas for the rest of the century.

One of the most important discoveries at Knossos was a huge cache of written records, in an unknown alphabet, principally “Linear B”. Conventional scholarship held that it couldn’t be Greek, but what language was it?  Evans himself never decoded them, though he had strong opinions about what they must represent.

Clay Tablet Inscribed with Linear B (Image from

Decoding Linear B presented a daunting, romantic puzzle.

Fox tells the story of the troubled and lonely people who broke the riddle. Despite wrong-headed conventional wisdom, academic incompetence, and sexism, two gifted but marginal individuals succeeded where all the professionals failed.  Alice Kober established the basis for the breakthrough, but died too young to see the final answer. Michael Ventris built on her work and broke the code.  In 1952 it was announced that l that Linear B was, in fact, a written form of early Greek.  This proved that the “Minoans” were in fact Greek speakers, and apparently precursors of the later mainland societies.

The tablets themselves proved to be court records, tracking the inventory of livestock, workers, produce, and goods.  Boring.  But very useful to understand how the people actually lived, unlike Evans’ “Minoan-land” theme park, complete with souvenirs.

In this case, the real archaeology carried meaning far beyond its “scientific” significance. As in the case of Troy, it appeared to show that ancient stories were based on real events, real places, and real people. But the Europeans projected their own desires and fantasies on the ruins, imagining a primitive, utopian, golden age.  The concrete (literally) realization of this imagined world in turn echoed through Western society, inspiring and validating utopian dreams of a better, simpler life.

The actual lives of the people who lived in Crete 3500 years ago don’t really come into this picture.

The Lost Tomb by Kent Weeks (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1998)

Romance?  You want romance?  Ancient Egypt has fascinated the world since roman times, and is the cradle of modern archaeology.

Egypt has been settled and highly civilized since basically forever.  The pyramids were as old when the Romans occupied the area as ancient Rome is for us.  Egypt invented agriculture, civilization, science, and religion. And the Egyptians have tried just about everything, including ideas we can’t even begin to fathom.

Of all the sites in Egypt, the Valley of the Kings is one of the most famous.  After a century of exploration that mostly found ruined and desecrated remains (and carelessly wrecked what was found), in 1922 the tomb of King Tut was found undisturbed, to the astonishment of the world. Everyone knows the story, it is one of the greatest find in the history of archeology.

Giants still walk among us, in Egypt.

In 1989, a group led by Kent Weeks “discovered” a neglected tomb in the valley, designated ‘KV5’.  Thousands of years old, in historic times, the tomb had been overlooked, and then covered over with tailings from nearby excavations in the early twentieth century (including Howard Carter’s excavation of Ramesses the Great’s tomb). KV5 has turned into one of the most awesome digs ever.

After securing permission and funding, Weeks’ team began excavation in 1995. From the first, the tomb proved to be unique.  The entry is a long, columned corridor, with many side rooms.  The corridor ends in a T, with side corridors leading to other rooms.  Dozens of rooms. Much larger and more elaborate than any other known tomb.

The tomb itself was filled with limestone chips and debris, as difficult and dangerous to remove as concrete.  It is also in danger from the elements and from careless roadwork and other human activities.  Weeks describes the slow work of uncovery began, and continues to this day.

Weeks provides a careful interpretation of the tomb. KV5 was mostly built during the reign of Ramesses II some 3200 years ago. Ramesses the Great ruled Egypt for 66 years (a couple of generations) and he managed to outlive several wives and children.  He constructed tombs and memorials for his relatives. The tomb of Queen Nefertari (QV66) and Ramesses’ own tomb (KV7) are appropriately magnificent, even after looting and the decay of 20 centuries. KV5 itself appears to be intended as the resting place for several of his sons, though no remains have been found.

The initial excavation was amazing in itself.  But there was more. In subsequent years, the underground chambers were cleared and explored. Dozens of rooms were discovered. Carvings,  fragments of frescoes, and faience were found. Another doorway, which leads into yet another, deeper passage.  Down the long, slanting corridor are yet more rooms, over 100 in total!  No mummies or sarcophagi have been found yet, but there is enough room for many royal burials, much has not been excavated, and it is not clear that all the chambers have been found yet. Phew.

Isometric, plan and elevation images of KV5 taken from a 3d model (Image by R.F.Morgan accessed from Wikipedia Commons)

Clearly the tomb is the work of many years and it resembles nothing ever discovered. It is already the most spectacular underground tomb ever documented.  Who knows what might be found down deep?

The archaeology is ongoing, as are efforts to document and preserve the whole valley. Just as earlier excavators reflected the political and cultural attitudes of their time, the Theban Mapping Project (TMP) is a twenty first century activity.  It is a long term, multinational collaboration, deeply involving local Egyptians, with a sophisticated global media presence, significant emphasis on preservation and information management, and outreach programs for local youngsters. It is also a victim of the wars in the area, and political revolution in Egypt which have limited the activities of visiting scholars.

Great stuff.

Mysteries.  Lost civilizations.  Overlooked evidence.  Unknown languages.

Confusion and blunders.  Ideological blinders. Self-delusion.  Fraud, fakery, and “imaginative reconstruction”.

What’s not to love?

Speaking of the romance of archaeology, 2013 saw the passing of Dr. Barbara Mertz eminent Egyptologist and popular author.  We are all sad that we will hear no more of the most remarkable family of archaeologists (and learn a little history of Egyptology). She belongs to the ages now.


1. Beard, Mary, Knossos: Fakes, Facts, and Mystery. The New York review of books, 56 (13):58-60,  2009.

2. Fox, Maraget, The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, New York, HarperCollins, 2013.

3. Gere, Cathy, Knossos And The Prophets Of Modernism, Chicago, The University Of Chicago Press, 2009.

4. Lapatin, Kenneth D. S., Mysteries Of The Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, And The Forging Of History, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

5. MacGillivray, Joseph Alexander, Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth, New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.

6. Mayor, Adrienne, Paleocryptozoology: A Call for Collaboration between Classicists and Cryptozoologists. Cryptozoology, 8:19-21,  1989.

7. Mayor, Adrienne, The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000.

8. Traill, David A., Schliemann of Troy: treasure and deceit, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

9. Weeks, Kent R., The Lost Tomb, New York, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1998.

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