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Archaeology involves exploration, discovery, collection, analysis, and interpretation. But often archaeologists must turn to other highly specialized areas of science for assistance.

It was a British geologist who in the early 1920s discovered that Stonehenge, the mysterious circle of rough-hewn monuments in southern England, was roughly 4,000 years old—far older than previously thought. He also showed that the stones themselves had been hauled from a great distance—200 miles (321.8 kilometers) from a quarry in western Wales.

Later in the 20th century revolutionary dating methods have revealed the ages of artifacts with increasing precision. Satellites and related technology, such as ground-penetrating radar, have helped locate likely sites of human habitation.

Technology has also opened up an entirely new realm: the sea. In the early 1940s Frenchmen Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Émile Gagnan co-invented the Aqua-Lung (known today as scuba—self-contained underwater breathing apparatus). Anthropologist George Bass and historian Peter Throckmorton in the early 1960s began using this gear to explore ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean.

The late 20th century saw the development of a new generation of undersea explorers: remotely controlled submersibles. They can dive far deeper and stay down far longer than humans. Explorer Robert Ballard has used these devices to solve mysteries surrounding famous shipwrecks, such as the R.M.S. Titanic, and to plumb the depths of the Black Sea for more or less intact remains of ancient wooden sailing vessels.

With the vastness of the ocean floor yet to be investigated for the remains of thousands of years of human seafaring, many predict that the most startling archaeological discoveries of the 21st century will be made underwater.

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image: Stonehenge

Robert Ballard tries to excavate a ship thousands of feet below the surface of the Mediterranean.

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Barry Clifford uses an underwater metal detector and side-scan sonar to select diving locations on his search for the pirate ship Whydah.

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Robert Ballard uses the Navy sub NR-1 to reach the bottom of the Mediterranean.

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Robert Ballard uses Jason to pick up ancient Roman glass from the seafloor.

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Carbon dating can establish the age of bones, wood, or ash to as far back as 40,000 years ago. Another technique, potassium-argon dating, is used to date the earliest evidence of humanity, which goes back at least two million years in East Africa.


One of the world’s most celebrated archaeologists, England’s Max Mallowan, was married to one of that country’s most popular novelists, Agatha Christie. They both loved mysteries—though hers were imagined, while his were real.

Knighted in 1968 for his scientific achievements, Mallowan investigated ancient Mesopotamian culture in what is now Iraq and Syria, carrying on the pioneering work of fellow countrymen Henry Layard and Leonard Woolley.

He met Agatha Christie in 1930, when the novelist paid a visit to one of Sir Max’s excavations. After their marriage they seemed inseparable, the archaeologist rarely undertaking a journey or expedition without the company of the novelist. Murder in Mesopotamia, one of Christie’s stories featuring her famous fictional detective, Hercule Poirot, was part mystery and part wicked satire of the archaeological profession.

Sir Max and Agatha—who became a Dame of the British Empire in 1971—remained married until her death at 85 in 1976. Sir Max, who was 14 years her junior, died 2 years later.

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