A Definition Study

Updated: Jul 14


Last time we met for a lesson in Ancient Egypt, we looked at the overview of the Ancient Egyptian civilisation. We saw that the history of Ancient Egypt spans over a 5000-year period, and is potentially older than that, considering documentation and the idea of recording history wasn’t a major part of Pre-Dynastic Egyptian culture. We found a semblance of human evolution amongst these early periods, where families turned into tribes and tribes turned into major cities, from the Palaeolithic Era to the Neolithic Era and the Pre-Dynastic era, and where tools evolved from being made from wood and stone, to much stronger and durable materials, such as clay pottery and metal. In all, we briefly touched base with each Era, but before we get into detail about each of them, we need to look into the study of Ancient Egypt itself.

Why? Because it defines a whole area of study, and it is a big one too. It’s one of the most popular studies in archaeology and history, it has its own word. Egyptology. I mean, you don’t get that with other civilisations. You don’t have “Romanology”, or “Greekology” or even “Chinalogy”. While each of these civilisations have their own unique history, and are major subjects within the academic community themselves, nothing beats Egypt, for some reason, and that’s why we have Egyptology.

Before We Begin

Let’s look at Archaeology itself. What does the word actually mean, and why is it so different from studying History? Well, archaeology isn’t just about analysing historical records and coming to conclusions about what happened. In the words of Kathryn A. Bard (author of An Introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt):

“Archaeology is the study of the material remains of a past culture.”

So, it not only looks at the history of the culture, it takes a closer look at how the culture developed, what defined the culture and how it influenced the thinking of the society at the time.

That means, archaeology spans a much broader spectrum of studies, than history does. I mean, when you study history, you study the events of the past, and see what caused them, and how they ended, and if you’re applying the study to modern life, then you’ll be able to see the parallels between then and now, and help prevent or encourage similar, if not the same, events now.

Alright, let’s go back to defining archaeology. It’s a science, let’s not forget, but it’s not like its harder sister sciences, like physics, chemistry or biology. What I mean is. In these sciences, your research is based on patterns and the predictability of certain properties, whether it’s the formation of an atom, or the behaviour of a bacterium or virus, or the volatility of chemicals when combined together. Archaeology doesn’t have that. It does not have a set of rules, like these sciences have (I wonder why it’s a science at all).

In archaeology, you’re looking at a geographical space, and saying “I want to dig there, because it looks like it has something buried beneath the soil, and it’s interesting.” What happens here is you don’t get a second chance at digging up the space. Once you dig it up, it’s done, and if you lose some artefacts or evidence along the way, they are lost forever. You can’t get them back. That’s why it is vital, archaeologists choose their dig sites carefully and excavate them with the utmost care.

After that, it’s all guess work. There’s nothing set in stone about archaeology, because new finds can contradict what has already been said about a particular civilisation, or culture, and it’s anybody’s guess about what really happened during that time. While yes, an archaeologist has to record, analyse and publish their finds, they also need to give a reason about why the find is so important, and most of these explanations are assumptions, because it’s up to the interpretation of the archaeologists in charge. It is because of their interpretation that we can model or reconstruct the behaviours and forms of ancient cultures.

What Do Archaeologists Study?

As I said before, they study past cultures, particularly the ancient past, including the prehistory of those cultures. What I mean by prehistory is that they not only look at the major civilisations that dominated the ancient world, but they also look at their development. Take my last post on Ancient Egypt, Let’s Start At The Very Beginning, I mentioned the Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Predynastic eras of Ancient Egypt. These eras are part of the prehistory of the Ancient Egyptian civilisation, because the most common conception of Ancient Egypt is the Pharaonic or Dynastic period.

That’s why I said archaeology spans a much broader spectrum of studies, because it’s not only looking at the history of a culture, it’s also dipping into the study of human evolution. Now, speaking of human evolution, it’s a common assumption that the birth of humanity is in Africa, so it should be safe to say that Egypt has a much longer history than what we’ve said it is (3000-5000 years). In fact, it’s assumed, that the prehistory of Egypt spans over as much as one million years, so it’s one of the oldest histories we can study. It’s probably why it’s so fascinating to so many people.

How do we know Egypt is this old? Well, it’s all in the archaeological evidence. Most archaeologists, in this field of study, don’t dig up sites willy-nilly. They take a look at the geography of a place, find any historical evidence that the tools they’d expected to have been used in these eras, were found there, and use that as the foundation to excavate the site. When they do, they’re most interested in finding any fragments or remains of these same or similar tools, and the waste that comes from making them. So, broken arrow heads or spear heads, broken pieces of wood that look like they’d been used for shafts, and other similar pieces are basically like a drug to these archaeologists!

Look At The Evidence

Let’s look at the Neolithic Era as an example, when agriculture was introduced in Egypt, we know that people began to use clay in pottery. How do we know this? It's because archaeologists have found evidence of this through fragments of clay pots, called potsherds. Now, in archaeology, these potsherds are vital clues into the culture at the time, because the style of different pottery designs change both over time and in a geographic sense. That’s why whenever a pottery shard is discovered, most seasoned archaeologists can tell almost immediately where the piece came from, and from which civilisation it came. They’re not only period specific, they’re also culturally specific.

So, whenever an excavation site delivers potsherds, the archaeologists on the site will be able to tell whether it belongs to a late prehistoric Egypt, or a Dynastic Egypt. They can also tell whether or not the potsherds were imported from another country, because their design and style would be completely different to those that they’d expect to see. Now, while these potsherds can tell us who these people are, they don’t exactly tell us how they lived, unless they painted onto them, like the Ancient Greeks and Romans did, but most of the time, these jars, pots and clay pieces were bare, that is, until the Pharaonic period, when their hieroglyphic writings were introduced.

Wait What? What Happened To The Hieroglyphics?

Don’t worry, they haven’t gone anywhere. In fact, with modern preservation techniques, they’ve ensured that the ancient hieroglyphics of Egypt stick around for a very long time, but we’ll take a look at that next time. After all, this post is almost at its limit too. So, what I want you to do for me is to go to your local museum (when we’re all allowed to finally leave home again), and check out their ancient civilisations exhibits, particularly the ones for Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Take a look at the designs of the different potsherds they have on display and compare them.

Research the history of these potsherds. and see how and why they are part of the civilisation they come from. I guarantee there’ll be interesting stories there! Well, as always, that’s it from me today. I better see your homework, when we meet up next time! Until then, I’ll see you soon!

With love,

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