Workmen building roads, in the district south of Vesuvius, often unearth ancient remains. Systematic digging begins in 1748. An amphitheatre is discovered, and some villas. In 1763 an inscription is unearthed which for the first time confirms that these buildings were in Pompeii.
The professional uncovering of this extraordinary place, preserved in volcanic ash like a fly in amber, begins in 1860. The archaeologists of that period devise a brilliant technique for giving form to objects, whether human bodies or wooden chairs, which have long since crumbled to dust. Plaster is injected into the hollow before the surrounding ash is chipped away. The result, as in any casting technique, is an exact replica.
This process has provided the most evocative of all images from Pompeii – the shapes of its inhabitants, exactly as they fell in their final attempt to escape from the hot suffocating dust. Archaeology has also revealed, more than in any other site, the surroundings which these people knew in their everyday lives, the objects they used, even the numerous graffiti which they scratched on the outer walls of their houses for the usual range of purposes from electioneering to obscenity.
Many disasters have destroyed more. But none has preserved so much as the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.
The Rosetta stone: AD 1799
In July 1799 French troops are demolishing an old wall at Rashid, a village near the mouth of the Nile known to Europeans as Rosetta, when they find built into it a slab of black basalt with an inscribed text in three scripts. One is Greek, the other two are Egyptian.
Pierre Bouchard, the officer in change of the party, recognizes the potential value of the Greek text in the task of deciphering the hieroglyphs. The stone is taken to Cairo and is placed in an institute founded by Napoleon. Copies of its inscriptions are made by two lithographers brought out to Egypt in Napoleon’s scientific section. These copies are distributed to leading scholars in European countries.
When Egypt falls into British hands in 1801, the stone is one of the treasures taken from the French. By the end of 1802 it is in the British Museum.
Nevertheless, if the French are physically deprived of their precious rarity, the honour of unravelling its secrets finally goes to a Frenchman. Many scholars do much of the preliminary work (in particular Thomas Young), but Jean François Champollion in 1822 is the first to decipher the hieroglyphs in a scientific manner which can be applied to other texts. The inscription, in Greek and two Egyptian scripts (hieroglyphic and demotic), dates from 196 BC. It describes the honours bestowed on the pharaoh, Ptolemy V, by the temples of Egypt in return for their listed privileges.
Stone, bronze and iron: AD 1816
In 1816 Christian Thomsen is appointed the first curator of the museum in Copenhagen which later becomes the National Museum of Denmark. In displaying his prehistoric objects, he adopts a novel system of classification – dividing them according to whether they are made of stone, bronze or iron. This sequence, he implies, represents three successive stages of human development on the road towards civilization.
Archaeologists, recording the strata in which objects are found, subsequently provide evidence to support this chronological sequence. The three broad divisions of Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age become part of conventional history.
Ajanta and the tiger hunt: AD 1817
A group of British officers, posted to India in the service of the East India Company, are in the hills to the northeast of Bombay. They are hoping to shoot a tiger. The hunt brings them into a steep ravine near the village of Ajanta, formed by the Wagura river after it has tumbled down a series of waterfalls. In this dramatic spot an Indian boy indicates that he has something to show them.
The soldiers follow him up the steep wooded cliff edge. Pulling aside some branches, they find themselves face to face with a stone Buddha. Beside him there is a doorway. Passing through it, they find themselves surrounded by murals more than 1000 years old in one of thirty abandoned Buddhist caves.
Ice Age: AD 1836
A Swiss scientist, Louis Agassiz, builds a hut in 1836 on the ice of the Aar glacier. With this as their base, he and various colleagues from the university of Neuchâtel take measurements over the following weeks and months to discover whether the glacier moves. It does.
Agassiz observes also that the glacier carries with it a particular form of loose gravel. In a book of 1840 he argues that gravel of this kind (called ‘boulder drift’) is evidence that a region was once covered in ice. It must follow from this that large sections of northern Europe and America were once under ice. The theory of a past ‘ice age’ is launched. By the time of Agassiz’s death, in 1873, it is widely accepted.
Nimrud and Nineveh: AD 1845-1853
In 1845 Henry Layard sets off down the Tigris from Mosul, on a raft, ostensibly on a boar-hunting expedition. In fact his intention is to investigate a mound, close to the river, where on a previous journey he has noticed fragments of stone with cuneiform inscriptions.
On the first day of digging at the site, his local labourers uncover walls which suggest a building of some importance. On November 28 they come across a vertical slab with sculpted reliefs, of two chariots drawn by galloping horses and the siege of a walled city. Within his first month as an archaeologist, Layard has discovered the palace at Nimrud of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (a local sheikh suspects that the large stone idols are being taken to Britain for Queen Victoria to worship).
In February a large bearded head is unearthed, apparently that of a colossal man. Layard brings his friend the sheikh, leader of the local tribe, to see the new discovery. The sheikh immediately identifies the figure as one created by an infidel giant, and goes on to wonder why the British are interested in such a monstrous object – as an idol, perhaps, for their queen to worship?
On further excavation, the bearded face turns out to be part of a gigantic human-headed winged lion. Imposing creatures of this kind stand in pairs to either side of important entrances in Assyrian palaces.
Layard continues to dig at Nimrud, finding many more reliefs (Assyrian kings decorate their palace rooms and even their corridors in this way, as freely as lesser mortals apply wallpaper). He also extends his searches to another site by the name of Kuyunjik. This turns out to be the last great Assyrian capital, Nineveh. Here he discovers the superb cuneiform library of Ashurbanipal.
Layard leaves Mesopotamia in 1851, but his assistant Hormuzd Rassam continues at Nineveh. In December 1853 he uncovers the palace built by Ashurbanipal in about 645 BC, with the series of lion-hunt reliefs which are the crowning glory of Assyrian sculpture.