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Compared with the civilizations of Egypt and the Near East, Chinese civilization as we know it is not of great age. Authentic history does not begin until about the ninth century B.C. (a commonly accepted date is 841 B.C.), nor have we archaeological finds that we can reasonably date prior to the thirteenth or fourteenth century B.c., though the beauty and mature style of the earliest known bronzes indicates a history of at least hundreds of years before this.
In a stimulating essay published a few years ago, Mr O. G. S. Crawford indicated how the archaeology of the nineteenth century was a natural outcome of the social and industrial background of the period, and resulted from a combination of circumstances which gave opportunities for the investigation of Man's remote past. If we examine the study of British prehistory during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in its relation to contemporary fashions in literature and the visual arts, we shall I think, see that the accurate and precise science which some of us would consider modern archaeology to be began merely as an episode in the history of taste less than two hundred years ago.
Early in 1854, in the townland of Ballinrees, about three and a half miles west of Coleraine, county Londonderry, Ireland, a labouring man unearthed from a considerable depth in peaty soil one of the most remarkable hoards of Roman silver ever found in our isles. Though no trace remained of any urn or other container, it was apparent, both from the depth of the deposit and from the closeness with which the whole was packed together, that it was indeed a hoard, no mere chance series of deposits.
It appears to be necessary for the human mind to temper the rigours of the scientific method with certain irrationalities. In archaeology, terminology usually performs this function of safety-valve, as witness the treatment of Greek place-names or the use with ‘B.C.’ of the ill-matched ‘A.D.’, especially in the monstrosity ‘such and such a century A.D.’ When these aberrations cause no confusion of meaning, the logical mind can only hold its breath and swallow hard, knowing that reform is hopeless, but when they lead to equivocation and thereby violate the primary rule of scientific terminology, no protest can be too emphatic.
The discovery of the cave art of France and Spain did more than anything else to make the ordinary man aware of the immense significance of the discoveries made in the field of pleistocene man during the nineteenth century. In many ways the superior of the conventionally accepted ‘art’ of the day, the paintings and engravings captured the imagination of people to whom flints and bones meant little. They made real the existence of man in the ice age, and through them men could look into a primitive world, situated not in the distant places of the earth, but close to the centres of modern civilization.
It is forty years since Alfred Foucher carried out his archaeological mission in Gandhara and, while it cannot with justice be said that the area has been archaeologically neglected ever since, there are points connected with material culture, art and religion that cry out for attention. When Foucher conducted his investigations he based these on the itinerary of Hiuan-tsang and he was searching for Buddhist relics. Unfortunately he saw stupas and monasteries in every mound, and in fact stated that ‘chaitya’ (sanctuary) and ‘dheri’ (mound) were synonymous, this largely because Hiuan-tsang had said that there were about a thousand monasteries between Peshawar and the Indus.
Archaeology emphatically has its lighter side, though this is not always recognized by the lay public. The antiquary of the past was looked upon as a musty old bore—the reverse of entertaining company, while the modern archaeologist is apt to be depicted in the humorous press as an immature individual of either sex, dull, myopic and dowdy.
Long ago one of our oldest French prehistorians, Gustave Chauvet, called attention to the probable existence of a wooden framework over the structures beneath tumuli. At a Congress of the A.F.A.S. held at Nantes in 1875 he described the digging of seven tumuli at La Boixe (Charente) containing burials of the polished Stone Age. Two of them covered true dolmens; others simple rectangular or circular cellae enclosed within small dry-stone walls.