Modern Results of Archaeological Research.
When Queen Victoria came to the English throne, 4004 B.C. was still accepted, in all sobriety, as the date of the creation of the world. Perhaps no single statement could more vividly emphasize the change in the point of view from which scholars regard the chronology of ancient history than the citation of this indisputable fact. To-day, though Bibles are still printed with the year 4004 B.C. in the margin of the first chapter of Genesis, no scholar would pretend to regard this reference seriously. On the contrary, the scholarship of to-day regards the fifth millennium B.C. as well within the historical period for such nations as the Egyptians and the Babylonians. It has come to be fully accepted that when we use such a phrase as “the age of the world” we are dealing with a period that must be measured not in thousands but in millions of years; and that to the age of man must be allotted a period some hundreds of times as great as the five thousand and odd years allowed by the old chronologists. This changed point of view, needless to say, has not been reached without ardent and even bitter controversy. Yet the transformation is unequivocal; and the revised conception no longer seems to connote the theological implications that were at first ascribed to it. It has now become obvious that the data afforded by the Hebrew writings should never have been regarded as sufficiently accurate for the purpose of exact historical computations: that, in short, no historian working along modern scientific lines could well have made the mistake of supposing that the genealogical lists of the Pentateuch afforded an adequate chronology of world-history. But it should not be forgotten that to many generations of close scholarship these genealogical lists seemed to convey such knowledge in the most precise terms, and that at so recent a date as, for example, the year in which Queen Victoria came to the throne, it was nothing less than a rank heresy to question the historical accuracy and finality of chronologies which had no other source or foundation.
This changed point of view regarding the chronology of history may without hesitation be ascribed to the influence of evidence obtained in a single field of inquiry, the field, namely, of archaeology. No doubt the evidence as to the age of the earth and as to the antiquity of man was gathered by a class of workers not formally included in the ranks of the archaeologist: workers commonly spoken of as palaeontologists, anthropologists, ethnologists and the like. But the distinction scarcely covers a real difference. The scope of the archaeologist’s studies must include every department of the ancient history of man as preserved in antiquities of whatever character, be they tumuli along the Baltic, fossil skulls and graven bones from the caves of France, the flint implements, pottery, and mummies of Egypt, tablets and bas-reliefs from Mesopotamia, coins and sculptures of Greece and Rome, or inscriptions, waxen tablets, parchment rolls, and papyri of a relatively late period of classical antiquity. If at one time the monuments of Greece and Rome claimed the almost undisputed attention of the archaeologist, that time has long since passed. For the most important historical records that have come to us in recent decades we have to thank the Orientalist, though the classical explorer has been by no means idle. It will be sufficient here to point out in general terms the import of the message of archaeological discovery in the Victorian Era in its bearings upon the great problems of world-history.
A start was made through the efforts of the palaeontologists and geologists, with only indirect or incidental aid from the archaeologists. The new movement began actively with James Hutton in the later years of the 18th Chronology of ancient history.century, and was forwarded by the studies of William Smith in England and of Cuvier in France; but the really efficient champion of the conception that the earth is very old was Sir Charles Lyell, who published the first edition of his epoch-making Principles of Geology only a few years before Queen Victoria came to the throne. Lyell demonstrated to the satisfaction, or—perhaps it should rather be said—to the dissatisfaction, of his contemporaries that the story of the geological ages as recorded in the strata of the earth becomes intelligible only when vast stretches of time are presupposed. Of course the demonstration was not accepted at once. On the contrary, the champions of the tradition that the earth was less than six thousand years old held their ground most tenaciously, and the earlier years of the Victorian era were years of bitter controversy. The result of the contest was never in doubt, however, for the geological evidence, once it had been gathered, was unequivocal; and by about the middle of the century it was pretty generally admitted that the age of the earth must be measured by an utterly different standard from that hitherto in vogue. This concession, however, by no means implied a like change of view regarding the age of man. A fresh volume of evidence required to be gathered, and a new controversy to be waged, before the old data for the creation of man could be abandoned. Lyell again was in the forefront of the progressive movement, and his work on The Antiquity of Man, published in 1863, gave currency for the first time to the new opinions. The evidence upon which these opinions were based had been gathered by such anthropologists as Schmerling, Boucher de Perthes and others, and it had to do chiefly with the finding of implements of human construction associated with the remains of extinct animals in the beds of caves, and with the recovery of similar antiquities from alluvial deposits the great age of which was demonstrated by their depth. Every item of the evidence was naturally subjected to the closest scrutiny, but at last the conservatives were forced reluctantly to confess themselves beaten. Their traditional arguments were powerless before the array of data marshalled by the new science of prehistoric archaeology. Looking back even at the short remove of a single generation, it is difficult to appreciate how revolutionary was the conception of the antiquity of man thus inculcated. It rudely shocked the traditional attitude of scholarship towards the history of our race. It disturbed the most cherished traditions and the most sacred themes. It seemed to threaten the very foundations of religion itself. Yet the present generation accepts the antiquity of man as a mere matter of fact. Here, as so often elsewhere, the heresy of an elder day has come to seem almost an axiomatic truth.
If we go back in imagination to the beginning of the Victorian era and ask what was then known of the history of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, we find ourselves confronted with a startling paucity of knowledge. The key to the mysteries of Egyptian history had indeed been found, thanks to the recent efforts of Thomas Young and Champollion, but the deciphering of inscriptions had not yet progressed far enough to give more than a vague inkling of what was to follow. It remained, then, virtually true, as it had been for two thousand years, that for all that we could learn of the history of the Old Orient in pre-classical days, we must go solely to the pages of the Bible and to a few classical authors, notably Herodotus and Diodorus. A comparatively few pages summed up, in language often vague and mystical, all that the modern world had been permitted to remember of the history of the greatest nations of antiquity. To these nations the classical writers had ascribed a traditional importance, the glamour of which still lighted their names, albeit revealing them in the vague twilight of tradition rather than in the clear light of history. It would have been a bold, not to say a reckless, dreamer who dared predict that any future researches could restore to us the lost knowledge that had been forgotten for more than two millenniums. Yet the Victorian era was scarcely ushered in before the work of rehabilitation began, which was to lead to the most astounding discoveries and to an altogether unprecedented extension of historical knowledge. Early in the ’forties the Frenchman Botta, quickly followed by Sir Henry Layard, began making excavations on the site of ancient Nineveh, the name and fame of which were a tradition having scarcely more than mythical status. The spade of the discoverer soon showed that all the fabled glories of the ancient Assyrian capital were founded on realities, and evidence was afforded of a state of civilization and culture such as few men supposed to have existed on the earth before the Golden Age of Greece. Not merely were artistic sculptures and bas-reliefs