Archaeology: A Secret History (BBC) s01e01 Episode Script

In the Beginning

Priceless treasures .
ancient ruins .
and the fragile remains of long dead people.
For archaeologists like me, the truth, literally, lies underneath the ground.
Sometimes the stories that sleep underneath there are far more interesting than the ones that you find on the surface.
'Archaeology isn't like written history.
'It's the very stuff of the past.
' That is absolutely extraordinary.
'And that is its magic.
' For this quest, this desire to discover the ancient world and possess its treasures, is hardly a new one.
We've been at it for 2,000 years.
'One thing that fascinates me is that archaeology 'has its own history.
'Varied, controversial, 'and reaching to the very heart of our human beginnings.
' Oh, my word.
'Now I'm going to explore it .
from the very earliest archaeological expeditions This is meant to be one of the nails which Jesus Christ was crucified '.
to the exploits of the great 19th century treasure hunters.
' 'From the rise of scientific method and the quest for objective truth 'to the temptations of fakery and the race for fame and glory.
'Extraordinary stories of archaeological pioneers, 'and the breakthroughs that built our understanding 'of the ancient past.
' Archaeology first began with a quest to discover one truth above all others.
Direct evidence of Christ himself.
The weather's been absolutely disgusting today.
It's been raining, it's been freezing, but still there's been a steady stream of visitors to the cathedral.
Thousands of people have come here to commune with a simple piece of cloth.
The holy tunic of Christ.
Religious relics like this are some of the first archaeological discoveries ever made.
The tunic has been preserved here for over 1,500 years.
Today it is so delicate that the cathedral only puts it on display every few decades.
These pilgrims are drawn to its power as a very special ancient object.
One that proclaims a divine truth.
'But the tunic isn't the only relic that they have here.
' Now, that is absolutely extraordinary.
This is meant to be one of the nails for which Jesus Christ was crucified.
And I think you get a real sense of the power that these objects, these religious relics have.
I feel quite moved even just looking at them.
Just a simple nail.
Thank you.
There's no doubt for the people that flock here that these relics have a special religious or emotional power.
For me, as an archaeologist, they're also precious, but for a slightly different reason.
Because these objects, this nail, the tunic, are some of the first archaeological artefacts.
My calling, my profession if you like, sort of starts right here.
And that's not all, because in this cathedral is part of the very person who discovered them.
This is the skull of the Empress Helena.
Helena lived in the late third and early fourth centuries AD.
And it was her son, the Roman Emperor Constantine, who first legitimised Christianity.
Today, Helena is known as the patron saint of archaeologists.
So it's kind of ironic that she eventually ended up as a religious relic herself.
It's said that in 326 AD, Constantine sent Helena off to find evidence of Rome's new official religion.
Although she was by now a very old lady approaching 80 years of age, Helena dutifully set out for the holy land with an entourage of stonemasons and bishops.
So, you could say that this was the very first archaeological expedition.
Legend has it that, coming into Jerusalem, Helena was guided by supposedly divine forces to the very place of Christ's crucifixion.
And this is where it gets interesting because on the site was the Temple of Venus but not for much longer.
Helena had it torn down and then she ordered her workmen to start digging.
Eventually, they hit something.
Three large wooden crosses, and one of those crosses was supposedly the cross of Jesus Christ himself, the cross on which he'd been crucified.
Helena left some of the precious cross in Jerusalem and sent some to Rome.
Constantine himself received one of the sacred nails and is said to have used it in his horse's bridal as a kind of magical talisman.
The tunic and another nail came to Trier, the headquarters of Roman Gaul, where they've been ever since.
These were not only the first archaeological artefacts in history, but also, if you believe like the crowds that come here to Trier, then they were also the most important.
From the time of Helena, the world of material remains would never be the same again.
Truth could lie in the most humble of objects .
so long as we could find them .
and understand what they were telling us.
The artefacts that our forefathers and ancestors have left behind are like a trail of clues leading back in time.
That's essentially what archaeology is - remnants of a material culture that give us access to our history.
They become our primary sources, witnesses to our past, and what we believe about the stories that they tell us make them very powerful indeed.
What began with religion is a journey of discovery that is played out over centuries and continues today.
Successions of archaeological pioneers, geniuses and mavericks who have seen in simple objects the keys to unlocking some of mankind's deepest secrets, and evidence of the forces that have created and shaped us.
Constantine's endorsement of Christianity set the foundations for an undisputable religious dogma and the power of the mediaeval Church.
It's very difficult to argue with a religion that deals in proof.
And Christianity went from being an alternative religion - a bit wacky, a bit out there - to being the established religion of the Roman Empire.
For the next thousand years it held Europe in its vice-like grip.
But it's the stories that we tell about these objects that give them their power.
And a millennium after Helena, the past became far less certain than the Church would have liked.
And the stories that we became increasingly interested in were not Christian ones.
They came from a very pagan past.
Scusi, dov e Piazza del Campo? L'arco, giu a destra.
What began in northern Italy in the 14th century in cities like Florence and Sienna was a new way of thinking.
The Renaissance fused Christian beliefs with a wonderfully ancient past and the art and religion of the classical world.
A remote, exciting and dangerous pre-Christian past was out there to be discovered.
If only you cared to look for it.
And someone who did just that was one of my personal heroes.
Not an artist, but the greatest pioneer of Renaissance archaeology.
I'm here in Ancona, a busy and not very pretty port in eastern Italy.
Seems a million miles away from the glories of Sienna.
But this is an important place for our story because this was the home town of Ciriaco Pizzicolli, a man absolutely obsessed with ancient buildings and somebody who would become known as the father of archaeology.
Pizzicolli was a merchant here in Ancona during the Renaissance.
He's not a household name like Leonardo or Michelangelo but at least he has a street named after him.
Via Ciriaco Pizzicolli.
Well, he's a bit of a forgotten hero of archaeology but it's good to see his home town haven't forgotten him.
Right here in 1421, Pizzicolli was responsible for one of the great watersheds in our relationship with the ancient past.
And it all began down here in the port.
One day, Pizzicolli walked home past this, a millennium-old Roman triumphal arch, which still dominates the port of Ancona even today.
Now, he must have walked past this arch thousands of times before but that particular day something caught his eye.
Maybe the evening light drew attention to it but he was suddenly overcome by its beauty and, coming closer, he was drawn to its ancient inscription.
Pizzicolli didn't know any Latin but he could make out one word - "Trajano," who was a Roman Emperor Trajan.
Now that triggered a whole series of thoughts in his mind.
Who was this Trajan? Why was this arch built? It was as if the stones were whispering to him from the past, urging him to uncover its history and rescue it from oblivion.
For Pizzicolli, this was an epiphany.
He'd found his calling and he eagerly ran off to learn Latin so he could unravel this ancient past.
Seems bizarre to us now with all our museums, monuments and guide books, that the physical past hasn't always been important, hasn't always needed to be interrogated.
But in Pizzicolli's age, the past was just there all around you.
That's why what he tried to do was such a revelation.
Pizzicolli set off on a mission to discover more of the ancient past all across the Mediterranean.
Pizzicolli had seen arches like the one at Ancona in Constantinople, Alexandria and Damascus on his travels as a merchant.
But there they had been like derelict dumps, ready to be used as builders' scrap, but he realised they were vestiges of a lost civilisation on the threshold of disappearing forever.
Only one image remains of Pizzicolli and it's here in his hometown's museum.
Bonjour, professor.
And here is the man himself, Pizzicolli.
Beautiful relief.
Wow, bella.
'Local historian Professor Maurizio Landolfi 'is an even bigger fan than me.
' Grazie, Maurizio.
Thank you.
Salve, Giovanni.
Buongiorno! Tutto a posto? Prego, prego.
'Pizzicolli's quest to save the physical remains 'of the ancient world took him all over Italy 'and then on to Greece, Turkey and Syria, 'recording as many ancient ruins as he could.
' One day a priest came across Pizzicolli sketching a temple in Italy and he asked him what he was doing sketching that pagan nonsense? And Pizzicolli's answer was rather good.
He said he was trying to wake the dead.
He filled notebook after notebook with detailed sketches.
What he did was look at the wonders of past civilisations, record what they looked like and tried to get others passionate about the ancient world and its importance.
During his lifetime, Pizzicolli became a bit of a celebrity.
He was asked to speak about what he had seen everywhere he went.
But, unlike Helena, Pizzicolli wasn't looking for evidence to prove an absolute truth.
For him, the past was a puzzle and ancient artefacts were clues.
Just to realise that the past was out there was enough to give Pizzicolli a place in archaeological history.
Pizzicolli's way of thinking also challenged religious dogma.
New evidence didn't prove a past, but it could rewrite it.
And for the bishops and Popes of Renaissance Italy, that kind of thinking was very dangerous indeed.
Along with other Renaissance innovators, Pizzicolli's thinking changed the world.
If new discoveries were questioning old ideas, about everything from the human body to the cosmos, where did that leave something else that had always seemed fixed? History itself.
The past has always exerted an incredibly powerful influence on the present and that influence has taken many different forms.
For Helena and many others like her, they thought they had found the source of ultimate truth in the pages of the Bible.
By the time we get to the Renaissance, things were a bit different.
The past was now a space where it was possible to seek out clues about where we had come from and the truth, well, the truth was far more hazy.
Far less certain and much more difficult to get a grip on.
And this brought up a fundamental question.
Was the past something which was just out there waiting to be discovered, or was it a faint canvas on which we wrote down our own versions of our history? In other words, was the past something that controlled us or that we control the past? Now, for one English monarch, this was a crucial question because if you could use the past, then it was an incredibly important propaganda tool and it would allow him, not only to map out England's history, but also its future.
In 16th-century Britain, our view of the past was something that went to the very heart of politics and religion, especially if you were in the business of building a brand new national identity like Renaissance man, Henry VIII.
In the 1530s, Henry famously broke with Rome.
He wanted to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.
But despite some very clever and very Renaissance rhetoric, the Pope was having none of it.
Henry promptly set up his own English Church and the Pope retaliated by denouncing the English King as a heretic.
Now, the English Reformation brought about the destruction of the monasteries and the pillaging of their treasures but out of it was forged a new identity for Britain and one in which archaeology would play a decisive role.
Henry decided that, along with a new Church, Britain needed a new past.
If he could demonstrate England's ancient and independent history, it would help to legitimise his arguments.
That the present Papacy was a Johnny-come-lately, compared to England's own connections with the original Church of Christ.
To unearth evidence, he turned to his Hampton Court librarian John Leland.
Henry ordered Leland to pilfer Britain's cathedrals and abbeys for their rarest books and manuscripts.
And to use them to create a new inventory of Britain's ancient past.
Leland scoured the country for books and manuscripts for his King.
But freed from his library, out on the open road, our bookworm soon went AWOL.
Confronted by Britain's past, Leland was taken with the same fervour that had struck Pizzicolli in Italy a century before.
He wrote to the king that he was: Instead of just visiting dusty old monastic libraries, Leland began to go to ancient sites across Britain.
He soon began to realise the English countryside was full of mysterious monuments and great antiquity.
One place he came to was Badbury Rings in Dorset, a place we know today as the remains of an Iron Age hill fort created nearly 3,000 years ago.
As the good bookworm that he was, wherever and whenever he came across anything interesting, Leland recorded it.
Leland planned to use his copious notes to create a map of ancient England to present to Henry.
It's doubtful that Leland really understood what he was looking at.
He certainly didn't know very much about the Iron Age, but what he was was an early pioneer of fieldwork.
Putting up with whatever the weather throws at you, and setting down and describing what you see.
For me, as an archaeologist, fieldwork is key.
Every observation is like a new piece of the jigsaw of the past.
In recording sites like Badbury Rings, Leland was giving birth to British archaeology.
The more he travelled, the more he found.
It all became too much for our pioneering librarian from London.
Leland never fulfilled his dream.
In 1547, Henry VIII died and the pressure of creating the definitive map of ancient England, coupled with the death of his royal master, sent the poor man mad.
It was a case of too much information.
Leland had however opened a new window on to a very ancient Britain.
The trouble was that he'd simply no idea just how much of it there was.
Even today, we're still discovering new monuments from our ancient past.
And it wasn't as simple as creating a new story because there's always something that comes along to change the picture.
Something another pioneer realised just 30 years after Leland's death.
Here we are in the Hallows Room.
'In 1586, a historian called William Camden created 'a groundbreaking compendium of Britain's ancient past.
' So, Dai, this is it.
This is Camden's Britannia.
1586, first edition.
'Camden's book of Britain listed 'every known ancient monument in the land.
' It starts off as one small, rather scruffy volume.
It's work in progress.
Camden invites people to add to it.
It goes through at least six editions over 200 years.
Feel the weight of that.
That's one volume.
That is a weighty tome.
Now, the comparison That is the weight of knowledge.
'Camden's Britannia shows a very special moment in archaeology 'at our most famous ancient monument of all - Stonehenge.
' Oh, my word! This is a real landmark in the story of archaeology.
If we look at the bottom left-hand corner of the print, we've got two gentlemen with shovels digging a hole in the ground.
And on the side, a skull and some bones.
It actually says in the text, "Certain it is that human bones have frequently been dug up here.
" Now, what this shows, human beings interacting with a site of historical significance and understanding that underneath the ground they can find out even more about the history of that place and of their country.
So here we see what we might grandly call the dawn of archaeological excavation.
I don't think it's too grand to call it that.
I think it's dead right.
By the 17th-century, the worlds of Helene and even Pizzicolli were starting to seem very distant.
The past wasn't there to provide evidence of Church dogma but a whole new world that could be discovered and perhaps understood.
The forefront of this new, almost scientific quest was a man called John Aubrey.
Today, Aubrey is remembered for his life's work on the prehistoric site of Avebury in Wiltshire.
Stonehenge is 30 miles that way but this stone circle is every bit as important and enigmatic.
Back in Aubrey's day though, it presented a very different site.
This place is pretty pristine now but in the early 17th century it was a bit of a dump.
Just a collection of houses and fields and these stones here were choked and covered with weeds.
And the locals, they'd been knocking them down to build their own houses.
That was until 1649, when John Aubrey, a local landowner and keen amateur scholar, came here and discovered it whilst hunting.
And he was intrigued by this place.
The problem for Aubrey was that the layout of the stones wasn't at all clear.
It was impossible to simply record what he saw because, unlike today, the place was an overgrown mess.
What he needed was to make an accurate survey to understand it.
'To get a handle on how he achieved that using 17th-century technology, 'I've roped in Mark Bowden from English Heritage.
' It's a lovely day for a bit of planning.
Yes, certainly is.
So which one shall we do? Let's set up round here, shall we? OK.
Top off.
'Aubrey used scientific instruments, a plain table and alidade.
'Equipment more often used to layout fashionable gardens 'for the 17th-century gentry.
' And that is essentially the same as Aubrey's.
Get ourselves on the line.
Which bit of the stone am I going to? Go into that corner.
Ready when you are.
17 metres.
Thank you.
The first thing we've got here is a plain table.
It's completely level.
And underneath it we have our point, our zero point.
This is the point from which we will measure everything else on this site.
And the alidade is a device measuring angles.
If I look through this site here from my zero point, I can look through the site and I can project forward and get the angle of the point that I want to measure.
Now, we need to get the distance from our zero point over to the point that we want to measure.
So, Mark, could you give me the distance, please? 14.
Thank you.
So there is 14.
4 and we've got our point.
Now, what we do with each of the stones is we take four or five different points and that should give us an accurate depiction of what this place looks like.
Can you move round a bit, Mark, and get the other point, please? 'As he mapped the stones, 'Aubrey realised that a series of complex circles were emerging.
'Impossible to see from the overgrown ground, 'but revealed by scientific method.
' Well, we've done pretty well.
We've got two down.
How many to go? Rather a lot.
Let's have a look at Aubrey's completed plan, shall we? So, we are here and these are the two stones that we've just surveyed.
And the great thing about this is, although it's not planimetrically accurate in the way that a modern survey would be that we might do with electronic instrumentation, nevertheless, it faithfully gives a character of the site.
The stones are not evenly spaced.
So we're looking here at the beginnings of archaeological survey.
Oh, very much so.
It's extraordinary.
Yes, it is.
It's an amazing achievement at the time and something that actually wasn't equalled for probably the best part of two centuries in terms of the accuracy of the planning.
Aubrey's work was groundbreaking but, left to his own devices, his map might never have happened.
By all accounts, Aubrey was quite lazy.
But, luckily for us, he was also boastful too.
He boasted to all of his friends that Avebury was as important as Stonehenge and eventually, his boasting got to the ears of none other than King Charles II up in London and he invited Aubrey up there to give a lecture on the site and Charles was so intrigued by it that he came down here two weeks later and was given a guided tour by Aubrey.
Little more than a century separate the reigns of Henry VIII and Charles II but they inhabited very different worlds.
Henry breaking from medieval Church traditions, Charles embracing an embryonic age of science.
It was Charles himself who commissioned Aubrey's map of Avebury which was presented to the newly-established Royal Society.
Aubrey suggesting that Avebury was evidence of a culture predating even that of the Romans.
'It was a watershed in archaeology.
' Morning.
Aubrey had observed and recorded in precise detail and put forward a theory to explain it and that was scientific thought in action.
A world away from the religious dogma of the Church.
17th-century archaeology was making new discoveries and mapping ever more distant epochs of time.
Just as explorers were mapping ever more distant lands.
It raised new questions about our beginnings.
We knew about the Romans from classical histories but what of these mysterious cultures that came before? Just where did it all start? For the Church, these questions were easy to answer.
Adam, Eve and the tribes of Israel.
While Aubrey was using modern scientific methods to ponder the ancient mysteries of Avebury, an Irish bishop was mathematically calculating the very age of the Earth and humanity itself.
His name was Bishop Ussher.
Scholars that preceded him, tried to use scientific methodology, but as a churchman, he also had the arbiter of universal truth on his side.
This, the Bible.
For Ussher, and generations of Christians, this was the primary source of all primary sources and its word could be trusted implicitly.
Ussher used events in the Bible to add up the entire chronology of the world and he came up with a date.
Mankind was created on 23rd October, 4004 BC.
Simple, although we know now he was really quite a long way out.
What's so fascinating about the 17th century are the intellectual tensions which drove it.
On the one hand you have the Christian Church saying, "Look, everything you need to know is here written down in the Bible.
"So if you want to find out about the beginnings of Earth, "then all you need to do is read Genesis.
" Then, on the other side, you have the big men of science who were still God-fearing but they'd come to ask the big universal questions through their own natural human curiosity.
What was man's place in the cosmos? How did it all fit together? They had learned from the big lessons of the Renaissance.
Look around you.
What can you discover from what you can see? Seek and follow the evidence.
By the 18th century, archaeology and religion were on a collision course.
The Bible told you in no uncertain terms how old the world was and to question it was heresy.
But what was coming out of the ground was beginning to tell a very different story.
And 18th-century gentry all wanted to own a piece of the mystery.
Collecting became all the rage.
What better way to show how sophisticated, cosmopolitan and wealthy you were than by collecting objects from all over the world? Scientific objects, artistic objects and even objects from the ancient world.
This was the age of the cabinet of curiosities.
This is Burton Constable Hall in East Yorkshire, the home of a landowner who had a passion for art, architecture and natural history.
William Constable, whose portrait is just up there, was one such collector.
He collected artefacts throughout Europe and Britain but he didn't collect because he was an expert but because he was interested.
'The collection's curator is David Connell.
' So this is the cabinet of curiosities.
This is absolutely amazing.
So this is a Bronze Age axe head.
Oh, my word, look at that.
And here we have a toothbrush from Mecca.
And here we have the dried leg of an elk.
'William's cabinet of curiosities is one of a very few to have remained 'largely intact in all its glorious diversity.
' And what is this? This is number 30, a brazen lance.
Now, when I found this nearly 20 years ago in a box of rubbish in the attic, I had no idea what it was.
In fact, it's from a Bronze Age burial that was unearthed in 1676 at Broughton Hall near Skipton in Yorkshire.
So, 1676, somebody is conducting what we would recognise as an archaeological excavation? Yes.
That's amazing.
This is a hugely important archaeological object.
That's extraordinary.
You found this in a box in the attic? Yes.
Thank you.
'William also collected hundreds of fossils.
' So what is this? That looks like some kind of fish.
Yes, fossil fish and it's in chalk.
100 million years or something? Yes.
My word.
So when William and others were looking at these fossils, what did they think they were? They knew that they were creatures, the remnants of which had been captured in stone.
They did understand that and we know that because there are labels written on them.
'At the time, objects like these were 'explained as evidence of the biblical flood.
'Creatures that had failed to make it onto Noah's Ark.
' And what's this? That's a fossilised bison horn.
My word.
It's just so extraordinarily eclectic.
I love it for that reason.
I love the fact that this person, he's living in an age of wonder, isn't he? That's true.
But what it shows you is the enormous breadth of his learning.
Absolutely extraordinary.
'It's as if William was trying to create 'an encyclopaedia of the world all in one room.
'A microcosm collected and displayed.
'Collections like these were beginning to pose some 'awkward questions about how the world and the past fitted together.
' Archaeology couldn't yet answer the mysteries that objects from the past posed.
The biblical truth still presented the Western world's accepted story of the past.
The Church's long-held dogma was beginning to be chipped away by science.
This amazing little contraption is called an orrery.
It was the physical manifestation of a really radical idea.
It was an idea which the Roman Catholic Church absolutely hated.
It was that the universe didn't rotate round the Earth but the Earth rotated around the sun.
So if I turn this, you can see that the centre, this brass orb, that's the sun, and this huge globe which is rotating here, is the Earth, so it's completely out of scale.
Now, this is using ideas which had been nutted out by Newton just up the road here in the 1680s.
It was the idea of movement through the force of gravity.
And it wasn't only the heavens that were opening up to human explorations.
Look at these absolutely beautiful early microscopes.
They date to the mid-18th century and they allowed people to view a hitherto invisible world for the very small.
Scientific enquiry which began in the Renaissance was finally flexing its muscles.
Equally significant was WHO was now having access and, indeed, control to this information.
It was no longer just emperors, kings and popes, but men of learning, men of science, men of medicine.
And the curiosity that had prompted men like Pizzicolli and Leland to describe what they had seen was no longer enough for men like Copernicus and Newton.
They wanted to understand it and work out how it all fitted together.
Once the biblical view of the cosmos had been overturned, it was only time before archaeology began to seriously challenge the biblical view of the past.
Here in the Suffolk in 1797, a discovery was made that would, in time, explode Bishop Ussher's 6,000 year-old chronology of the world.
This is the quiet unassuming village of Hoxne but for archaeologists like me, this place is really famous because it was here that one of the great breakthroughs in our understanding of pre-history happened.
It was all down to antiquarian called John Frere who was intrigued by objects being discovered in the clay pits by local brickmakers.
As well as the clay, Frere noticed that the men were turfing up triangular-shaped flints and there was something about them that made him look more closely.
And, although you wasn't sure what they were, he instinctively knew they'd been made by human hands.
Previously, objects like these had been explained away as meteorites or even thunderbolts from heaven.
Frere knew there had to be more earthly explanation.
What Frere did know, was intrigued by, was where these flints had come from.
The workmen had dug down for 12 feet and alongside these weird triangular shaped flints had been the bones of an animal that no-one could recognise.
They had figured out it must be from an animal that is long since extinct.
Now, Frere managed to join the dots.
If something had been buried that deep, something that looked like it had been made by humans, alongside the bones of an animal that no one could recognise, then they must have taken a lot longer than a few thousand years to get there.
It was clear then that these handmade objects were very, very old indeed.
Knowing what we know today, all this seems pretty obvious but over 200 years ago, that idea was a stroke of genius.
And a very un-Biblical one to boot.
In here we have one of Frere's axes.
It's absolutely beautiful.
And also still very, very sharp.
Frere wrote to the Society of Antiquities here, telling them about his discoveries and also putting forward a theory about them.
He said that these were weapons of war made by people who had no knowledge of metals and we still have part of his letter in one of the minutes of the society.
Frere wrote, "The situation in which these weapons were found "may tempt us to refer them to a very remote period indeed.
"And even beyond that of the present world.
" Now, contained within that elegant sentence was a very radical thought indeed.
The idea that the history of Britain went way beyond the history of the Normans, the Saxons, the Romans, the Celts and the Bible.
But, as with many radical ideas, at the time it was completely ignored but now we think of John Frere as the father of British pre-history.
Today, we know that these axes were created by our early human ancestors around 400,000 years ago.
Conservative Christians from Helena to Ussher would have turned in their graves.
This might have been a watershed moment, but the Church's reaction? Well, it was exactly the same as it had been under Bishop Ussher.
The world was 6,000 years old.
End of story.
The tide was now beginning to turn against them because, out of the dark earth, was coming a new, different heretical story.
18th-century archaeology was digging ever deeper back in time but it still faced a problem.
No-one knew exactly how old ancient things were.
But a brand-new science would provide the answer - Geology.
It all started with a Scottish doctor, naturalist chemical manufacturer and farmer, James Hutton.
He was looking at the rock faces and he noticed how the sea interacted with the land and how the rocks interacted with one another.
Hutton started studying rocks in the 1750s around his native Scotland.
But on Britain's south coast in Dorset, there are some fabulous examples of the sort of beaches that fascinated him.
By looking at layers of rock, Hutton worked out that the Earth hadn't been created perfectly formed.
It was, in fact, the product of billions of years, of time, the elements, and the odd earth tremor.
Hutton realised these bands were layers of sediment and deduced it must have taken millions of years for them to become solid rock.
Then even longer to be tilted and contorted by the dynamic forces of the planet.
Hutton's discoveries would have massive implications.
If the world really was that old, then archaeology can now enter the new and exciting world of deep time.
It was the irrefutable evidence of deep time that finally did for the chronology of the Bible, opening up a vastness of time into which archaeologists could explore the past.
But if the biblical creation story was missed, what did that mean for Adam, Eve and the beginnings of humanity? 2,000 years ago, Helena of Constantinople sought evidence from the Earth to prove the truth of the Bible.
But the Earth had bitten back.
I started my journey into the beginnings of archaeology with Helena's skull.
Now I've come back to Germany because little more than 100 miles away from Trier, another skull was found that represents a very different landmark in our story of archaeology and its relationship with belief.
It was here in the Neander Valley in western Germany that the skull was found.
And it was here tens of thousands of years before anyone had even thought about writing a Bible that Neanderthal man walked the Earth.
Remains of bones were discovered here in 1857 by quarry workers who were blasting these rocks.
They thought they had found the remains of a bear, but it soon became clear that they were far, far more important.
The discovery of Neanderthal man created a storm.
Not only was the Earth and humanity more ancient than anyone had thought, but perhaps humanity hadn't been made in a moment of creation but had evolved.
One more heresy to add to archaeology's long list of dangerous discoveries.
The original Neanderthal is now in the care of Dr Ralph Schmitz.
Hello, nice to meet you.
Good to meet you.
Thanks for seeing me.
I'm so excited to see this.
I remember talking about this with our lecturers in my first week at university and here he is.
So how old is this guy? His geological age is around 42,000 years.
Normally, it's very, very restricted and we will normally not open it but, for you, I will open it.
No?! For you I will open it.
Oh, don't.
The pressure.
So, here we are.
Look at that.
I never thought I'd get this close.
This is, I think, the most iconic archaeological find ever.
To get this close is a massive privilege.
So this discovery was a bit like dropping a bomb on the whole idea of creationism.
There wasn't just one species, one type of man like Adam, but actually, we evolved from a number of different subspecies.
It was clear a few weeks after Neanderthal was found that it is a human being but this idea was heavily attacked by other scientists.
And completely accepted around 1900-1902.
And today it is clear but in the early time it was very, very difficult.
One moment.
I will put on my gloves.
So My heart is actually beating for you.
That's the inner surface of the skull.
It shows very clearly arterial impressions of the brain and it's unbelievable that a Neanderthal brain sticks in here and all the Neanderthal's thoughts and feelings has been created here.
It's a different world.
Different thoughts.
Different feelings.
It's a human being, but at a distance of more than 40,000 years.
Truly amazing.
Thank you so much.
I really feel like I've come face-to-face with one of the great moments in archaeology.
It's just amazing.
You are very welcome.
The development of early archaeology ever since Helena has been one of continual discovery and progress.
But the onset of scientific method and reasoning, from Aubrey to Hutton and Frere, brought a new, very different and very modern way of thinking.
Helena asserted the story that she believed to be true through using objects.
But the Neanderthal skull was a very different matter indeed.
Here we had an object trying to tell its own story against the odds, against established belief and using evidence that contradicted what we believed at that time.
But the Neanderthal skull also helped us to a new understanding of our place in the great scheme of things, our place in time, our beginnings, not just other people, but as a species.
Archaeology had taken us through an age of wonder.
The ideas and motivations of Helena and Pizzicolli.
Of Aubrey.
And John Frere.
Their discoveries all endure today just as powerfully as when archaeology first unleashed them and it's those discoveries that the foundations upon which we built our own relationship with the ancient past.
'Next time, archaeology sets its sights 'on some seriously big discoveries.
' So you're digging and you come down to this? Just imagine.
It must have completely freaked them out.
'And Victorian science and technology 'takes archaeology into a whole new age' Oh, my word, look at that.
as one question dominates.
'Just where and when did civilisation begin?' Wow, this place is absolutely stupendous!