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Why study the material record of historic periods? What can archaeology tell us that written sources cannot?

Why study the material record of historic periods? What can archaeology tell us that written sources cannot?
Alice Hazell - Newnham Essay Prize 2021 commended entry

Undoubtedly archaeology plays a huge role in our understanding of historic periods. In fact, when we imagine a historic period, archaeology is normally one of the first things we can think of: whether that be the pyramids in Egypt, the Colosseum in Rome, or even Machu Picchu in Peru. Without material records, whether large or small, our understanding of historical periods would be quashed.

Writing itself is a relatively new concept in terms of human history, with the development of writing placed around 3400BC in ancient Mesopotamia. Even after its development literacy was not a common skill, for emphasis, just 12% of the world’s population was literate in 1820. Not all civilisations adopted written language, and for millennia literacy has been reserved for just a small section of society.[1] For this reason, what written sources often lack is diverse perspectives, such as those of women, slaves, children, elderly, and the poor. Archaeology is therefore vital in giving us information about the lives of ordinary people. For example, we have a bountiful supply of both written and archaeological sources about the lives of the ruling classes during the Mayan civilisation in Mesoamerica. However, the role that the lower echelons of society played is relatively undocumented. Using archaeological evidence, such as the Calakmul Murals, we can begin to understand more about the lower classes. The Calakmul Murals portray ancient social mechanisms, such as the circulation of foodstuffs and goods, that although attested by ethnohistorical sources we have very little hard information about.[2] Furthermore, they give us valuable information about how ancient Mayans dressed, such as that women often wore face paint and that both men and women wore ‘ear ornaments, necklaces, and pendants.’ Material records, such as these, can give us a greater understanding of the lives of ordinary people in historical periods, when written sources often lack such documentation.

Additionally, in societies where literacy is not widespread, literary sources are limited in their purpose simply because they would not have been available to the masses. Archaeology can uncover the non-literary forms of communication to the masses, such as public monuments, art, buildings, and statues. Although they share some of the same subjective qualities of literary sources, these sources provide vital information about the political or religious messages that the ordinary people in a society would receive. Take, for example, the Ara Pacis built for the Roman Emperor Augustus 13-8BC. Despite an abundance of written sources about Ancient Rome as well as the fact that Ancient Rome seems to have had higher literacy rates than other ancient civilisations, we can assume that many people were illiterate since it was mostly the wealthy that had school-educations and Roman soldiers would boast about being literate[3]. The Ara Pacis, therefore, tells us a significant amount about the messages Augustus was trying to send to the people of Rome, including that his rule was the teleological result, since his mythological ancestors were Romulus and Remus as well as Aeneas (all depicted on the Ara Pacis). The Ara Pacis also spreads the message of the peace and prosperity that having Augustus as ruler would bring; by reflecting the architecture of the ‘golden age’ (5th century Greece) and depicting a mother Goddess[4] (representing fertility). The Ara Pacis, therefore, gives us some very useful information about how the masses could be expected to view Augustus; or at least tells us the message they were fed. And since so many of our written sources from Ancient Rome come from the upper classes, this archaeological information is extremely valuable.

Archaeology also has the benefit that you can see the artefact. No matter how descriptive a written source is, without a visual reference, what an object looks like is subjective. This is exacerbated by how many written sources assume their reader already knows what they are talking about. One of the benefits of archaeology is that although there can be interpretations of what an artefact may be or represent, for the most part archaeological sources are objective. An example of this would be the chryselephantine statues of Zeus and Athena, at Olympia and in the Parthenon, respectively. We have many sources describing these statues. Travel writer and geographer Pausanias, for example, goes into detail about the statue of Zeus at Olympia. Yet if you look at modern artists' recreations of this statue - they all look different.  Undoubtedly then, a fault of written sources could be that they are up for interpretation, especially when regarding descriptions of physical things, such as statues, buildings, or even people. Archaeology can remove some of this room for interpretation, simply because it provides us with tangible evidence. This is not to say that archaeology is not up for interpretation, but when trying to gain an understanding of a historical period, tangible objects can give us a much deeper understanding of how the world functioned than solely relying on written descriptions.

Archaeology is also enriched by modern science, allowing us to draw much more information from physical objects. Human osteoarchaeology can tell us about the ‘health, lifestyle, diet, mortality and physique of people in the past.’[5] Using modern scientific knowledge, we gain insights about the lifestyles and health of people in the past, which might have been unknown to them at the time, such as cancers, genetic disorders, and disease. For example, some of the earliest evidence we have for malaria in humans comes from Egyptian mummies. When studying a historical period, knowing the diseases that existed, what age people died and the physical trauma people suffered, can tell us a lot about people’s lives during the period. For example, excavations from medieval burial grounds in Cambridge found that 44% of working people had bone fractures, compared to 32% of people buried in the wealthier cemetery[6], clearly highlighting how much more physically demanding and dangerous the lives of the working people were. Medieval written sources cannot provide these statistics due to a lack of written records. Archaeology, therefore, tells us a wealth of information that the written sources at the time might not have known; and can give historians an idea of the health and physical dangers that people faced during a historical period.

We must also acknowledge that written records are highly likely to be biased and subjective. Especially before modern science. So, when trying to gain an understanding of any historic period, we must remain critical of any written source. However, to make an informed criticism of a written source, we must have other sources of information to compare it to. When studying well-documented parts of history, this is more easily done. However, when studying historical periods with limited written sources, it is difficult to verify and critique the information provided without the use of archaeology. Material sources can support or contradict claims made in written sources. Take, for example, the nomadic Scythian civilisation 900-200BC. We have written sources about them from Greeks, such as Herodotus, and some late-Assyrian and Achaemenid sources, but the Scythians themselves had no written language. Since all our written sources are from outsiders looking in, there is good reason to doubt their reliability. However, using archaeology, we can verify some of the claims of these accounts using archaeological evidence from the Scythians themselves. In Book 4 of Histories, Herodotus writes,

‘The Scythians then take the seed of this hemp… they throw it on the red-hot stones; and, being so thrown, it smoulders and sends forth so much steam…’[7]

On its own, we cannot verify Herodotus’ claim that the Scythians used hemp for its narcotic effects. However, the body of a young woman with injuries associated with horse-falls was found in the Altai region buried with a brazier containing charred hemp. This gives us evidence that Herodotus’ claim is accurate, giving his account more legitimacy. This is just one of many examples of archaeology compensating for a lack of other written accounts. Studying material records is therefore incredibly worthwhile, as it can act in conjunction with written sources to check a sources reliability and to verify claims about a historical period, that stem from written evidence.

However, even without any written sources to support it, archaeological evidence is crucial for providing information about everyday life in historical periods. With literacy being a scarce skill for much of history, much of literature tends to document religion, large historical events, and art (such as plays, poetry and myth), rather than the mundane parts of life. For this reason, material records can provide vital clues about everyday occurrences that go undocumented. Examples of these everyday occurrences could be cooking, cleaning, hobbies (such as board games), decorations, and furniture. For example, we know from written sources that the Vikings took great pride in personal hygiene, especially the upkeep of their hair, but none go into much detail over what this personal hygiene involved. Archaeology has been able to tell us that the Vikings used tools such as razors, combs, and tweezers, giving us a clear idea of what kind of methods they would use for upkeeping their hair. Although this knowledge is mundane, it gives us a greater picture of Viking life that written sources miss out on. Perhaps a greater example of the power of archaeology to present everyday life to us would be Pompeii and Herculaneum. Not only are they archaeological treasure troves but tell us much about life in Ancient Italy that we would not know otherwise. From the shape of their bread and where pots and pans were kept inside the home, to public graffiti and takeaway restaurants (thermopolia). These small details tell us much about the everyday functions of life in Pompeii at the time. The storage of cooking equipment in the Atrium, for example, could tell us that slaves were often seen around the house – not hidden away as one might expect[8]. In this case, not only can archaeology prove written text, but tells us information about life during a historical period that simply does not exist in writing.

In conclusion, archaeology helps to build up a complex and nuanced view of individual civilisations that written sources alone simply cannot provide. It shares with us the objects that people interacted with, the places they built and the effect that the trials and tribulations of life had on their bodies. Archaeology builds up a picture of human history by providing us with a vast range of details about civilisations, from the magnificent, such as the Ara Pacis, to the mundane, like a loaf of bread. Using this we can look at history as a whole, rather than from an individual’s point of view. For this reason, studying the material records of historic periods is an incredibly valuable thing to do, because when we add up the small details, we find much larger histories – not just of individual civilisations – but of the development of humanity as a whole.



Andrews, E. (2018, August 22). What is the oldest known piece of literature? Retrieved from

Ara Pacis. (2020, April 18). Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica:

Carrasco, R. V. (2009). “Daily Life of the Ancient Maya Recorded on Murals at Calakmul, Mexico.”.

Eckardt, H. (2018, January 20). Retrieved from

Garland, R. (2020, June 9). Reconstructing the Ancient Daily Life. Retrieved from

Honeychurch, W. (2014). “Alternative Complexities: The Archaeology of Pastoral Nomadic States.”. Journal of Archaeological Research.

Human osteoarchaeology. (n.d.). Retrieved from Historic England:

Introducing the Scythians. (2017, May 30). Retrieved from The British Museum:

Jashemski, W. (2021, March 2). "Pompeii". Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica:

Leicester, U. o. (2007, April 27). Everyday Life In Pompeii Revealed. Science Daily.

Medievel Cambridge skeletons reveal injuries to manual labourers. (2021, January 26). BBC News.

Ortiz-Ospina, M. R. (2016). Literacy. Retrieved from '

Pausanias. (n.d.). Pausanias Book 5.1 - 15, translated by W. H. S. Jones. Retrieved from

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Simpson, J. (2017). The Scythians: discovering the nomad-warriors of Siberia. World Archaeology.




[1] Ortiz-Ospina, M. R. (2016). Literacy.

[2] Carrasco, R. V. (2009). “Daily Life of the Ancient Maya Recorded on Murals at Calakmul, Mexico.”

[3] Eckardt, H. (2018, January 20) The Archaeology of Roman Literature

[4] The identity of this Goddess is disputed but it most certainly a mother goddess. See Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Ara Pacis"

[5] From Human osteoarchaeology. (n.d.). Retrieved from Historic England

[6] See: Medieval Cambridge skeletons reveal injuries to manual labourers. (2021, January 26). BBC News.


[7] From: (Introducing the Scythians, 2017)

[8] From: University of Leceister. (2007, April 27). Everyday Life In Pompeii Revealed. Science Daily

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