Prompted by this article on a dig in Sofia, Bulgaria.
A large ancient building located under the St. Nedelya Cathedral in downtown Sofia might turn out to be a palace of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, according to Bulgarian archaeologists.
The building might also turn out to be the ancient thermae, or public baths of the ancient Roman city of Serdica, today’s Sofia…
Guess which one of those options is more likely?
It’s a little secret of the archaeology community: we (and I include myself loosely) are full of shit.
I don’t mean that we lie about our research (usually–there are always dicks out there). Nor do I mean that we make up stuff without evidence. You can be sure that what you’re reading in your history book, if it’s a reputable book, is probably the best construction of history and archaeology we’ve been able to put together from the evidence. Romans existed, don’t worry.
However, when you read a news article about a new find and the archaeologists in question immediately attribute it to some historical figure you’ve heard of, be skeptical. I mean, look at the excavation photo. They just started digging a few months ago. They have no clue what they’re excavating yet, other than in the broadest possible terms. It’s Roman, maybe the structure suggests insulae or they’ve found a hypocaust. Great.
I guarantee you there is nothing at all there to suggest it’s Constantine’s palace. It may turn out to be Constantine’s palace, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.
So why are they claiming it is?
It’s pretty simple, and sad, and I can’t even blame them for it. Archaeology is at the bottom of the priority list in most places. There are never enough archaeologists, and there’s never enough money available (which directly causes the first problem). Archaeology relies on funding from the government, from universities, and occasionally from wealthy private donors. There are way, way more sites than there’s money available for excavation/preservation.
So what happens is archaeologists discover something, and when the media shows up to report on the discovery, they will claim that it might be the palace of Really Famous Guy. Constantine’s a favorite, as well as Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, the usual suspects. Now by saying might, they’re technically not lying. This site could indeed be a palace that Constantine lived in. It could also be a warehouse for fertilizer. Judging by the level of excavation I doubt you could rule out anything at this point.
At this point, the following exchange happens:
Archaeologist: We’ve discovered Constantine’s palace!
Rich White Guy, Probably Smoking a Cigar: That Constantine?
Archaeologist: Yep! It’s a shame we don’t have the funding to excavate it properly. Everybody involved would get so much credit.
RWGPSC: Credit, you say.
Archaeologist: Oh yeah. The new Schliemann, you know.
RWGPSC: I like credit. Here’s $5 million for the excavation.
Archaeologist: Great! Now we can find out if it’s Constantine’s palace.
RWGPSC: But you said–
Archaeologist: Bye! *vanishes in a puff of smoke*
It’s a shitty way to do business, encouraging archaeologists to stretch the truth in the hope of getting more table scraps so they can keep exploring. But it’s the way things work. So next time you see an article breathlessly claiming a discovery like this, I’m not saying you should never believe it–we do sometimes find Julius Caesar’s bathrobe or whatever–but you should be skeptical unless the evidence is solid. And it’s not going to be solid on a new excavation unless the first thing they dig up is a stone tablet with “Caesar’s Bathrobe Storage House” carved in it.