“Time we may comprehend,” wrote the English physician Sir Thomas Browne in 1643. “’Tis but five days older than ourselves.” Browne’s view of the past encompassed the Greeks and Romans and a humankind created by God in the Old Testament. Also in the seventeenth century, Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh in Ireland used the long genealogies in the Scriptures to calculate that the world had been created on the evening of October 22, 4004 B.C. Thus, according to Christian dogma, the entire span of human existence was a mere six thousand years. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the study of the past fell into oblivion. Babylon reverted to desert; Petra slumbered in its secluded canyon. Ancient ruins of any kind were a curiosity, often thought to be the work of giants. With the Renaissance came a renewed interest in classical learning and in the remains of ancient civilizations. Thomas Browne and his English contemporaries were steeped in knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome. The Renaissance was an age of collectors and scholars, of acquisitive cardinals and nobles who flocked to Mediterranean lands and returned laden with antiquities for their private collections and for what were then known as “cabinets of curiosities.” Soon, a stream of young travelers followed in their footsteps to Italy, taking what became known as the “grand tour” as part of their education (see Chapter 3). Such often frivolous travelers became the first archaeological tourists, but not necessarily the most perceptive. By 1550, it was fashionable to be an antiquary, a collector or student of ancient things. But only the wealthiest traveler could afford a grand tour and could pay for classical treasures. The less affluent indulged their passion for the past at home, collecting Roman coins and inscriptions and, above all, traveling the countryside in pursuit of what the English schoolmaster William Camden (1551–1623) called “the backward-looking curiosity.” This open-ended inquisitiveness took Camden and his contemporaries to eroded burial mounds on windy uplands, to ancient fortifications in Denmark, and to the mysterious stone circles known as Stonehenge.
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