The science we're digging: It's a golden age for archaeology
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 12 July 2005)

Everybody knew there was once a busy seaport named Herakleion, near the place where the Nile flows into the Mediterranean. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus wrote about it, but an earthquake pushed it into the sea 1,300 years ago. Franck Goddio, a French explorer, found it in 2000 by dragging a nuclear resonance magnetometer along the surface of the water, working a grid pattern developed with Global Positioning System data.

When the magnetometer indicated an abnormal shape, Goddio went down to look. His team uncovered a granite pillar, turned it over, and saw Egyptian hieroglyphs. "Suddenly, we felt we had made contact with the ancient world," Goddio said later.

Colleagues in Paris confirmed the hieroglyphs were from Herakleion, announcing a new government tax on Greek gods. Goddio later found a temple Herodotus described and three statues, each of them three times the height of a tall man.

Divers in those waters, putting this technology to work, have brought up thousands of statues, sphinxes and jewellery that museums will be showing forever. Not far from Herakleion, Goddio discovered L'Orient, Napoleon's warship, sunk by Nelson.

From a distance, archaeology seems tame, but it arouses profound devotion. The first people I knew to be captivated by it were my uncle and aunt from New York, he an architect, she a schoolteacher. Every summer they visited major sites in Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey and, finally, Samarkand. My aunt regretted she never walked on the Great Wall of China.

Their great culture hero was Homer Thompson, the Ontario-born Princeton archaeologist famous for directing the excavation and reconstruction of the Agora of Athens.

My New York-born aunt considered the Royal Ontario Museum, which Thompson ran from 1933 to 1941 while teaching at the University of Toronto, a rare oasis of civilization in hideously provincial Toronto. She and my uncle also adored C.T. Currelly, an earlier director of the ROM, and the autobiography he wrote in the 1950s, I Brought the Ages Home.

I couldn't understand why antiquity and the discovery of it mattered so much to them. Their postcards from exotic places, the photographs he took, their incessant conversation about the excellence of their guides -- it all bored me. I was too young and too stupid to see that archaeology was among the great enterprises of the 19th and 20th centuries. It was rescuing whole civilizations from oblivion.

I also had no idea how it would develop and expand. Today, just as literature is enjoying the great age of biography, history is experiencing the great age of archaeology. I love the fresh material that shows up in articles and on the Discovery channel. Few news stories have pleased me more than the discovery, by a team hunting dinosaur bones in the Sahara, of a prehistoric super crocodile, much bigger than anything of its kind ever seen, 12 metres from snout to tail, with a jaw as long as a mature human being.

It wasn't an entirely fresh discovery. In 1966, paleontologists found fossilized remains, from which they inferred its size, but in 2001 a National Geographic team found enough parts (the neck armour, which looks like a collection of roof tiles, and an intact spine) to make possible an accurate life-size model. They brought the image of a 100-million-year-old monster back into the world, so that humans could see it for the first time.

And how about those woolly mammoths with their gigantic tusks? They ranged across this continent and Europe some 30,000 years ago. Eventually, teams of incredibly brave Cro-Magnon hunters (now called the Clovis people in North America) went after them for food and skins. The hunters were so proud of their implements that their spearheads are now collected as art objects. Sometimes, during a break, the hunters paused to invent art so that they could paint pictures of their mammoth-hunting on the walls of caves. Well, I just can't get enough of that stuff.

Like journalism, archaeology pursues anomalies. It looks at a piece of ground and asks (as a journalist asks when reading a government report or a balance sheet), "Something's different. What isn't normal here? Is the difference important?"

High-tech systems now combine satellite photos with surveys made by technicians who walk over promising sites to measure the magnetic field; stone buried beneath the earth registers differently from wood. In photos taken from the air, the appearance of certain weeds in rows will reveal buried buildings or walls.

A few years ago, these systems located the streets and walls of Viroconium, an outpost the Romans set up, some 18 centuries ago, beneath what is now the Shropshire village of Wroxeter. A technician on that project described the purpose of the equipment: "It's an anomaly machine. We look for themes that stand out from the background." It showed where to dig, and helped Wroxeter reveal its Roman past.

While technology has rejuvenated research, many of the same developments have been put to use in modern police work, as every viewer of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation knows. "Forensic archaeology" has become a sub-speciality. Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, put it clearly: Archaeology was once a profession for swashbucklers, as in Raiders of the Lost Ark. "Now we're hiring a chemist who can figure out diet from fingernail clippings."

Just last month, Israeli scientists announced the successful planting of a seed, nearly 2,000 years old, that they found while excavating Masada, the cliff fortress where 960 Jews committed suicide when surrender to the Romans became inevitable.

It's a seed of the date palm of Judea, which the Hebrew Bible praises for its medical as well as nutritious value, systematically destroyed by the Crusaders in the Middle Ages. The seed has germinated and been given the name Methuselah, but there's only a slight chance it will grow to maturity. Even so, it's now been adopted by at least some Jews as a metaphor of survival. I heard a rabbi use it in a synagogue just a few weeks ago.

The sense of how much remains unknown keeps archaeology alive. Much of the human past will remain permanently obscure; in that way it resembles what paleontologists call "the fossil record." But knowledge of how we developed will expand, so long as we have scholars. Beneath the sands, hidden in the caves, under the water, civilizations silently await discovery.

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