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The Biologist, the Geologist, and the Museum Director

The History of Archaeology, Part 4


Charles Darwin ca. 1880

Charles Darwin ca. 1880

Claudio Toledo
The science of archaeology got a kickstart with the help of 19th century thinkers: museum curators Worsaae and Thomsen, biologist Charles Darwin and geologist Charles Lyell.

History of Archaeology

By the beginning of the 19th century, the museums of Europe were beginning to be inundated with relics from all over the world. For a century or more, the treasure hunters from the wealthiest families in Europe simply traveled to exotic places, dug enormous deep holes, and brought the best-looking artifacts home. There the relics ended up in museums, in unclassified piles. (I like to think of it as 'imperialism of the second son'). That irked Christian Jurgensen Thomsen, curator of the National Museum of Denmark. The fact of the matter was, his museum, and museums all over Europe, were simply becoming overrun with artifacts, from all over the world, completely lacking in order. Without archaeological method, without dating technology of any truly useful kind, there had to be some sort of classification method to display artifacts correctly. So, Thomsen built one, basing it on the ideas brought forth in 1813 by the historian Videl-Simonson.

Videl-Simonson argued that the earliest antiquities of Scandinavia were of wood and stone; that over time people learned how to use copper, and finally they had discovered iron. Thomsen took the idea and ran with it, in 1819 establishing the basis for all Old World archaeology, the Three Age System: Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. By the 1840s, Thomsen's successor to the directorship of the National Museum of Denmark, J. A. A. Worsaae, went out and excavated, finding support for Thomsen's theories.

It can be argued that two other great orderly gentlemen assisted in providing archaeology with the rudiments of structure: the geologist Charles Lyell, and the biologist Charles Darwin.

Contributions of Lyell and Darwin

During the 1830s, Charles Lyell published The Principles of Geology,in which he opined that the only way to understand the past was to assume that earth-modifiying processes which occur today--running water, volcanism, accumulation of sediment, earthquakes--also occurred in the past. The principle of uniformitarianism, as it came to be called, implies that cultural material buried under deep layers of earth must have been deposited there very long ago. Lyell built upon Steno's 17th century "Law of Superposition" which stated that in an undeformed sequence of sedimentary rocks, younger rock units were deposited on top of older rock units. Thus, older cultural occupations will be buried by younger ones.

Interestingly enough, in his Principles Lyell discusses the idea of transmutation, the concept that organic forms change and develop over time. The philosophic idea of evolution, that the present form of the earth and its inhabitants developed through the ages, not by a single act, was first propounded by Greek philosophers. Darwin read Lyell while formulating The Origin of Species and it was likely Lyell's discussion that suggested the theory of evolution to Darwin. And it was Darwin's explorations in the Beagle that allowed him to conclude that humans had evolved, specifically from the greater apes.

While it would be foolish to claim that each modern archaeologist uses Thomsen and Lyell and Darwin on a daily basis, it is absolutely certain that the influence of these men, their emphases on order, on uniformitarianism, on evolution, effected a revolution in scientific thinking. Where had once been the doctrines of the Judeo-Christian church, where man was created as he is today in one catastrophic moment, scientists were now free to understand the processes of time, the development of culture, and ultimately, the development of the human species.


A bibliography of the history of archaeology has been assembled for this project.

History of Archaeology

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