Through a glass, darkly
“I’m a time traveller. I point and laugh at archaeologists”. Doctor Who might not be impressed with archaeologists, even 51st century ones, but on 21st century Earth, archaeologists are able to answer more questions in greater detail than ever before. Although the archaeologists of the future might have undreamed of technology, the scientific techniques now being used are bringing the past to life in new and ever more detailed ways.
This ability is shown by the discovery of Richard III, where archaeologists used an array of specialist scientific techniques to identify and explain the fate of a single individual. Remote sensing was used to identify the likely location, the skeleton was studied using various methods including an advanced type of CAT scan, radiocarbon dating (with statistical analysis) showed the skeleton was the right age, while gene matching revealed links between the skeleton and known Plantagenet descendants. The massive interest that this discovery generated shows our fascination with the past and our desire to discover more.
This impulse is not new. People queued for hours to see the Staffordshire Hoard, a collection of dirty, bent and broken bits of gold. Or, to put it another way, people queued to see ancient golden objects hidden in the kingdom of Mercia, to speculate on how they were made, why they were hidden, and to discover more about the art, wealth, and craftwork of the time. Theories on why over 3,500 items made from gold were hidden are still being explored and refined. This may have been a votive offering (one of archaeology’s default positions is to label the obscure and unexplained as ‘ritual’!) but perhaps more likely it was hidden before some war or disaster. So this is perhaps a story of conflict, greed, and hubris, of hope and desire. All of which resonates with stories in the news and maybe even our own experiences.
These archaeological investigations tap into a fundamental driver of all science: our desire to know, our wonder about where we have come from and where we are going.
Over 35 years before the Staffordshire Hoard, people queued for even longer to see the famous Tutankhamen exhibition at the British Museum. About 2,500 years ago, King Nabonidus of Babylon excavated a foundation stone laid by one of his predecessors, Naram-Sin. The past is significant; we want to know where we’ve come from and what happened there.
But, Nabondius also over-estimated the age of the building by 1,500 years, a mistake that has been repeated by archaeologists down the centuries. Before radiocarbon dating, archaeologists hugely over-estimated the time-scales involved in the movement of advances from the East into Europe (as well as massively over-simplifying the whole process of innovation and transmission of objects and ideas). Radiocarbon dating led to a more sophisticated understanding of how social change occurs. This is how archaeology works. Scientific techniques are utilised to reveal and explain society and human behaviour.
Even now, with advances in technology and computing leading to refinements in dating and new dating techniques, arguments over dating are one of the recurring themes of archaeological science. When did people reach Australia? Did Neanderthals and modern humans co-exist in Europe? The debate shifts as new dates and new techniques push the limits of science and of what we know.
Why do we care? Because this tells us about who we are and who we are linked to. Recent psychological research has been exploring the importance of retelling family history, arguing that children with a greater sense of ‘intergenerational self’ are more resilient and well-adjusted than their counterparts.
In my current day-job as a vicar, I’m frequently aware of the importance of history, personal and collective, in people’s lives. When dealing with historic churches I’m aware that they are both the living, changing centres of worshipping communities and places holding memories and beliefs. Archaeology tells us our psychological need to be historically linked is not limited to our family, but rather to our history as a species. Meaning can and should be found in history, sacred and secular.
“For now we see through a glass, darkly” wrote St Paul. Archaeology holds mirrors up to our lives and helps us see more clearly what links us as a species, through time and space. It reveals how similar our patterns of thought and our actions are through the ages, how similar (and different) our lives are to people living thousands of years ago. These mirrors are distorted, cracked, incomplete, but becoming clearer.
So, if Doctor Who’s wife, the archaeologist Professor River Song, gate-crashed a 21st century archaeological conference, what would we ask her? The true origin of Stonehenge? The latest dating technique? Improved remote sensing? Of course, the problem will be the answer: “Spoilers, sweetie”. But that’s not going to stop us trying to find out…