In the areas of the world where the earliest civilizations first arose, their physical remains are ubiquitous to this day. This is most obvious in the ancient architecture that still stands. It is less obvious in the ancient foundations, roads, cemeteries, canals and earthworks that now lie beneath virtually every modern city around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East. Apart from these substantial immovable antiquities, the surface of the land is littered with the detritus of the ancient people that once lived there. Below the ground are countless objects that were either intentionally interred or were simply covered over by the sands of time. All of these ancient remnants taken together have intrigued and inspired those who came after. The ancient Greeks collected fossils and marveled at the massive structures built by earlier societies. The Romans collected Egyptian and Greek art. The Renaissance was a period of renewed appreciation of the achievements of Classical Antiquity. Wealthy European patrons formed vast collections of Roman statuary and Greek vases. As Western Europeans in the 18th century began to travel to Greece, Egypt and the Holyland, their curiosity led to the rediscovery of the physical remains of ancient civilizations. It was through these intrepid early travelers that the first objects came to the centers of learning in the west which would eventually lead to the creation of the modern discipline of Archaeology. The languages of the ancients were at last deciphered through the systematic study of the preserved ancient texts. This trend toward understanding the ancients through the objects that they left behind culminated for many in going on the so-called “Grand Tour,” whereby individuals would travel to the ancient lands and acquire antiquities on the way. These privately collected pieces eventually formed the core of many western museum collections. They would be the first published antiquities, spurring further scholarship.
Nonetheless, the destruction of monuments and objects from antiquity continued unabated. Ancient buildings were dismantled for building material. Ancient metal work was melted down and reused. Marble statues were demolished and cooked for lime to be used in mortar and fertilizer. Images that were viewed as sacrilegious were destroyed. Egyptian tombs were emptied, the wooden objects and mummies, used as fuel and fertilizer. Ancient sites were built over by modern dwellings and ancient structures were torn down and repurposed. These trends have continued to this day as backward religious zealots destroy ancient images that are viewed as idolatrous. Expanding populations relentlessly encroach upon ancient sites. Civil unrest and warfare continue to cause the destruction of countless ancient structures and objects.
The free exchange of ideas and objects has always benefited our modern appreciation of antiquity, leading to a better understanding of our cultural roots. Private art collections have formed the core of the great museums of the world. This tradition has resulted in a vast number of antiquities being stored safely in private collections all over Europe and the USA where they have been made available for study, exhibition and publication. Philanthropic collectors have dedicated funds to site preservation and research at sites all over the world. Our view of the ancient world is formed in great part by the efforts of private individuals who have preserved antiquities through their own funds and initiative for the future.