Archaeologists excavate a grave carefully.Archaeologists excavate a grave carefully. Archaeologists find out about the past by excavating (digging up) the sites of ancient buildings or settlements. They study the artefacts they find, such as tools and pottery, to piece together a picture of everyday life in the past. Today, archaeologists can make very accurate assessments of their finds. For example, they can use scientific methods to calculate how old things are. When human remains are found, archaeologists can study the bones or stomach contents to find out about the person's health and diet, or even what they ate for their last meal. Without archaeologists, we would have only a very sketchy knowledge of early history, and the lost cities of the ancient world would have stayed buried for ever.

Excavations at the Forum in Rome, ItalyExcavations at the Forum in Rome, Italy
A 19th-century excavation in GreeceA 19th-century excavation in Greece

The beginning of modern archaeology

People have always been curious about the past, but for centuries most people’s knowledge of early history came from myths and legends. They did not begin to search for real evidence until the 16th century, when European scholars began to travel and collect curiosities from the ancient world. 

Evidence was easy enough to find in Greece and Rome, where buildings and sculptures were there for all to see. But in the Middle East, for example, whole cities lay buried deep in the earth until Europeans began to search for objects from the past.

British archaeologist Sir Arthur EvansBritish archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans 

The search for remains

Once this search for the past had started to gain popularity, the first “archaeologists” began to travel to different parts of the world in search of evidence. They studied clues, such as descriptions in literature, to discover where lost cities might be and then dug down to find them. They uncovered artefacts that had lain there for centuries. Unfortunately some of these artefacts were damaged because these early explorers did not have the knowledge and techniques that archaeologists have today. But they did make significant discoveries about early civilizations.

The Death Mask of AgamemnonThe Death Mask of Agamemnon

Heinrich Schliemann

One early archaeologist was the German businessman Heinrich Schliemann (1822–1890). He studied two poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, by the Greek poet Homer, in which two lost cities, Troy and Mycenae, are described. Schliemann decided to use the evidence in the poems to search for the cities. In 1871 he discovered Troy near the Dardanelles in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). In 1876, he found the hilltop fortified town of Mycenae (in modern-day Greece). He also came across huge amounts of gold at Mycenae, showing that this civilization was fabulously wealthy.

One artefact that Schliemann discovered at Mycenae was the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. He believed that he had discovered the gold death mask of the legendary Greek king Agamemnon, but modern dating methods show that the mask is from 1550–1500 BC, hundreds of years earlier than Agamemnon is said to have lived.

A tablet from Ashurbanipal's libraryA tablet from Ashurbanipal's library

Ashurbanipal's library

Archaeologists have also helped to trace the history of writing with finds such as clay tablets marked with ancient scripts. One example of such a find is the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who reigned in the Middle East in the 7th century BC. The library contained 20,000 tablets in an early form of writing. When alphabets such as this were deciphered, people could read ancient historical records which told them more about how the different civilizations lived and organized their communities.

Twelve of the tablets in the library contained the text of a long poem called the Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk (in modern-day Iraq). The poem is one of the earliest surviving works of literature.

Howard Carter in Tutankhamun's tombHoward Carter in Tutankhamun's tomb

Tutankhamun's tomb

In 1922 a British archaeologist, Howard Carter (1874–1939), made a stunning discovery. He had set out to search for the tomb of the Egyptian boy king, Tutankhamun, who ruled in the 14th century BC. One morning in November, he and Lord Caernarfon, who had financed the search, found it. Unlike the tombs of other pharaohs, robbers had not discovered it and all the burial treasures were still there. The king was wearing a fabulous gold mask and his mummy lay in three gold coffins, one inside the other. In a separate chamber were all the possessions he might need in the Afterlife.

Venus of BrassempouyVenus of Brassempouy

Venus of Brassempouy

This tiny ivory head of a girl, which was found at Brassempouy in France in 1894, may be the earliest known portrait in the world. Just under 4 centimetres (1.5 inches) high, it was carved from mammoth ivory over 24,000 years ago. The checked pattern on the girl's head may be a representation of a wig, a hood or just a hairstyle. Evidence like this can tell archaeologists a great deal about the past and how people lived and worked. 

Tree ringsTree rings


Every year, a tree grows a new layer of bark and sapwood. When the tree is cut down, the layers of sapwood can be seen as single rings. If you count the rings, you can tell the age of the tree. This technique, known as dendrochronology, is also used to date wooden objects.

The head of a man preserved in a peat bogThe head of a man preserved in a peat bog

Preserved remains

The remains of human bodies give information about diet and disease. The body of this man has been perfectly preserved by the acid in the peat bog where he was found. Sometimes archaeologists can pick through the rubbish pits of the cities they excavate: when they find animal bones and burnt seeds, it can give them vital facts about the food that people ate. 

Consultant: Philip Parker


See also in Prehistoric

See also in Science

In 1947 a young Bedouin shepherd made a major archaeological discovery in the West Bank. He came across a collection of earthenware jars containing ancient parchment scrolls known to us today as the Dead Sea Scrolls—Jewish texts that date mostly from the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD.

An adult skeleton half the size of a modern human was found in 2003 on the Indonesian island of Flores. Some scientists think that the human, who lived 12,000 years ago, was a separate species of human to us, and named the specimen Homo floresiensis (nicknamed the "hobbit").

Twenty-five human skulls, with particularly long heads that made them look like aliens, were found in a mass grave in Mexico. Archaeologists think that the skulls were those of children living 1000 years ago who had had their skulls forced into odd shapes from birth.

A perfectly preserved human brain from 2600 years ago was found intact inside its skull in northern England. The brain had been naturally preserved in a way that stopped bacteria from breaking down the soft tissue as normally occurs.

A small group of Neanderthal skeletons have been found at an excavation site in Spain. The bones, which are about 49,000 years old, all have human teeth marks on them. From the evidence, it seems that the family were set upon and eaten by another group of Neanderthals.

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