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The history of archaeology: A research-led approach

Introduction

My name is Charlotte Coull, and I’m a third year PhD student at the University of Manchester in the History Department. I did both my undergraduate degree and my Master’s degree at Manchester before being lucky enough after applying to be offered funding by the History department to complete my PhD here.

I look comparatively at the history of archaeology in India and Egypt in the nineteenth century. Many people walk away with the idea that I am an archaeologist when I first explain my topic to them - however I am most definitely a historian and there is no digging involved in my work!

In depth

One of the most interesting things about research is that your topic and focus can change over time; as you read more, you become more aware of what has already been said about your subject, and most importantly you start to see different ways of looking at things and different ideas to pull out of your original material. This sounds intimidating, and you do need to be careful that you eventually find a path and stick with it (otherwise you will never get any work done!), but it can also be exciting. You have the opportunity to create something completely unique that will stand out from the crowd!

When I started my PhD, I knew I wanted to look at archaeology over a broad time and I knew I wanted my project to be comparative. My idea was to look for changes over time whilst looking at how and archaeologists reacted differently to what they found in India and Egypt - did they prefer Egyptian artefacts to Indian ones for example? All that hasn’t really changed. But what I have done is focused on stone.

Nineteenth century archaeologists in both countries discovered lots of things, including bones and pottery, but it was stone that really caught their attention in the form of temples, tombs, monuments and megaliths. Stone can be hundreds, maybe thousands, of years old; it can be in ruins or almost perfect; it can be huge, intimidating and strange because the people that used it, the people who built things from it in ancient times, are gone and cannot explain it. Take a look at the images here: this is the stone nineteenth century archaeologists would have found in India and Egypt, but unlike today they did not have technology like radiocarbon dating to tell them how old it was. They often did not know who built things or how.

Three years ago, I didn’t know this. I had not done the reading that told me that archaeologists in the 1800s were so perplexed by stone - it was only as my project progressed that I started to notice this and plan my work around it. Now my whole PhD thesis is looking at how archaeologists knew what they knew about Indian and Egyptian stone - or what they didn’t know.

To do this I work mainly with published material from the nineteenth century. I look at the language archaeologists used to talk about the sites they studied and the information they presented in these books and journal articles to their fellow archaeologists. If an archaeologist has written about how he found Indian temples confusing because they look so different to what he is used to in Britain, then it’s in my work; if an archaeologist has written about how amazingly old the Egyptian pyramids are and how spectacular it is to look at something so ancient, then it’s in my work.

History is a subject with so much potential to let you get creative and push the boundaries - your work can evolve with your thinking and reflect your changing interests!  

Going further

http://trowelblazers.com/ - a wonderful website with blog posts about female pioneers in archaeology and other science fields. Click on the articles tab and explore! I would particularly recommend Hilda Petrie and Adela Catherine Breton.

http://www.asi.nic.in/ - not many people know much about India's archaeological history. This is the website of the Archaeological Survey of India- take a look at the 'photo gallery' tab and check out the massive variety of Indian archaeological sites!


 

Ancient Egypt, Ancient India and the History of Archaeology

by YPU Admin on June 1, 2017, Comments. Tags: archaeology, Egypt, history, Humanities, India, PhD, and Research

Introduction

My name is Charlotte Coull, and I'm a second year PhD student at the University of Manchester, based in the History department. I did both my undergraduate and masters degrees at Manchester, both in History, and was extremely excited to be offered both a PhD place and funding (the History department's own Elsie Farrar award) to continue my studies here. As part of my PhD I also lead seminars with undergraduate students, and have chosen to work as a Widening Participation Fellow because I firmly believe everyone should feel able to go to university if they wish.

In the future I'm hoping to get into public History, and connect with people about my research and encourage them to explore history in general, as knowledge is for everyone! 


In Depth

Many people walk away with the idea that I am an archaeologist when I first explain my subject area to them- what I actually do is look at the history of archaeology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with no digging involved! I study the work of British archaeologists in India and Egypt during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; I want to know how they decided what to dig up and study, how they wrote about the artefacts they found, and what they did with those artefacts afterwards (are they in Britain, are they in a museum basement, or did they stay in countries they were discovered in?). I also want to know how discovering the history of Egypt and India changed the way Britain thought about her own history, and why Ancient Egypt is so present in our minds today (think Pyramids, mummies etc) whereas Ancient India is not so well known.

Studying two countries may seem intimidating at first, but I find you can use comparative history to fully open up an area to explore: for example, I want to know what is was about Egypt in the nineteenth century that influenced British archaeologists to behave so differently to archaeologists in India, and what this can tell us about how archaeology as a discipline evolved. My work is also very interdisciplinary- I use aspects of the history of science, intellectual history and museology alongside colonial history and other ideas. One of my supervisors is from the History department, the other is from the Centre for the History of Science Technology and Medicine. I find interdisciplinary history incredibly exciting- why stick with one way of doing things, when you can craft your own style using your favourite aspects from multiple areas! 

I work with a variety of historical sources- I have to be creative with finding the material I study! I can go from looking at the personal letters of a famous scholar from the nineteenth century in the British library, to looking at museum records of object acquisitions and displays, to spending time on the internet looking for nineteenth century academic books that have been digitised. I have also recently decided to look at images as part of my research- so last time I was at the British library I spent a morning marvelling at early twentieth century photographs of archaeological digs in India.

I find people often see history as a static and unmoving subject- you pick a topic and are trapped in the library with dusty books looking at that topic forever. Nothing could be further from the truth! History is such a varied and broad subject, with so many different ways of approaching it; you can really get creative with your thinking and push the boundaries. What you find will never cease to surprise, and in some cases amaze you!

Going Further

http://trowelblazers.com/ - a wonderful website with blog posts about female pioneers in archaeology and other science fields. Click on the articles tab and explore! I would particularly recommend Hilda Petrie, and Adela Catherine Breton.

http://www.asi.nic.in/ - not many people know much about India's archaeological history. This is the website of the Archaeological Survey of India- take a look at the 'photo gallery' tab and check out the massive variety of Indian archaeological sites!