There is a fundamental flaw with archaeology—you can find all the pieces of junk you want, but without written records, there is no way to bury cognitive thought. Put more simply: Without writing, there is no way to tell what the people were thinking.
You can dig up all the shards (glass) and sherds (pottery) you want, but it won't tell you what the user was thinking, believing, or hoping while he accidentally broke the trash you painstakingly dig out of the ground.
So archaeologists guess based on careful analysis of the material they dig up. These are educated guesses, but they are still just guesses. And inevitably some of the guesses are wrong. What intrigues me are the many, many guesses that turn out to just be flat wrong.
The famous archaeologist and historian Eric Cline has written that if two thousand years from now, archaeologists were to try to understand daily life in the 21st century without the benefit of our written records, they would undoubtedly believe that Starbucks was a religious shrine. Look at the evidence: They are centrally located, sometimes duplicated on multiple adjacent street corners, and every one of them features prominent art work of a priestess with flowing hair and rainbows emanating from her head.
Personally, I think Cline is onto something. The people I know who frequent Starbucks do so religiously. Somebody ought to tell those people that Starbucks is experimenting with a new beverage that is fat free, low calorie, and non-gluten: It's called coffee.
Any mention of incorrect interpretation of archaeology sites has to include one of my favorite books, David Macaulay's "Motel of the Mysteries". A beautifully illustrated work of comic fiction, Macaulay chronicles a dig in the year 4450 trying to discover what life was like in North America two and half centuries earlier. Luckily, they have recently discovered the intact ruins of a religious shrine from the period. (This is roughly the chronological equivalent of our discovering ruins from the founding of Ancient Rome or from the Battle of Thermopylae.)
As they dig into the ruins, they discover the remains of a priest and priestess on a ceremonial platform, facing a religious shrine, with one of them still holding the holy communicator. Actually, of course, these future archaeologists have located a motel, with the remains of a couple lying on a bed, where they had been watching television, with the TV remote still in hand.
Note. Never call an archaeologist a “digger”. They prefer to be called “Archaeo-Americans.”
The book is a work of genius. Macaulay has carefully depicted scenes from the motel that intentionally mimic Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of King Tut. And who knows? Maybe Carter got it all wrong, too.
Certainly historians and archaeologists make mistakes. There are the Runamo rocks in Sweden. If you look carefully, there is a long line of runic figures in the rock, a form of writing on which scholars worked for hundreds of years to decipher the hidden message. Learned men from all over Europe offered long explanations that confirmed the runes described the life of this king or that saint, or possibly an epic poem about the Danish king, Harold Wartooth. For centuries, the debate raged over whether the runes should be read left to right or right to left…and I have no doubt that today there would be an army of would-be scholars writing their doctoral dissertations on the mystery had not some damn geologist proved that the "writings" were actually naturally formed cracks in the rocks.
There is also a wonderful story about the lost brass plate of Sir Francis Drake. When the explorer sailed along the coast of present day Northern California in 1579, he went ashore and left an inscribed brass tablet to commemorate the occasion, claiming the lands for his queen. Historians and archaeologists have spent considerable time looking for the brass plate ever since. One historian, Eugene Bolton of Berkeley, was obsessed with finding it, driving his university colleagues a little mad.
Bolton belonged to a history club with a drinking problem, the Ancient Order of E Clampus Vitus. Supposedly, they were self-professed experts on the qualities of various barroom floors. When someone discovered Drake’s long lost plate in 1936, Bolton’s friends tried in vain to prevent Bolton from spending his life’s savings—all $2,500—on the artifact.
Bolton felt vindicated when the plate was authenticated by the California Historical Society and the artifact was variously on display at both the Bancroft Library and the Smithsonian. Photographs of the plate appeared in textbooks and an exact copy of the plate was presented to Queen Elizabeth II. Bolton died happy, if somewhat poorer.
Forty years after the plate was purchased, it was scientifically reexamined. A subsequent investigation proved that the plate was a clever forgery done by Bolton’s colleagues, the Ancient Order of E Clampus Vitus. Presumably, the good professor’s "friends" had spent his thousands of dollars on alcohol. It still belongs to the Bancroft Library, but hasn’t been on display for over a decade.
Besides the occasional mistakes and a hoax or two, sometimes archaeology presents real mysteries. Such was the case when Leonard Wooley excavated the palace of Nabonidus, the last great king of the Babylonian Empire. The palace was 2500 years old, but luckily, there were a few mentions of the king in historical documents. There is a scrap of the Dead Sea Scrolls that mentions him, and the Book of Daniel probably mentions him:
"He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird" (Daniel 4:33).
Ignoring that this is a perfect description of the average academic, today we think that Nabonidus was probably more of an eccentric than the raving lunatic that the Bible describes. We know he paid scant attention to his official duties, neglected his religious roles, and ignored the needs of his people. Instead, he spent all his time traveling through the desert examining the ruins of even earlier civilizations. It is possible that Nabonidus was related to Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian King…but we don’t know for sure. Nor are we sure exactly how he became king—just that the previous king was Labashi-Marduk, a youth who seemed to die suddenly…. Probably just a coincidence.
We do know from other accounts that the kingdom of Nabonidus was conquered by King Cyrus the Great of Persia. Cyrus was crafty and ambitious, so he allowed Nabonidus to live in relative comfort in his former kingdom, as long as the newly acquired territory continued to pay taxes and join its army to that of Cyrus. It was, in fact, the conquering of Babylon that created the Persian Empire.
As Wooley excavated the palace, he almost immediately uncovered a problem. It is one of the cardinal laws of archaeology that stratigraphy indicates age. Older items are found deeper in a site than newer artifacts. But in the palace of Nabonidus, this simply wasn’t true. 4500 year-old artifacts from Ur were lying next to 3000 year-old artifacts from Egypt. And both pieces were inside the remains of a palace that was 2500 years old.
How could this be so? Imagine that it is 1925 and you are excavating with Leonard Wooley. What is your explanation?
It took a while, but Wooley finally figured it out. He was excavating what Nabonidus must have considered his own personal museum. Nabonidus was as mystified by the ancient ruins present in Babylonia as we are by his civilization. Those frequent trips he took were to gather artifacts for his collection. Eventually, Wooley discovered that each piece in the museum was labeled—small clay tablets identified the item in three languages.
Wooley had excavated the first museum. Today, many textbooks identify Nabonidus (who was evidently "crazy like a fox") as the “Father of Archaeology”.