From Big Digs to Small Things Forgotten: the Past, Present, and Future of Classical Archaeology

Ulrike Krotscheck

What comes to mind when you think of the words “Classical archaeology?” The imposing ruins of Ancient Greece and Rome, such as the Parthenon and the Coliseum? Exquisite marble statues of the Greek and Roman gods, famous military leaders, or chiseled athletes? Elaborately painted pottery, adorned with scenes from mythology? The splendid mosaics and wall paintings of Pompeii and Herculaneum? If so, you would be correct – all these are the material remains of Classical Greece and Ancient Rome, studied by Classical archaeologists.

But that is not all, of course. Throughout its long history, the field has changed, and Classical archaeology today is so much more than the great monuments and artworks of the ancient world. What began as a search for the remains of the civilizations of Ancient Greece and Rome, evidenced by the surviving literature, art, and architecture, has evolved into something much more complicated, rich, and diverse. It is my goal here to outline in brief the trajectory of this evolution.

The excavations at Pompeii, Jacob Philipp Hackert, 1799 (Attingham Park, Shropshire, UK).

A bit of institutional history is important. Most sub-disciplines of archaeology (i.e., of the non-Classical variety) are classified as a branch of anthropology, and defined as the study of material remains of the human past, sometimes qualified with the adjective “systematic” or “scientific”. They tend to be closely allied with the social sciences and often housed in departments of anthropology. Classical archaeology has a slightly different institutional history: it is most often counted among the humanities and housed in departments of Classics, ancient history, or art history. This small detail is an important by-product of the history of the development of the field, and has important consequences.

Classical archaeology began to be conceived as a distinct area of study around the middle of the 18th century, spurred along by the popularity of the work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (Die Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, 1764) and James Stuart and Nicholas Revett (Antiquities of Athens, 1762–1816), who documented and published the art and architecture they found on their travels. The spectacular finds at Pompeii and Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples in Italy, where archaeological work began in 1748 and 1738 respectively, also contributed to the growing Northern European interest in Classical antiquity.

The Roman monument of Philopappus, erected c. 115 BC, in Athens, Greece, depicted in 1751 by Stuart and Revett for volume 3 of their Antiquities of Athens (1794). On the left stand Stuart, Revett, James Dawkins and Robert Wood.

Early Classical archaeology was the realm of what we call “big digs”: Northern European scholars traveled to the Mediterranean, hired local workmen by the dozen, and unearthed grand monuments of the past. Heinrich Schliemann’s famous excavations of Bronze Age Troy and Mycenae were a banner example of this approach. His work caused an increased international interest in excavations focused on Classical Greek sites. For example, the Germans broke ground at Olympia in 1875, followed by the French, who set up at Delphi in 1892.

Official foreign “schools” were established throughout the Mediterranean to facilitate the study of the ancient world, to house libraries, finds, and scholars, and to organize and execute large-scale archaeological excavations. One of these, the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, was founded in 1881, and since then has served as a training ground and networking hub for American archaeologists working in Greece. Their projects include some of the longest continuous archaeological excavations by a foreign school: the Athenian Agora and Ancient Corinth.

The German-led excavation of Olympia, Greece, 1875–81.

Some of the early excavations – especially those not associated with the official “schools” – are now viewed by some as problematic. Lord Elgin’s removal of the sculptures from the Athenian Acropolis (1801–12), which are now in the  British Museum, is still the subject of great controversy: Greece would very much like them returned, even building a new museum to house them. At the time, however, other collectors followed suit in collecting ancient artifacts. Bringing them back to their home nations, they eventually filled newly-built museums in Northern and Western Europe with these acquisitions.

These objects were the source of much admiration and scrutiny. Scholars were primarily concerned with identifying the artists who created these sculptures and vase paintings, thus making Classical archaeology a field where connoisseurship was king. The Oxford archaeology professor John Beazley (1885–1970), for example, exhaustively cataloged and classified thousands of Greek vases, attributing them to individual painters, or “schools” aligned with certain painters. His work embodies the idea of Classical archaeology as the study of specific classes of material. Since this early archaeology was also intimately tied to the ancient texts, in the service of “ground-proofing” them, an implicit, but solid, hierarchy of objects was established as the proper aim of inquiry: architecture, sculpture, mosaics, painted pottery, and precious metals, for example, were prioritized over less aesthetically pleasing objects.

Removal of marbles from the Parthenon in 1801, Edward Dodwell, c. 1803 (Packard Humanities Institute, Los Altos, CA, USA).

By the beginning of the 20th century, it seemed as though the discipline of Classical archaeology was settled in its content and approach: the discovery of important sites and artwork, the testing of the material evidence against the surviving written record, the identification of great artists, and the absorption of this legacy into the narrative of “Western Civilization”.

But archaeology beyond Classics began to change. In the mid-20th century, Carbon 14-dating revolutionized our ability to date organic remains accurately. Lewis Binford’s article “Archaeology as Anthropology” (1962) ushered in a new approach: to explain, not just to describe, the ancient past. James Deetz’s In Small Things Forgotten (1977) explicitly rejected a hierarchy of objects, as the title implies. In the 1980s, archaeologists increasingly recognized that archaeology could be both political (so Bruce Trigger) and biased (so Ian Hodder), and new approaches were developed to expand the investigative and explanatory power of the past. Recent work even emphasizes archaeology’s ability to be used for activist purposes, as a way to retrojectively practise social justice.

A 1st-century AD fresco from the Lupanar (brothel) of Pompeii (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

Classical archaeology was initially slow to latch on to developments in method and theory that diverged from the traditional cultural-historical approach – perhaps due to its institutional home among the humanities, separated from other archaeologies. But the gradual adoption of new methods increasingly began to create a shift in scholarly interest.

Some scholars recruited methods from the social sciences to help explain and interpret the archaeological record. New, less intrusive approaches to data collecting, such as surface survey, became more common. Edited volumes exploring how theory impacts Greek archaeology were published. In 2002, Anthony Snodgrass even wrote of a “Kuhnian paradigm shift” in Classical archaeology: this is the idea, based on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), that a field of study will be forced to change when the dominant paradigms under which it operates become incompatible with new data or discoveries. Snodgrass characterized this shift as an increasing trend away from the Beazleyan model of classification and connoisseurship, and a turn towards one which emphasized different content (such as the rural over the urban) and method (such as survey over excavation).

Almost twenty years on, the field has become even more expansive. The kaleidoscope of approaches to Classical archaeology today is much more colorful and vast than what Snodgrass predicted. Overarching common themes in this new work are that Classical archaeologists have increasingly used archaeological methods to investigate and create narratives about the lives of those individuals who were left out of the historical record, or artifacts that may have been misinterpreted in the past.

The “Unswept Floor” mosaic: a 2nd-century AD copy (by one Heraclitus) of the lost trompe l’œil mosaic by Sosus of Pergamum from the 2nd century BC (discovered in Rome at the Vigna Lupi on the Aventine Hill in 1833, and now in the Vatican Museums).

The examples are too many and too diverse to document sufficiently in this small space, so I will just list a few. Recent investigations have: put the paint back on the statues (which we once thought were pure, white marble), and shed light on enslaved people, on attitudes towards ethnicity, and on other folks who lived on the margins of society, such as sex workers. My own work shows that some written narratives of Greek colonial domination are widely exaggerated when compared with the archaeological record. Scholars increasingly utilize the interpretation of less “prestigious” artifacts to counter or expand the written record.

There is even an increasing interest in the archaeology of archaeology: decades of digging, with selective publication, has left many sites with a plethora of data that the original excavators lacked either the interest or the time to publish. Efforts to bring this so-called “legacy data” to the public, to unpack further the archaeology that has been forgotten, and in the process also to demonstrate that data acquisition through excavation should not be thought of as the only way to do archaeology, have entered the collective idea of what our field can be.

Two copies of the ‘Augustus of Prima Porta’ statue, one attempting to reconstruct its original painted appearance; the original statue, found in 1863 at the Villa of Livia (Augustus’ third wife) in Prima Porta, Rome, is now on display in the Vatican Museums.

This evolution of Classical archaeology is neither linear nor complete. It is just the beginning, one hopes, of a vast broadening of the field. This new work is as diverse in its dissemination as it is in its subjects. Some of it results in books or journal articles, but increasingly, scholars are also publishing in online, open-access journals (such as this one). Some of this work reaches readers and listeners through blogs or podcasts, such as Peopling the Past. More prominent voices, such as that of Mary Beard, have done great service to the diversification of knowledge about the ancient world through television specials.

This broad dispersal of archaeology throughout many types of media has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, one welcomes a democratization of information and the creation of academically reliable material that can be accessed by almost anyone, even without an institutional affiliation. On the other, it also means that some of this new work can be difficult to find, or difficult to judge in its academic integrity.

In the end, however, there is great reason for optimism. While the “big digs” and connoisseurship of early archaeologists were important because they showed us the grandeur of the ancient world, today’s work is important because it is filling in the gaps. The increased focus on “small things forgotten”, on different methods and theoretical approaches to the material record, and on diverse avenues of dissemination, means that we are slowly coming to a much more complicated, and, perhaps, much more complete, understanding of the past.

Ulrike Krotscheck is Associate Professor of Ancient Mediterranean Archaeology and Classical Studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, USA. Her research centers mostly on emigration and immigration during the Archaic period, and on the material manifestations of so-called “colonization”, particularly ceramics. 

Further Reading

The above article draws on a number of sources, which I describe briefly here. This list is limited in scope, and biased by my own interests and experience.

Comprehensive histories of the field have been published by Stephen L. Dyson (Ancient Marbles to American Shores: Classical Archaeology in the United States, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1998) and James Whitley (In Pursuit of Ancient Pasts: a History of Classical Archaeology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Yale UP, New Haven, CT, 2006; see also The Archaeology of Ancient Greece, Cambridge UP, 2001).

For German Classical archaeology, the work of Susan Marchand is instrumental: Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 17501970 (Princeton UP, 2003). Whitley is particularly comprehensive in the description of foreign activities in the Mediterranean world. Lisa Nevett’s edited volume Theoretical Approaches to the Archaeology of Ancient Greece: Manipulating Material Culture (Univ. of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 2017) describes the hierarchy of objects and the development of connoisseurship in early archaeology.

Competing definitions of Classical archaeology can be found in: Anthony Snodgrass’s chapter “What is Classical Archaeology? Greek Archaeology” in Susan E. Alcock and Robin Osborne (edd.), Classical Archaeology (2nd ed., Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester/Malden, MA, 2012) 13–29. His article “A Paradigm Shift in Classical Archaeology?” can be found in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal 12 (2002) 179–94: . Ian Hodder’s Reading the Past (3rd ed., Cambridge UP, 2003) and Ian Morris’ Death Ritual and Social Structure (Cambridge UP, 1992) call for the application of new theory and methods to archaeology respectively. These are just two of very many new theoretical and methodological approaches to antiquity that began in the late 1970s.

A foundational figure in the archaeology of regular people is James Deetz, the American historical archaeologist: see, for instance, the expanded edition of his In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life (Anchor Books, New York, 1996). Historical and indigenous activist archaeologies are many. A recent book sums up some of the work: Christopher P. Barton, Trowels in the Trenches: Archaeology as Social Activism (Univ. Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL, 2021), but examples from North America are too plentiful to do justice to here.

Publications that emphasize the multi-ethnic, complicated makeup of the ancient Mediterranean world are also many, but some of my favorites are Denise Demitriou’s Negotiating Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean: The Archaic and Classical Greek Multiethnic Emporia (Cambridge UP, 2012) and Michael Dietler’s Archaeologies of Colonialism: Consumption, Entanglement, and Violence in Ancient Mediterranean France (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2010). Sarah Levin-Richardson has shed important light on sex workers in The Brothel of Pompeii: Sex, Class, and Gender at the Margins of Roman Society (Cambridge UP, 2019). Other works are linked through in the text of the article, but again, this is by no means an exhaustive list, just a small representative sample. I encourage readers to share more examples.