This article is accompanied with audio-assisted reading clips by the author for the reader’s ease. An experimental first for The Existential Millennial.
Authored by Rebecca Harris, Chief Editor of The Existential Millennial
Which came first? The chicken or the egg. Apply that line of thinking to the study of Archaeology and the study of History, and the answer is as straightforward as it is complex, but it is not as complex as the word ‘complex’ might imply.
The answer is Archaeology; Archaeology came first. Not because of the chronology of its origins, but because of its over all value in establishing a timeline of our ancestors when time had yet been recorded. See, it is more of a symbiotic relationship than it is a marriage.
To understand (A) how the “chicken or the egg” (a.k.a. their interdependence) reference made sense as an opening, one must first establish (B) the difference between the two fields. This is also going to happen backwards, because – to quote Junot Díaz completely out of context – “the only way out is in.”
(B) The Difference Is In The Definitions
(According to Dictionary.com)
- the scientific study of historic or prehistoric peoples and their cultures by analysis of their artifacts, inscriptions, monuments, and other such remains, especially those that have been excavated.
- a continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc., usually written as a chronological account; chronicle:
(A) “The Chicken or The Egg”
Their love story is one of convenient interdependence, but the relationship is not as romantic as a marriage nor as familia as siblings. They could be step-sibling with a really great relationship, but also not really… To put it most simplistically, it is a symbiotic relationship built on one very intense principle: DISCOVERY OF THE PAST
History wants to tell the story – order the events in a way that the whole can be analyzed (cause and effect).
The beginning. The Middle. The End.
Archaeology wants to explore the story – dig up the evidence and put the pieces together to establish the experience.
The people. The places. The things.
But why does archaeology come “first”? Does it really matter?
Yes. Archaeology MUST come first. If History is the study of written work (and it is) for the purpose of discovering of the past, there MUST be written work to study. Additionally, to ascertain the validity in the discoveries made of the past, there MUST be physical evidence or – for lack of a better word – what is written could potentially be hearsay and cannot be passed as admissible as fact. However, in studying the discipline of History, one is taught to weigh written accounts against one another and investigate every possible bias (the fallibility of human perspective) before arriving at a conclusion in a historical analysis. Alas, despite the best efforts of the greatest historians, there is still always gray area – the final conclusions are rarely ever final (especially with new archaeological findings) and historical summaries often spur intense debates that span across generations…
For example, should one research the causes of the English Civil War, the causes of the American Revolution, the causes of the American Civil War, the causes of the Bolshevik Revolution, or pretty much the causes of any war or revolution in history the foundings are always highly debated with some only ever truly being “resolved” with an agreement that some conflicting accounts (and even missing parts) must be left open to interpretation, depending on the perspective the historian chooses to support or criticize. It is for this reason that credence has been given to Winston Chruchill’s claim that “history is written by the victors,” because, without “hard evidence,” it is very much a he-said-she-said situation where the validity of the story is completely dependent upon the credibility of the source being cited.
Thus, the argument made for Archaeology’s “superiority” over History in their mission to discover the past is made on the premise that there is very little to misconstrue about the evidence – when conducted correctly (ethically). That is not to say all artifacts or excavations produce crystal clear narratives of what it was to live in the past (1) some pieces and sites are found (or have yet to be unearthed) out of “chronological” order; (2) too many articles are found to be either false, misplaced, destroyed, or degraded by poor handling; (3) the study is a rather new field that is still in the early stages of its evolution with techniques and technologies that revolutionize the discovery process or expand the information discovery yield. The research done in the history of archaeology has provided cases where archaeological evidence that was revered to be groundbreaking discoveries were later proved to be heartbreaking due to tampering, falsification, and plain misidentification.
Therefore some might see the study of Archaeology as just as predisposed to corruption, bias, and uncertainty, but it is undeniable the content it can provide (and has) is significantly more solidified in fact than fiction by the very nature of it’s analysis – physical evidence. Then there is that quality of Archaeology that supersedes History storytelling abilities, and that quality is Archaeology’s ability to study pre-history (or history prior to written language). Additionally, Archaeology as a study is less prone to manipulation or “gray area,” most especially when combined with the study of history.
Finally, to the justification for the use of “the chicken or the egg” parable – or is it an analogy… Reframe: Finally, tox explain the use of “the chicken or the egg” parallel…
For much of the 20th century, despite the many (conflicting) accounts from the ship’s survivors, there was massive indecision on the direct cause of the RSS Titanic’s sinking AND, perhaps the most heated of the debates, was whether or not the ship split in two upon sinking. It was not until the “groundbreaking” discovery of and underwater archaeological excavation that clarity could be distinguished. So, while the study of Archaeology has ability to stand its own merits, completely independent of History, and History is rather dependent on Archaeology, without the inconsistencies found in historical investigation, Archaeology would suffer greatly from a lack of inspiration. That is to say, History often provided the motivation and even the first lead needed to spur an number of Archaeological investigation. For interesting insight on this paradox, research the long search and excavation of the city of Troy in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) that was believed to have been just a fable from Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad. It’s discovery gave credibility to the Iliad – once believed to be purely fiction – as a potential historical document; giving further rise to fictional literature’s use in historical investigation as another source of study.
Archaeology and History in the study of Rome
When comparing the value of archaeological to textual evidence in the reconstruction of Roman history, it is a difficult analysis to make. Both are invaluable and neither could exist without the other. However, when both fields are combined they prove to be most helpful in reconstructing the early history of Rome.
In the study of Roman history, much is still unknown. However, with the combined contributions from both archeological and textual evidence, a wealth of information that would have otherwise been forgotten or falsely actualized has been liberated. Textual evidence has the advantage of context that archeological evidence is often limited on. For example, without the textual evidence, knowledge of the inner functions of the Roman government might have gone undiscovered, and history would have been quite different. Textual evidence allows the past to have its own voice, but due to the fallible nature of mankind, one’s study remains vulnerable to the bias, dramatization, miscalculation, or imagination of the text’s author.
While a fairly recent study, archeology has been essential in unveiling the very beginnings of Rome. Archeology brings the merit of greater objectivity to the study of Roman history compared to textual evidence. Arguably, the most important role archeology plays is its potential to provide knowledge of the past before the past itself had been recorded – writing had not appeared in Italy until the eight century. Archeological evidence allows historians to sift through the fantasy or bias found in textual documents. For example, in Livy’s History of Rome, Rome was founded by twin boys born of a princess Vestal virgin and the Roman god, Mars, who were raised by a she-wolf when abandoned. Archeology has brought sounder insight to the study of ancient Roman history with its utilization of the scientific model and modern technology.
Past and present historians and archaeologist could be said to be collecting pieces of the same puzzle. Each field of evidence compliments the other’s direction and validity, and when used in collaboration produces a very detailed (and sometimes visual) reconstruction of early Roman history.
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