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A Superprof Guide to the Ancient World

By Yann, published on 05/12/2018 Blog > Academia > History > Studying Ancient History: What Does it Entail

So you want to study Ancient History because it sounds intriguing, but you’re not certain exactly what it entails? Eager to explore ancient civilisations, but not sure which one? Our Superprof guide to Ancient History can help!

History vs. Archaeology vs. Philology

There are several aspects to Ancient History, and while different universities have different ways of approaching the subject (some will let you specialise fairly quickly while others offer different combinations of studies about ancient cultures, some will focus more on social history and anthropology and others more on political history), generally your BA will be very general, giving you a broad overview of the various aspects of ancient civilisation.

However, as you progress, you will need to decide how you want to explore ancient civilisations.

Generally speaking, you can become:

  • An archaeologist
  • A historian
  • A philologist

The field of archaeology

Forget Lara Croft and Indiana Jones. As an archaeologist, you will be excavating and publishing the source material for the other two fields, which means you need to be very exact. It’s a demanding job, alternating fieldwork where you may or may not have all the basic amenities of life with months of analysing and researching the material culture to publish your finds. Depending on where you are digging, you may or may not be required to do the visual documentation (depending on funding, this can range from hand-drafting trench walls to record archaeological layers and drawing finds to using laser scanning technology and 3-D imagery). Some digs have professional archaeological draftsmen, some don’t. As an archaeologist, also expect to deal with:

  • Digs that yield no finds. Sometimes archaeologists are called to a site where an artefact was found, but it was simply dropped or buried by a random person in the distant past and there is nothing else there.
  • Extremely complex situations that need precise documentation to decipher.
  • Insane amounts of pottery (it’s useful for dating).

Don’t expect:

  • Complicated traps. Temples were made to be used, having to reset the blowdarts every time the High Priest goes in for the daily cult is pointless.
  • Gold. Seriously, you rarely find gold in archaeological digs and most archaeologists hate finding it because then you have to secure the site from vandals in search for more. A nice cloaca or outhouse site, though, can be very rewarding, because they were used to dump all sorts of rubbish and the fecal matter tends to preserve quite well.
  • Amazing discoveries. Your excavation might find that lost temple of Athena mentioned in the local lore – or you might find a flint tool workshop.

The work of a historian

Archaeologists dig up the sources, historians analyse them . Of course, not all sources a historian uses have been excavated – whether it be a manuscript with information on a specific subject, or monuments that have existed for centuries, even millennia. Often, archaeologists explore aspects of material culture while historians explore more social aspects. You can specialise in anything from art history (sculpture and paintings) to diplomatic history.

What do philologists do?

All the inscriptions that archaeologists dig up and historians analyse need to be translated by somebody. A philologist studies ancient languages and provides new insights into their structure, vocabulary and grammar to offer ever better and more accurate translations of anything from Ancient Sumeran receipts for beer written in cuneiform to the writings of a Greek philosopher such as Aristotle’s teachings of Socrates, from Latin literature to volumes of medieval religious texts – depending on their specialisation.

Epigraphy is the study of a script and its regional and chronological changes.

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What Do You Study in Ancient History?

Ancient History is always a part of the Humanities department, although you might be working with hard scientists in inter-disciplinary projects to help document, analyse or date your finds.

Depending on the university, Ancient History is defined in a more or less narrow fashion. Most have Prehistory as a separate subject, sometimes called anthropology (not to be confused with ethnology or cultural anthropology, which studies more recent societies); some include medieval studies under more recent history, others still consider it Ancient History.

Generally, you will be studying the cultures of the ancient world.

Egyptology, the study of Ancient Egypt

The study of Ancient Egyptian history is called Egyptology. An Egyptologist can be either an archaeologist or a historian; while they do specialise they are all called by the same name.

Study Ancient Egyptian History. Find out more about this Pharaoh by studying Egyptology. Photo credit: kairoinfo4u on Visual hunt

When studying Egyptology, you will learn about Egyptian history – the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom – until its conquest by Alexander the Great and then Rome and Cleopatra. Egypt in Late Antiquity falls under Coptic or Byzantium Studies. You will also learn about Egyptian architecture, studying not just the Great Pyramid of Giza (the only surviving one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) attributed to Khufu but the various temples and traces of mudbrick houses in the city of Amarna, where the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten of the 18th dynasty founded the first documented monotheistic religion.

You will be expected to learn hieroglyphs – the language and script of the Ancient Egyptians, first deciphered thanks to the Rosetta stone – so if you’re not good at languages you might want to consider another track.

The Near East and Mesopotamia

Near Eastern Studies, as they are often called, can be slightly misleading, as they often include the Bronze Age and Iron Age civilisations not just of the Ancient Near East, but also of the Middle East, Anatolia and Mesopotamia (the area between the two rivers Tigris and Euphrates).

But while these cultures do have a lot in common, don’t be fooled – just because you can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform doesn’t mean you will be able to read one in Assyrian or Akkadian cuneiform!

The cuneiform writings are very similar, but the languages behind them aren’t. Still, wouldn’t it be exciting to read Hammurabi’s laws in the original?

Study Mesopotamia and the Near East The Ishtar Gate of Babylon is only one of the amazing monuments you can learn about in Near Eastern Studies. Photo credit: Wiebke on Visualhunt.com

The various kingdoms and city-states also have different religions and mythology, different social and political structures.

Here are some of the cultures you might learn about if you take Near Eastern Studies (or whatever the Uni is calling it):

  • Babylonia (including Nabuchadnezzar of Verdi opera fame)
  • The Sumerians
  • The Hittites and the Hittite Empire
  • Assyria and the Assyrian Empire
  • Persia and the Persian Empire
  • The Phoenicians

Biblical Studies

Biblical Studies is a special branch of the history of the Eastern Mediterranean world. It focuses mostly on the area around Palestine and Israel, starting from around the 9th century BC and up to the first centuries AD. To read Biblical Studies, you should learn Hebrew and Aramaic, the most commonly spoken languages in the area.

Choosing Classical Studies at Uni

Generally, Unis group under Classical Studies the great Mediterranean civilisations of Greece and Rome.

Studying Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek civilisation starts long before Sparta’s stand against the Persian army or the glory days of Athens. If you decide to study Greek history, chances are you will start with the Minoan and Mycenaen civilisations of the island of Crete before moving on to the Aegean islands and the Greek mainland.

In following in Thucydides’ footsteps, you will also, of course, cover the city-states of Ancient Greece, Athenian philosophy and the mythology behind the Greek gods, as well as the different styles of painted pottery, how to date kuroi statues and double-bladed axes. You will learn the political history of the Greek peninsula well into the Macedonian Empire, where first Phillip of Macedonia and then Alexander the Great expanded the Hellenistic world all the way to the Indus river in Asia.

Learn about Ancient Greek civilization. Classical Studies will also take you to the palace of Knossos on Crete. Photo credit: Rol247* on Visualhunt

However, though you should learn Ancient Greek to understand their culture and analyse textual sources if your life’s ambition is to provide the ultimate translation of Homers Illiad or Odyssey, Classical Greek philology is the subject for you! Linguistic studies are usually a separate branch of history.

Ancient Roman Studies

When studying Roman history, you are likely to start before the Roman Republic or even the Roman Empire, with the Etruscan culture of Italy.

Roman culture will include their religion and cultural practices, Roman literature and of course the great philosophers, artists, politicians and generals of the Roman army, from Cicero to Caesar, from Apicius to Hadrianus.

Learn about Roman art. Want to know what this statue is about? Find out more on the two boys fighting over a game of knucklebones by taking Classical Studies. Photo credit: mharrsch on Visualhunt.com

Study of the Roman Empire will take you to its schism and possibly beyond – some unis include Late Antiquity and the Byzantine Empire under Classical Studies.

Medieval Studies

From Late Antiquity to the Dark Ages and on to the Middle Ages – most archaeologically-inclined studies include the Middle Ages in their curriculum, whereas you generally won’t be learning about William the Conqueror or knights in shining armour when reading Ancient History. You might discover medieval Britain in a course on European or British History (which will cover the Celts and Anglo-Saxons), though, while your Latin studies will certainly come in handy if you choose to study medieval literature.

Study the Middle Ages at Uni Learn about knights and castles – and when to wear a wimple – with Medieval Studies. Photo credit: Aloriel on VisualHunt.com

Where To Study Ancient History in the UK

So where can you study Ancient History if you live in the UK? Here are some universities that offer undergraduate courses (and what they call them):

  • University of Kent – Ancient History
  • University of Southampton – Ancient History
  • University of Winchester – Ancient, Classical and Medieval Studies
  • University of Wales Trinity Saint David – Ancient History
  • University of Leicester – Ancient History
  • University of Reading – Ancient History
  • University of Roehampton – Ancient History
  • Swansea University – Ancient History
  • Birkbeck London – Ancient History and Archaeology
  • King’s College London – Ancient History
  • Royal Holloway London – Ancient History
  • University College London – Ancient History
  • University of Glasgow – Ancient History
  • University of Edinburgh – Ancient Mediterranean Civilisations
  • Newcastle University – Ancient History
  • Durham University – Ancient History
  • University of Leeds – – Ancient History and History
  • University of Oxford – Ancient and Modern History
  • University of Lincoln – Classical Studies
  • University of Nottingham – Ancient History
  • Manchester Metropolitan University – Ancient History
  • University of Cambridge – Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic
  • University of Liverpool – Ancient History
  • Cardiff University – Ancient History
  • University of St Andrews – Ancient History
  • University of Warwick – Ancient History and Classical Archaeology
  • University of Birmingham – Ancient History
  • University of Exeter – Ancient History
  • University of Bristol – Ancient History
  • University of Manchester – Ancient History
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