On the threshold of (archaeological) history

First things first, this is not the 1938 detective story To Wake the Dead by John Dickson Carr but a book on renaissance merchant Cyriacus of Ancona (1391-1452) aka Cyriacus Pizzecolli who went and became the original Indian Jones by Marina Belozerskaya.

This book is a nice read; it has pleasant flow and good prose combined with an interesting story on an interesting man. It takes us to 15th century Italy, giving a frame of life and thoughts in the 15th century around the Mediterranean Sea. Especially interesting is the description on how man looked at historic/ancient monuments, the past and prehistory.

As the arch of Trajan in Ancona catches Cyriacus eyes and a question begins to dwell within his mind, archaeology as we know it takes its first staggering steps. If archaeologist were keen on pilgrimages this should be one of the stops as it was here it all started. Well I guess most of us are really; there are sites we are dying to see and we more or less pilgrimage, often enough in groups, to see them. Evan though they in many cases looks just like any swamp, forest or meadow we know through books and/or museums that once there were a palace, a castle or a settlement at just that spot and we are fascinated by just being there.

Belozerskaya gives Cyriacus of Ancona the epithet the father of archaeology. Is that title correct?  Well it is in the eye of the beholder but for me it opens up for questions on what is archaeology? Was Cyriacus of Ancona an archaeologist, or perhaps the first or one of the first in a line of “prearchaeologists” (others include for example historian Flavio Biondo (1392–1463)), or is he rather an art historian with an interest of ancient and historic monuments, art and scriptures. What constitutes an archaeologist? Do we need to excavate or do we need to work with certain questions or theories? Was Cyriacus of Ancona an arcaheologist? He most probably did not see himself as an archaeologist, but he asked questions about the past, how life was then, why they built the buildings they built? If it seems to be an archaeologist its most probably is an archaeologist!

Wheatear or not we see Cyriacus as an archaeologist or not his legacy is nether the less important regarding cultural history. The sketches and descriptions is, or should be, of great use for those studying the area as many of the sites he visited and described have been destroyed or changed long before we had a chase to see or study them. His sketches and descriptions are the records that describe what we see as ruins and can help to give life to long lost ancient remains. I believe that we, as archaeologist, sometimes tend to live a lot in the present using cleaver inventions such as 3D-programs, GIS applications, Total stations etc to record and describe the past. Though wonderful tools it is important that we don’t forget that there are many sources that can help us to verify or falsify what we see. Legacies such as that left by Cyriacus of Ancona is such a tool.

There are several books and articles written on what could be called archaeological history, describing the work and accomplishments of previous archaeologists, often with a critical view. The authors of these texts often stress the importance of knowing where archaeology comes from, who formed the basis of theories and based on what, what’s been excavated and why, how was it excavated and what questions was asked and perhaps more important which questions were at the time of no importance or was not asked. Well here is a recollection of, if not the first one of the first, steps of archaeology or perhaps better put comparative studies of the past.

As I read this book I find myself asking questions, which I feel is a good thing when reading a work of science.

A big thank you to W.W. Norton & Company for giving me the opportunity to read this book.

Magnus Reuterdahl

About Magnus Reuterdahl

I am an archaeologist/Osteologist from Sweden. My main intrest lays in north Euorpean archaeology in, preferbly the prehistory of the late iron age and the neolithic periods. I've also got a strong intrest for Chinese archaeology, especially the neolithc Yangshao culture. I also write about cultural heritage and cultural history. Mitt namn är Magnus Reuterdahl, jag är arkeolog och osteolog och arbetar företrädesvis i Sverige även om jag gjort ett par vändor till Kina. På den här bloggen skriver jag om mitt yrke, om fornlämningar, kulturarv och kulturhistoria m m. View all posts by Magnus Reuterdahl

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