Who was the first archaeologist?

Archaeology, rather than simple treasure hunting, arguably began in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Who was the first archaeologist? © Getty Images

Antiquarian investigators such as Cyriacus of Ancona (1391-1452), Flavio Biondo (1392-1463), John Leyland (1506-1552) and William Camden (1551-1623) began to take an interest in ancient earthworks and the buildings around them.

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Long before this, however, was Flavia Julia Helena Augusta – who lived in the third century – mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great, and an important figure in the early history of Christianity (where she is remembered as Saint Helena).

She had overseen fieldwork in Jerusalem, searching for evidence of the life and death of Jesus. As a consequence of these excavations, Helena is sometimes called the ‘mother’ (or patron saint) of archaeology.

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Earlier still, the Babylonian King Nabonidus, who reigned in the mid-sixth century BC, may be thought of as the ‘father’ of archaeology. His excavation and subsequent restoration of ancestral tombs and buildings in Sippar (Iraq) and Harran (Turkey) are the first known attempts to unearth and understand the past.