From the Renaissance forward, humans have stumbled upon, explored, puzzled over, and analyzed the physical remains of their distant ancestors. Despite great losses due to thievery, carelessness, ignorance, and warfare, we have learned much about the past. This book provides a nontechnical overview of what we have learned and how we have learned it.
Stiebing divides the history of archaeology into two eras: the “Heroic Age” and modern archaeology. He arranges the activities of the former era (circa 1450 to 1925) by either theme (prehistory) or geographic location (including a separate section on underwater archaeology). In contrast, he organizes his discussion of modern archaeological research by techniques or theories, rather than geography. Stiebing identifies the 1960’s as a major watershed in the history of archaeology, with the development of the “New Archaeology,” the effort to use the scientific method to discovery laws of cultural development and change. This represented a rejection of the historical orientation which had been the dominant approach of archaeology up to this time.
The author is at his best portraying the adventures of the explorer/archaeologists who made the discoveries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Occasionally trained scientists, more often curious government officials or gentlemen, these men risked their lives in hostile environments (threatened both by humans and by nature). Their discoveries were often invaluable, although, as Stiebing points out, their ignorance sometimes resulted in more destruction than results.
Stiebing concludes the book with a valuable bibliography, focusing on history, biographies of the archaeologists, and nontechnical discussions of archaeological knowledge.