Archaeology in the Renaissance Era: The Second Phase of the History of Archaeology

The Renaissance era was the second phase of the history of archaeology that came after the background era of archaeology, when the first forms of interest in the past and material remains of the past occurred. Archaeologists generally discuss the second phase as ‘archaeology in the Renaissance era’ or ‘the development of archaeology in the Renaissance era’.

Therefore, knowing about this period is important to understand ‘what is archaeology, what archaeologists do, and what is studied in archaeology‘. And the most interesting thing is that the Renaissance Era is quite fascinating to learn about. So, here, we focus on the key events that happened in relation to archaeology during the Renaissance era. And also, we discuss the characteristics of the Renaissance era in relation to archaeology.

What is the Renaissance Era?

The Renaissance was an interesting time in European history. It lasted from the 14th to the 17th centuries. At the end of the previous era, some political changes took place. Because of that, people at the end of the previous era rediscovered mediaeval classical philosophy, literature, and art. And that resulted in a cultural, aesthetical, political, and economic “rebirth”. Hence, it is called the Renaissance.

What happened with archaeology in the Renaissance Era?

The Renaissance of Sciences in Europe inspired the growth of both the passion for studying the past and the methods followed to study the past. During this age, collecting antiquities as art (aesthetic value) and old crafts (historical value) increased. Also, this triggered the desire to study the past to increase and the methods applied for investigating the past to improve.

With colonisation, the same trend in Europe expanded to the African and eastern worlds. As a result of these trends, remarkable discoveries relating to mankind’s past were made. And also, the Renaissance Era was the first period of time when archaeology first emerged as an organised field of study under that particular term. So, there were several important characteristics as well as several major episodes in this age relevant to archaeology.

How did archaeology develop in the Renaissance Era? Why is the Renaissance Era important in the history of archaeology?

There were several significant characteristics in the Renaissance Era in relation to archaeology, such as antiquarianism, dilettantism, and the rise of the sciences.

Antiquarianism and Archaeology in the Renaissance Era

To understand what happened in the Renaissance era in relation to archaeology, we need to know about antiquarianism.

Before the Renaissance Era and since the Roman era, there was a practice among people to study old and rare objects. The Romans coined the word antiquity to refer to these objects. And the people who studied them were called antiquaries.

In the Roman Era, this gained a lot of attention and grew as a field of interest that discovered, preserved, admired, and recorded antiquities and monuments.

Then, in the middle ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, this was almost limited to finding, collecting, copying, and protecting ancient manuscripts. The history of elite families, lists of monuments, and ancient texts containing ancient knowledge were the main focus.

This field continued into the Renaissance, and in the 1600s, it gained the term antiquarianism. So, in the Renaissance era, the middle-age version of limiting to the manuscripts returned to its original Roman version once again. The antiquities, including the manuscripts and the rest, gained attention. In fact, the Renaissance began to look at antiquities as art.

So, there was a competition for antiquities during the Renaissance Era. So, it was a looting, ransacking, despoiling, and exploitative act. This trend of taking possession of antiquities spread. As enthusiasm increased for the antiquities, digging the earth (excavating) came into practice to uncover them. Those excavations were simply unorganised and impatient digging. However, excavations to recover antiquities expanded vastly. As mentioned earlier, excavating for physical remains inherited from the past is a primary data retrieval method in archaeology. So, this early start of excavations prepared the path for archaeological excavation.

Furthermore, because these excavations were damaging to antiquities, the need for an organised method of excavation came up. The monuments discovered within colonies, especially in the East, were damaged during those unorganised diggings. So they wanted to minimise the damage they caused to the antiquities during the process of looting. As a result, excavators began to develop methods for ensuring the safety of antiquities. Clearly, one of the important steps in the development of archaeology as a discipline was the systematisation of antiquity excavation. So, it is clear that messy and harmful antiquarianism was what highlighted the need for a systematic and methodological excavation. Thus, antiquarianism paved the way for systematic excavations and for archaeology.

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Dilettantism and Archaeology in the Renaissance Era

Antiquarianism became popular among Europe’s wealthy upper classes. They looted and took antiquities without sufficient knowledge of them, only seeing them as a form of art. This was known as dilettantism, and the people who engaged in it were known as dilettantes. They had no awareness of or knowledge of antiquities, excavation techniques, or any of the basic concepts that archaeology concerns today. They have only known to be competitive and fulfil their desire by taking possession of antiquities and keeping them in their private cabinets. And they believed owning antiquities was a sign of wealth.

Antiquarian Societies and Archaeology in the Renaissance Era

As antiquarianism became increasingly popular in the 15th–17th centuries AD, they established antiquarian societies. They did not just stop at taking possession of antiquities and considering them art. Instead, they revived the passion for studying the past through antiquities. They also began to display these antiques in personal and state-owned cabinets. That appears to be how we got the concept of museums. What do you think?

As it turns out, antiquarianism was not bad, but dilettantism corrupted it. As a result, co-existing antiquarianism and dilettantism had a bad impact on antiquities and studying the past. Then, antiquarianism societies came and resurrected the study of the past again. And the dilettantes began to exhibit their collections in cabinets, and antiquarian societies also followed them. As you already know, if you have read earlier articles, studying the past through physical remains is what we do in archaeology. And what we do with those physical remains after the studies is exhibit them in museums. So it’s easy to see how dilettantism has paved the way for archaeology.

Anti-Dilettantism and Archaeology in the Renaissance Era

However, antiquarianism and dilettantism took antiquities away from their original lands. As a result, antiquities that Europeans did not own were in their cabinets as display pieces. Therefore, later on, new ideas and methods appeared against dilettantism, demanding antiquities be displayed in their native places. And this resistance rose from within and outside of the European community. In archaeology, when we conserve something or exhibit something in a museum, we consider the authenticity of the piece. That is why we make every effort to display physical findings on-site. You may have seen or heard that there are site museums in historical places all around the world to practice this. Then, when preserving an antiquity, we aim to keep it as close to its original shape as possible in every element. It’s now obvious where we got that from. As I said before, how fascinating!

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What are the important events that took place in the history of archaeology during the Renaissance Era?

There were several key events that took place during the Renaissance Era that significantly influenced the development of archaeology. Some of those historical events were accidental, which may surprise you. And some of these incidents appeared to be more like good research than we assumed.

The discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii

In 1738, Roque Joaquin de Alcubierre, a war engineer who served in the Spanish army, made a remarkable discovery. He excavated the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum’ and discovered a theatre and a variety of wall paintings. Then, in 1748, he excavated Pompeii, a nearby Roman city. And it was one of the turning points in the history of archaeology—the development or emergence of archaeology. Until then, people had limited engagement with antiquities, just collecting them and keeping them in cabinets for display. But that quickly changed with the most wonderful discovery at Pompeii.

The excavation revealed that Vesuvius had erupted suddenly and killed the entire city. So, it revealed something tragic but marvellous—something we humans have never seen before. The people and animals who lived in that city had died in their natural postures of daily life. So, the excavation of Pompeii revealed how people in a city lived and engaged in daily life tasks hundreds of years ago. It clearly showed the world that excavations can recover not only the antiquities but also the dead people who owned them. And it also showed us how we can uncover the connection between those antiquities and the people via excavation. It established the fact that we can bring the history of mankind before our eyes through excavation. Therefore, using antiquities to study the past instead of antiquarianism became strongly popular in the community after the amazing discovery at Pompeii.

Thomas Jefferson’s Mound Excavation in Virginia

In 1784, the future president of the USA, Thomas Jefferson, contributed as no one had before in the history of archaeology. He conducted an excavation in the Shenandoah Valley and in one of the 13 mounds in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the State of Virginia. During this excavation, he made several important findings. Jefferson and the team found human bones (skeletal remains) belonging to adult, child, and infant age groups. And they estimated the mound to be a burial mound for thousands of people. And also, they identified the deposits of the skeletons as secondary burials. So, this excavation was indeed a turning point in the history of archaeology. We consider this to be the first scientific archaeological excavation in the USA for many reasons. Those reasons are the nature of the elements of this excavation, such as the purpose, findings, and process of study.

The purpose of the excavation was not to find and collect antiquities but to study 13 assumedly manmade mounds. And also, the material remains discovered from the excavation were not the antiquities of popular tradition at the time. Instead, they discovered human skeletal remains. Those pieces of evidence were categorised and interpreted as human skeletons belonging to Red Indians. And they interpreted the mound as a burial mound and the skeletons being buried in the mound as secondary burials. Also, the complete report of the excavation was published in 1787.

So, there were some important characteristics in this whole excavation process that are elements of modern-day scientific research. There was a research purpose for this excavation. There was a data analysis part and an interpreting part. And a publishing part at the end. So, scientific archaeological research was first put into practice in Jefferson’s excavation, marking another important turning point in the emergence of archaeology.

The Rise of Research Work in the Late Renaissance Era in Relation to Archaeology

Meanwhile, it appears that by the 18th century AD, a wide range of ideas, hypotheses, and theories about the past had been proposed. The history of mankind, ancient civilizations, and the time before the ancient civilizations came into the discussion with ideas. There was an inclination to examine those new theories. And there was an inclination to study the history of mankind using antiquities rather than finding the history of antiquities.

In 1734, Nicholas Mahudel defined three uses of stone, bronze, and iron in a timeline. So, the new opinions that were introduced about the past were presented as interpretations of the antiquities that were already found. And also, taking those opinions as theories, discovering antiquities based on them, and testing those opinions based on those findings took place in the field of interest. Hence, it is clear that the 15th–18th century era was the founding age of refining practices (methods) and developing a theoretical basis that are essential for scientific research. The Renaissance Era laid the foundation for the next phase of the history of archaeology when archaeology first emerged as a discipline.


Accordingly, the Renaissance Era paved the path for archaeology to become a scientific study by the end of the 18th century AD. In the following phase of the history of archaeology, it really turned out to be a well-established scientific discipline. So, as you may see, it was indeed a Renaissance for archaeology too.

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

Read the article>> Antiquarianism