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Today, people pay a great deal of attention to the past, as well as to the roles and location of ancient objects. There are many ways in which people can learn about the past, one of which is anthropological archaeology. Anthropological archaeology advances the understanding of human history, social mores, and economic structures, and it can also codify national and ethnic heritages. As a rule, archaeologists examine past human interactions at increasing levels of scale and complexity: household, communal, local, and regional. Moreover, four main categories—artifacts, ecofacts, features, and sites—form the archaeological record (Price and Feinman 2013, 18-19; Wenke and Olszewski 2006, 43). Analyses of recovered artifacts include both fieldwork and records made in laboratories and at home (Price and Feinman 2013, 11). Many disparate forms of information are available to people who conduct archeological activities. For example, the resources for ordinary laypeople may differ from those available to researchers and students, while professional archeologists enjoy great access to many advanced resources.
Nonetheless, almost all information available in these resources has been gained as the result of excavation—the technique of uncovering buried objects from the past (Price and Feinman 2013, 11). Raw materials are categorized as “objects” only if they carry an archeological value and provide insight into past human activity. Objects include tools and toolmaking remnants, personal objects, jewelry, art, adornments, items for household practices, and even literature. Archeologists must analyze and interpret the meaning and use of each discovered object—or raw material—by gleaning clues about their use, associated value, and perceived cultural significance. Furthermore, they must be cognizant of limitations, assumptions, and even contradictory or competing ideas about such aspects. This approach is necessary for archaeologists to use to gain a full understanding regarding the importance of excavations and how they advance the understanding of the past such as the development of language, religion, customs, personal and cultural identities, roles, and worldviews.
Importance of Interpreting Archaeological Evidence
To comprehend personal heritage, people have to interpret archaeology and use the evidence properly because archaeology is not the study of records only but rather a means of understanding past societies using the evidence available. As mentioned above, in archaeological fieldwork, the evidence is divided into four major categories: artifacts, ecofacts, features, and sites.
Artifacts comprise various portable objects including ceramics, fauna, and lithic objects altered by humans. As soon as they are found, artifacts have to be washed so that all dust and dirt can be removed for further analysis. It is also necessary to make a correct record of the discovery including the type of the material, it’s color and shape, possible measurements and manufacturing techniques, and possible functions and decorations (Price and Feinman 2013, 19).
Ecofacts pertain to the remains of plants, animals, and other unmodified materials formed as the result of human activities (Price and Feinman 2013, 18-19). With the help of such objects, it is possible to reconstruct the past environment and comprehend the activities that people either developed or tried to develop. Sometimes, archaeologists are lucky enough to find pollens and other botanic materials through which they can observe the changes and identify the unique features of climatic conditions in the past.
Among the types of evidence, there are also features or immovable structures located on the ground such as parts of houses or fences, burials and dwellings of different sizes, and human bones (Price and Feinman 2013, 22-23). Features are used to reflect on specific and usually repeated activities such as quarries or latrines (Wenke and Olszewski 2006, 44).
Finally, sites are the last category of excavated evidence and refer to complete sets of all the above-mentioned archaeological objects, the analysis of which defines the nature of a place and the quality of life there. One such example is the ancient city of Babylon with several baked brick buildings and various fragments.
The interpretation of raw materials, past objects, and past activities will always remain the essential and fundamental method of developing a collective and adaptable understanding of past human societies. The analysis of sites and settlements is a crucial archaeological step that helps researchers identify special activities that ancient people were involved in, comprehend the possible reasons for divisions between male and female spaces, and even clarify family structures. To form a full understanding, many different people have to participate in the examination and interpretation of raw materials excavated from the past. For example, specialists in ceramics focus on studying ancient pottery. It was a ceramics analysis of the Ubaid period in Mesopotamia that proved the growth of population and the development of craftwork there. People stopped using suitable sources but instead relied on clay. The presence or absence of these objects indicates that social differentiation existed.
Archaeological evidence has to be processed and sorted carefully to preserve context, avoid false interpretations, and prevent any damage or change to the data that could be discovered using techniques and analytical techniques in the future. Therefore, guesses and suggestions made based on evidence obtained during the excavation process should not be taken as definite facts or conclusions. Lithic analysis is another form of analysis in archaeology that uses scientific techniques to explain the location and the nature of stone tools and artifacts. With this analysis, researchers focus on the morphology of artifacts and the clarification of their attributes. This analysis describes the main characteristics of the subjects, their functions, and the recognition of their development in terms of usage or reduction. Finally, there is faunal analysis, also called as archaeozoology, which is used to investigate the remains of animals, their functions in archaeological sites, and their roles in hunting and eating practices. For example, the excavation of the bones of a young deer can prove that certain people hunted deer in the fall because deer are usually born in the spring (Price and Feinman 2013, 21). The ability to connect the bones with the season of hunting is a significant achievement of archaeological analysis.
Raw Materials and Objects in Archaeology
Regardless of the category of the archaeological record, raw materials remain the main object for the analysis of the past. Raw materials comprise the largest part of what can be recovered in conjunction with the application of archeological records. It is necessary to search for and determine the meaning of raw materials. Therefore, any method or technique can be used as long as it promotes a successful explanation of the object and its place and role in ancient society. The archaeological analysis uncovers different types of societies as well as various methods of organization and identification of primary human activities. These methods include the importance of taxation, the development of bureaucracy and codified law, stratification, accumulation, and the creation of different groups in regards to their statuses (e.g. marriage), incomes (e.g. ranks), and abilities (e.g. leadership). Excavations are usually characterized by one apparent trend in the organization of an ancient human society.
Raw materials include a variety of items such as bones, stones, metals, hair, and skin. The determination of whether these materials are significant to a modern understanding of past people is the primary role of an archeologist because not all items are of anthropological significance. Fragments of insects, seeds, skin, or hair may provide information about the layers and local environment where people developed their skills and carried out different activities.
Also, there are many other common examples of small-scale objects that may be used in archaeological analysis, including stone tools and remains of their products along with pottery shards. For example, the presence of geometric clay objects suggests the development of skilled professionals in the Uruk period (Mieroop 2007, 24). Clay was used to creating new seals, which replaced stamps in that period. The quality and the design of the seal can reveal a lot about its owner and his or her societal status. Though clay seals were not used to disclose the number of transactions, their analysis proves the existence of different manufacturing techniques that tell more about the development of the community (Mieroop 2007, 29). Other objects are macro-scale stone monuments like those visible on the Giza plateau (Wengrow 2010, 14). Excavations of that period have revealed several technological achievements including unique and sophisticated writing, settlements, and everyday equipment.
Explanation of Past Practices
An archaeologist usually sets many goals. Still, his or her main task is to use old information and evidence to develop new ideas and ways of looking at a problem or a situation. Indeed, many archaeological excavations are conducted to find a solution to a certain intellectual problem or concern (Wenke and Olszewski 2006, 51). For example, at one point, there was a concern about the origins of maize agriculture in Mexico, which led to the necessity to clarify this problematic situation by analyzing available writings and artifacts that could be used to prove or disprove different approaches (Cooper 2004, 80; Wenke and Olszewski 2006, 51). Another example is the concern about existing biases based on animal bones taken from archaeological sites.
In addition to the analysis of artifacts and features that help archaeologists solve problems and clarify concepts, there is also a type of work known as “settlement archaeology,” which refers to the study of remains in a household or communal living site and helps describe different economic, political, and community concerns and developments (Price and Feinman 2013, 23). For example, certain differences in the size of households may explain status differentiation and point to a separation between poor and wealthy residents. Archeological evidence provides insight into the lifestyles and beliefs of people within different hierarchies of the same culture, including the description of human behavior and the reasons chosen by ancient people to explain their decisions.
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Archaeologists pay attention to such concepts as technology, economy, culture, and ideology. Evaluation of technological development may be observed through the use of different tools and the excavated fragments of stones, ceramics, and metal remains. New placements and types of raw materials prove human intentions to adapt to the local environment. The type of economy may be explained in terms of the materials and activities preferred by the residents to feed themselves and gain higher ranks in the system. Hunting, gathering, and agriculture can be explained using faunal and lithic analyses. While some tribes preferred to hunt and eat meat to survive, other tribes were characterized by evident elements of cannibalism. Still, other groups developed their ideologies around the role of animals and human sacrifice.
Origins of Writing and Its Role in Archaeology
In addition to the attention paid to excavations and archaeological analyses, the role of past writings cannot be ignored, as they form one of the main sources of information available to current people to comprehend past life (Cooper 2004, 80). The unique feature of such sources is the inability to check their credibility. Indeed, people could always use their imaginations and personal attitudes and add them to the descriptions given in their writing.
For example, The Epic of Gilgamesh reveals many aspects of early Mesopotamian culture, worldviews, the complexity of thought, and artistic style. Because the work is a mythical and not historical source of information, conclusions regarding Mesopotamia come from a combination of archeological evidence coupled with literary analysis. Purely functional historical records—such as grain storage and taxation records—require less interpretation; however, even they should not be assumed to be representative of the whole truth or even to be accurate out of context. For example, in the epic, much attention is paid to descriptions of ancient Mesopotamia and the lives of historical kings and rulers. An archaeological analysis of the walls and an investigation of the ruins on the chosen territory explain that the events described in the epic could be true: “See its wall like a strand of wool, view its parapet that none could copy” (George 2002, 10). Therefore, even though writings may not serve as the best option to prove the traditions and rules of the past life described in The Epic of Gilgamesh, they can still be used to support archaeological evidence and develop clearer interpretations of past events.
In archaeology, many perspectives can be used to investigate the past and many ways to use archaeological evidence to explain the past. Many people have been involved in the development of interpretative archaeology, which emphasizes the possibility of multiple interpretations of different archaeological units and underlines the importance of subjectivity. It is not enough for archaeologists to investigate the value of the excavated subjects; they must also use the approaches developed in terms of materialism, functionalism, and idealism. Materialist and idealist concepts help explain what people tried to use and what goals they wanted to achieve. These concepts were based on religion and community decisions made by the citizens.
For example, Engels’ argument regarding the origins of the family and private property could be examined through an economic and social lens, under which past societal evolution was considered to be the result of conditional stimuli (Engels 1972, 194). Excavations discovered how sparse the ancient population was. For example, the division of power and the necessity to separate territory into separate spheres that were under men’s and women’s control were observed through the existence of extensive hunting grounds and protective fences (Engels 1972, 195). A recognition of the traditions and lifestyles exhibited by past societies and communities regarding the world that surrounded them could be interpreted in a materialistic way by using the objects and artifacts discovered and in an idealistic way by considering the activities and principles developed based on the found objects.
Also, projects by Carneiro (1970) and Wengrow (2010) could help shed light on such concepts as materialism, idealism, and functionalism in terms of early civilizations. For example, Carneiro (1970) developed the theory of the origin of the state, a theory that explained the reasons that states arose in certain places and not in others. This theory helps researchers and students comprehend the concepts of functionalism in archaeology and discuss environmental factors as the main external variables that were taken from outside socio-cultural settings and caused the promotion of political revolutions (Carneiro 1970, 736). Finally, there are also specific characteristics of writing, representational art, and different objects of monumental architecture that could be used to represent different contexts, functions, and structures of the societies that established civilized life (Wengrow 2010, 16). Therefore, it is wrong to believe that archaeology is the study of excavated objects that cannot be interpreted in different ways.
Artifacts, features, and settings are found and analyzed by archaeologists from many different perspectives. Materialists define anthropological archaeology as a scientific discipline in which humans are regarded as part of nature and cannot be investigated unless technology, environment, and culture are properly reflected as well. Idealists believe that archaeology is a humanistic discipline that describes and underlines the uniqueness of humans in comparison to other subjects, plants, and animals in the world. Functionalists, on the other hand, view archaeology as a part of behaviorism and argue that it is possible to specify humans in terms of the roles they have to perform.
The ideas developed by Engels, Wengrow, and Carneiro prove the importance of each study of anthropological archaeology because this combination helps researchers comprehend the ideological and functional characteristics of archaeological objects and use them as the basis for developing a powerful materialistic perspective.
In general, there are many ways to understand the interactions of the representatives of early civilizations and investigate past life through raw materials, objects, and activities. Though archaeology deals with the past, it cannot examine the past directly but rather indirectly. Therefore, it has a significant impact on the present as well as on the development of a successful future. The advancement of anthropological understanding cannot occur if everyone remains content and does not challenge or question previous interpretations of raw materials but simply continues evaluating new sources obtained from the archaeological record. Rather, the discipline must strive to develop new perceptions and participate in the analysis of past social developments.
There are many yet undiscovered and already known archaeological objects and sites that could improve people’s understandings of the past by the application of original thought, new techniques, and ongoing excavation processes. People may not be aware of their actual use in the past, but they are always able to develop their understandings and investigations by relying on the ideas introduced by such great thinkers as Engels, Carneiro, Wengrow, and even George, whose main goal was the translation and interpretation of The Epic of Gilgamesh and life during the Uruk period. The past has left several different prints and stamps on history, and people are welcome to use their best skills to interpret the messages from the past to improve their future.
Carneiro, Robert. 1970. “A Theory of the Origin of the State.” Science 160: 733-738.
Cooper, Jerrold S. 2004. “Babylonian Beginnings: The Origin of the Cuneiform Writing System in Comparative Perspective.” In The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process, edited by S. D. Houston, 71-99. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Engels, Frederick. 1972. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. New York, NY: International Publishers.
George, Andrew. 2002. The Epic of Gilgamesh. London, UK: Penguin Books.
Mieroop, Marc. 2007. A History of the Ancient Near East, Ca. 3000-323 BC. West Sussex, UK: Blackwell Publishing.
Price, T. Douglas, and Gary M. Feinman, ed. 2013. Images of the Past. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Wengrow, David. 2010. What Makes Civilization? New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Wenke, Robert J., and Deborah I. Olszewski, ed. 2006. Patterns in Prehistory. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.