Archaeology in the 19th Century: The Third Phase of the History of Archaeology

The 19th century is the third phase of the history of archaeology. It is significant because it is the era when archaeology became a discipline. Additionally, knowing the history of archaeology helps with understanding archaeology.

What happened in archaeology in the 19th century?

In the 19th century, archaeology transformed into a discipline. Then, as a discipline, it evolved further. The main reason for such a transition was the Renaissance, as we discussed in the previous article. During the Renaissance Era, other fields of interest developed significantly. They were also getting closer to becoming disciplines. By the 19th century AD, those other fields of study had laid the foundations for archaeology to flourish as a discipline. So, the following trends and factors played major parts in turning the ‘field of interest in material remains from the past‘ into a discipline:

  1. the development of geology as a discipline
  2. the emergence of studies of human evolution
  3. the emergence of prehistoric archaeology
  4. the priority in studies for ancient civilizations
  5. the consequences of antiquarianism
  6. The development of systematic chronology in archaeology
  7. the contribution of Pitt Rivers, Flinders Petrie, and Mortimer Wheeler
19th Century Archaeology - Infographic - KamalsJournal
Figure 1: Archaeology in the 19th Century – Infographic 1

How Did Geology Impact Archaeology in the 19th Century?

Geology is the field of study in which we study the earth. There, we study three spheres. One of them is the lithosphere, which contains everything in the earth, starting from the surface (the crust) to deep below (the core). In a way, we study the history of the earth in geology. We study the rocks, minerals, decay of rocks and minerals, formation of soil, erosion of soil, sedimentation of eroded soil, stratification of soil, etc.

When it comes to archaeology, we see that most of the material remains covered with soil, hidden beneath the surface of the earth. Therefore, any knowledge and awareness about the earth and the soil may come in handy. Don’t you think? Well, that is exactly what happened with geology and archaeology. The knowledge received from geology had a huge impact on the development of archaeology starting in the 18th century AD.

How Did Evolution Theory Impact Archaeology in the 19th Century?

In 1844, Charles Darwin introduced his theory of evolution, which he later published in his book ‘Origin of Species’. Soon, the idea of evolution became popular, and researchers started to conduct studies to test the theory. For that, they use the material data that has already been discovered. And they needed new data for further studies.

Therefore, as the reputed field of interest that discovers and unearths material remains of the past, archaeology became more important. And the purpose of archaeology got upgraded. Before the theory came out, researchers were only concerned about the ownership, time, and utility of material remains from the past. But, after the evolution theory, new theories and perspectives on the history of mankind came into the area of study in archaeology. The origin of mankind became a major topic in studies. With those studies and theories, prehistoric archaeology, which is one of the main divisions in archaeology, was developed.

How did prehistoric archaeology emerge in the 19th century?

With the popularisation of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, several trends rose. Those who studied the theory needed material data from the past to test it. And also, according to what they had already discovered, it was clear that the history of mankind goes far beyond the ancient civilizations. So, they did their studies based on both old and new data they collected and introduced new theories. You can see how interesting those discoveries and theories were by reading the few of them I mentioned below.

  • According to the Scandinavian archaeologist Vedel Simonsen, wood was the first material humans used as tools. Sequentially, they have utilised stone, copper, and iron.
  • The Danish archaeologist C. J. Thomsen introduced the three-age system. According to him, the prehistoric age of the human past certainly consisted of three ages: stone, bronze, and iron. As the head of the antiquarian collection in Denmark, he analysed the antiquities in the collection and classified them according to their varieties.
  • Then, another archaeologist, John Lubbock, developed these 3 ages into 4 ages in his book ‘Prehistoric Times’. Meanwhile, C. J. Thomsen conducted an excavation at Warsaw and established his theory of the three-age system.
  • Edouard Lartet was a French geologist and one of the pioneers of Palaeolithic archaeology. He indicated that the tools created by humans were concurrent with their evolution. In other words, for the first time, he said that with the evolution of humans, the tools they made got upgraded. According to him, the Palaeolithic age, the first period of prehistory, consisted of a few phases. He indicated that in order to survive environmental challenges during the Palaeolithic age, a few phases emerged. Accordingly, the oldest phase of the palaeolithic age, referred to as the lower palaeolithic, was the age when humans used crude stone tools; the middle palaeolithic age was when humans used relatively developed stone tools; and the upper palaeolithic age was when humans used sophisticated stone tools.

Accordingly, with the rise of these new evidences and theories, archaeology evolved in this era. It evolved into a subject in which we study the time before ancient civilizations.

How Did the Priority for Ancient Civilizations Impact Archaeology in the 19th Century?

During the 19th century, a passion for studying ancient civilizations spread globally. As you are well aware, colonisation was at its peak in this era. In colonialism, there was this argument that Europeans carried with them to justify what they did and what they were doing. They implied that Europeans were more civilised than any other people in the world and that the Europeans themselves brought civilization to the rest of the world. Though it was just a statement to justify colonialism, people around the world who were living in and under colonial shoes stood to defeat that statement.

Particularly in India, researchers found evidence that indicated India is a country with a history of civilizations. Since collecting and recording antiquities was already happening, a new trend emerged: discovering ancient civilizations outside of Europe through monumental remains. Accordingly, researchers began to study the monumental remains of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and India.

So, there were attempts to read the scripts inherent in those civilizations. The famous discovery of the Rosetta Stone took place in 1799. Thomas Young and Jean-Francois Champollion cracked hieroglyphs, as did James Prinsep in the 1830s. So, the scripts found among the ruins became readable. As a result, scholars revealed ancient civilizations and cultures to the world like never before. That way, the method of reading the scripts of the past to understand the past became part of archaeology. That was indeed a turning point in the history of the development of archaeology. Today, epigraphy is the area of study in archaeology where we deal with scripts. And it is one of the unique study areas in archaeology.

How did antiquarianism impact archaeology in the 19th century?

Antiquarianism and dilettantism continued until the 19th century. As mentioned in the previous article, these practices were extremely destructive. One of the most famous lootings of antiquities in the history of mankind was the looting of ‘bulls with wings’ by Austen Henry Layard from Misr (Egypt). Other famous antiquarians were Claudius Rich, who looted from Mesopotamia (Iraq and Iran), and Paul Émile Botta, who looted from Babylonia (Iraq and Iran). These antiquarians looted the valuable antiquities and took them to their motherlands. Then they kept those in museums to showcase them.

Under this situation, French archaeologist Auguste Mariette, who conducted studies in Egypt, introduced a revolutionary concept. He stated that the antiquities must be displayed for the public within the original lands on which they were discovered. Accordingly, he showcased the antiquities that he found in Egypt, in Egypt. That was the turning point that triggered concern and respect for the origin of antiquities. And that affected the disciplinary development of archaeology.

And also, the antiquarian Flinders Petrie conducted systematic excavations to loot antiquities. Although his motif was to loot as many antiquities as possible without damaging them, it is clear that his methods of excavation affected the development of archaeological excavation.

So, it is clear that antiquarianism indirectly emphasised the need for proper disciplinary action when dealing with antiquities. And it also pointed out the need for proper disciplinary methods for unearthing antiquities. Together, both of them had a positive impact on the development of archaeology.

How did the introduction of chronology impact archaeology in the 19th century?

Chronological dating is one of the main steps in any archaeological study. Every antiquity found has to have a point in time where it belonged. That date is essential for understanding the material data found and for revealing the past through the material remains.

Oscar Montelius, a Swedish archaeologist, introduced a relative chronological dating method referred to as the ‘concept of seriation’ to archaeology. By this method, he compared the styles of tools in antiquities owned by him and in antiquities found in tombs. In this method, each antiquity is analysed, and its characteristics, such as raw material, shape, scale, and level of sophistication, are recognised first. Then, according to those recognised data, the antiquities are categorised by style. Finally, each of those styles is compared, and chronological dates are given relative to each other. In other words, each of those styles is compared and recognised in terms of “which style is older” and “which follows which in what order”. Although it did not provide an absolute chronological date, it provided a relative age among styles. And that was important in the process of the development of Archaeology as a discipline.

How Did the Contributions of Pitt Reverse, Flinders Petrie, and Mortimer Wheeler Impact Archaeology in the 19th Century?

The background for archaeology to emerge as a scientific discipline happened in the 19th century, as mentioned above. But, as with any field of interest, archaeology was not a scientific discipline until specific theories and methods were introduced. So, starting in the 19th century, pioneers introduced a set of theories and methods into archaeology, transforming it into a scientific discipline. In simple words, the steps of the process of an archaeological study were clarified and standardised in the 19th century and in the early 20th century. Even though some of those theories and methods were already there randomly, well-organised theories and methods were introduced from the 19th century onward.

However, in this case, we can mention three archaeologists, namely Pitt Rivers, Flinders Petrie, and Mortimer Wheeler, as pioneers. Their contribution to archaeology was very important, as they were the ones who made archaeology a scientific study. Therefore, understanding their contribution to archaeology would be helpful to understand the development of archaeology, the history of archaeology, and the development of archaeological recording.

Pitt Rivers

When it comes to Pitt Rivers’ contribution, he conducted excavations attentively at the stages of beginning, carrying, and ending, focusing on the process of excavation. He excavated according to the stratigraphy, systematically recorded the data obtained, added plan drawings, maps, and drawings to the records, recorded unbiased data, came up with independent and evidence-based conclusions, personally attended the excavations throughout the process, and categorised past human tools by comparing contemporary tools.

Flinders Petrie

Flinders Petrie practiced the systematic recording of excavations, conducted excavations according to a plan, published the final results, published a book named “Methods and Aims in Archaeology”, paid attention to potteries, and practiced the sequence dating method.

Mortimer Wheeler

Wheeler introduced the grid method for excavation into archaeology for excavating large areas. Also, he introduced horizontal excavation for the first time with the grid method. Also, he introduced the xyz method for recording the excavation. With all of the new methods he introduced to archaeology, he made archaeological excavation a systematic process that is precise, if not the most accurate.

As seen here, these three pioneers formed archaeology into a scientific discipline by adding their gentle touch to archaeology.


As we discussed above, the 19th century was the era when archaeology became a scientific discipline. Archaeologists developed new theories, and the discoveries and theories developed in other disciplines also had an impact on archaeology. During this era, the purpose of archaeology was to study the past through material remains. Archaeologists conducted excavations to find new data. They used both new and old data to test and introduce new theories. Most importantly, archaeological studies became a combination of work on the field, in the laboratories, and in the libraries. With this foundation laid in the 19th century, archaeology in the 20th century evolved into something more advanced.

One more article, and you will probably have the same knowledge as I do about the history of archaeology. And when you know the history of archaeology, you will have a better understanding of what archaeology is.

Read Article>> Archaeology in the 20th Century: The Fourth Phase of the History of Archaeology