Although there has been a natural interest in the collection of antiquities for many hundreds of years, controlled scientific excavation and the systematic study of artifacts and the cultures who made them was not widely practiced until early in the twentieth century. Prior to that time, most archaeology consisted of randomly collecting artifacts that could be found lying on the surface of sites or in caves. In Europe and the Middle East, well-marked tombs and other ancient structures provided visual clues that valuable antiquities might be found hidden nearby.
Because most of these early expeditions were financed by private individuals and wealthy collectors, broken artifacts were often left behind, because only intact and highly-crafted items were thought to have any value. Consequently, early theories regarding the cultures from which artifacts originated were little more than speculation.
One of the first Americans to practice many of the techniques used in modern archaeology was Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Before serving his term as president of the United States, Jefferson directed systematic excavations in Virginia of prehistoric Indian "mounds" or earthworks that resemble low pyramids made from soil. His published report by the American Philosophical Society in 1799 marked the beginning of a new era in archaeological studies.
In addition to his thorough examination and recording of artifacts, Jefferson was perhaps the first researcher to observe and note a phenomenon known as stratigraphy, where soil and artifacts are deposited and layered one above the other like the skins of an onion. Jefferson's observation of site stratigraphy is still in use today as a basic field technique in determining the age and complexity of archaeological sites.
During the late nineteenth century, academic archaeology as a university subject sprang from a branch of anthropology, one of the social sciences that mainly concentrates on understanding the cultural traditions and activities of non-literate peoples.
American anthropologists of the time discovered that a better way to understand the social structure of living Native Americans was to try to reconstruct their prehistoric lifestyles. At the same time, archaeologists found that studies of contemporary Native Americans help in the interpretation of prehistoric Indian cultures, of which there are no written records. Thus, modern archaeology evolved as a result of the mutual effort between these two separate fields of academic discipline.
In addition to the many important discoveries made by researchers over the past century, perhaps the most sweeping event in the history of archaeology was the development of radiocarbon or C-14 dating in the late 1940s by Willard F. Libby.
Instead of relying solely on theories and hypotheses to date a site, scientists could derive, through laboratory analysis, highly accurate dates from small samples of organic material such as wood or bone. In many cases, radiocarbon dating proved or disproved theories regarding the postulated ages of important archaeological finds.
Today, archaeologists use a variety of techniques to unlock ancient mysteries. Some of these newly-developed techniques even include the use of space technology. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) ongoing project, Mission to Planet Earth, is one example. The primary objective of the project is to map global environmental changes by using specially designed SIR-C/X-SAR (Spaceborne Imaging Radar C/X-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar). However, a recent Middle East mission conducted by the space shuttle Endeavor resulted in several radar photographs of a series of ancient desert roadways leading to a central location. Field investigations, currently underway, have revealed that the roadways lead to the 5,000-year-old lost city of Ubar in southern Oman on the Arab Peninsula.
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