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archaeology, classical

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The study of the material culture of ancient Greece and Rome. Epigraphy, the study of inscriptions on permanent materials, is today seen as a branch of historical rather than of archaeological enquiry; while numismatics, the study of coins, has become a largely independent discipline.

The collection of works of art, a prerogative of wealth rather than of learning, helped to confer on the subject in its early years a social prestige at least as prominent as its intellectual. Such excavation as took place before the mid‐19th cent. was usually explicitly directed towards the recovery of works of art, with the textual evidence serving as a guide or, where it was not directly applicable, as an arbiter. Once the volume of available finds reached a certain critical mass, a further motive came into play: that of providing models for the better training of artists and architects.

Textual evidence, collectors' preference, and the frequency of recovery combined to make sculpture pre‐eminent among the visual arts. Only in the opening years of the 19th cent., with the transport of the Parthenon, Bassae, and Aegina sculptures to London and to Munich, did even the learned world begin to glimpse the full scope of classical sculpture. From then on, leadership in this field passed to Germany.

With classical painting, the natural starting‐point was the rich series of murals excavated at Herculaneum, Pompeii, and other sites from the Vesuvian destruction of ad 79, in the years from 1739 on. Some reflection of lost Greek masterpieces was recognized in these, but in this case there was no salvation to come from the later recovery of the originals. Instead, attention was diverted to Greek painted vases which (though not yet recognized as Greek) had begun to appear in numbers in Italian graves in the 1720s (see pottery, greek). Then, later in the same century, the foundations were laid for a branch of classical archaeology which, for the first time, owed almost nothing to the surviving textual evidence. Interest was at first directed to the interpretation of the figured scenes on the vases. Late in the 19th cent., there was a shift to the increasingly detailed study of classification, chronology, and, above all, attribution of the works to individual artists. This phase, with which the name of Beazley (1885–1970) is inseparably associated, lasted for three generations and absorbed the energies of some of the most distinguished figures in the history of the discipline. With Beazley's death, the unique authority of his attributions was no longer available and there was a marked reversion to the study of the content of the scenes (see imagery). Meanwhile Roman wall‐painting and mosaic came to be increasingly treated as manifestations of Roman culture in its own right, rather than as reflections of lost Greek work. The interaction of such art with its architectural setting has become a particular object of research.

The modern history of fieldwork in the Greek world—that is, its redirection towards the goal of recovery of the entire range of the preserved material culture—began with the adoption of a more systematic strategy in the excavation of Pompeii from 1860 on, and received its greatest single stimulus from the discoveries of Schliemann at Troy, Mycenae, and Tiryns in the 1870s and 1880s. The revelation that the soil could still hold secrets on the scale of whole civilizations—those of the bronze age Aegean—whose existence had not previously been suspected, acted as a spur to many other large‐scale projects. In Greece, these have primarily been directed at the great sanctuaries, with the German expedition to Olympia (1875– ) giving a notable lead, followed by the Greek excavations on the Athenian Acropolis (1882– ; see athens, topography), and the French missions to Delphi (1892– ) and Delos (1904– ). Large areas of major settlement‐sites have also been excavated, notably by the Americans at Corinth (1896– ), Olynthus (1928–38), and the Agora of Athens (1931– ). In Italy the greatest single focus of interest has naturally been Rome itself, where the discoveries cover almost every aspect of ancient urban life and span many centuries. By far the most extensive field of activity, however, involving intensive work in at least 30 modern countries, has been the archaeology of the Roman empire.


Subjects: Classical studies

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