A satellite image of a swirling hurricane Men with gas masks and protective suits on The planetary rover Sojourner A large group of refugees huddled together




One of Howard Carter’s predecessor’s in Egypt was Napoleon Bonaparte, the 18th-century French empire builder who, while laying waste to his enemies, laid the foundation for modern Egyptology. During his invasion in 1798, the “Little Corporal” brought with him scholars who exhaustively surveyed the country’s ancient sites. HIs troops discovered the Rosetta stone—a black basalt slab with an inscription in hieroglyphics, demotic characters, and Greek. The translations on the stone provided the first clue to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

But before archaeologists there were art collectors. Some wealthy 16th-century Italians, including nobles, popes, and cardinals, took their interest in antiquities one step further by sponsoring excavations to find more. Across the Atlantic, Thomas Jefferson was carefully digging up American Indian mounds in Virginia as early as 1784.

What began more or less as a hobby evolved into a more serious pursuit in the 18th century with excavations of the volcano-ravaged Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Researchers began applying scientific methods and publishing their findings, and by the late 19th century archaeology had been born.

Nineteenth-century finds in what is now Iraq revealed secrets of ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. During the 1930s artifacts left by Central America’s earliest major culture—The Olmec of Mexico—revealed much about the Asiatic peoples who first inhabited the New World. And at the turn of the 21st century new technologies promise ever greater revelations about the human past.

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National Geographic photographer Gordon Wiltsie searches the Peruvian jungle for a pre-Inca civilization.

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Photographer Gordon Wiltsie and anthropologist Peter Lerche find an undiscovered Chachapoyan city.

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Photographer Gordon Wiltsie and anthropologist Peter Lerche use ropes and climbing gear to explore and unlooted Chachapoyan tomb.

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Archaeologists use principles of stratigraphy—the study of rock strata—to help determine the age of artifacts buried in soil sediments.

One of the more precise methods of dating artifacts is to analyze the fluorine content of any bones accompanying the objects.

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