As the archaeologist and historian R. Turcan documents in his recently released study on the perception of the past in classical (and especially Roman)* antiquity, the concern for “what it was” was already present in ancient societies, especially in times of crisis or perceived by contemporaries as pivotal moments between two periods.
Already used by a number of classical writers to tell the story of the origins, the term “archaeology” (αρχαιολογια) has a more specific meaning nowadays, which makes it the discipline of the objects rather than the texts, and tries to reconstruct the past, starting with the material remains of societies that have since disappeared.
Now a science on its own, although still closely related to history and to the vision of the past, archaeology is currently practiced in conducting excavations, and in studying and re-elaborating the objects (jewelry, ceramics, sculptures, frescoes, etc.) housed in both museum and private collections.
The idea of the “archaeological excavation” was indeed present in ancient times, but never as a form of organized activity for a scientific purpose: for instance, one looked for the traces of a former human presence to justify territorial claims, or for the tomb of a hero to prove the antiquity of a sanctuary or the indigenous origin of a people; excavations were also conducted simply to find and recycle buried treasures…
Similarly, the modern idea of the museum as a place intended to preserve and to reveal ancient vestiges was unknown to the Greeks and Romans. Yet there were many places and institutions where visitors could admire objects that are now defined as artworks, such as the porticoes for instance, which looked like open-air museums, the façades of the public buildings (theaters, libraries, baths, etc.) and especially the large shrines. Just like in the Christian cathedrals and basilicas (which often enclose valuable or remarkable objects inside their walls), there was a large variety of architectures, sculptures, panels, large vessels, etc. in all major religious monuments.
All these monuments were usually dedicated to a deity by the cities, kings, citizens, etc. in gratitude for a favor received or in anticipation of trouble ahead, to commemorate a military, or even a sports victory. Exhibited outdoors, in a temple or under a portico, often accompanied by an explanatory inscription, these works could be viewed by everyone, thus contributing to the “cultural” and “aesthetic” education of the pilgrims and simple tourists.
There were even scholarly guides, who advised the visitors and listed the best sites or vestiges to see in particular areas, meticulously describing the works, their names, the names of the sculptors or architects, etc. The most famous of these texts that survived up to modern times is certainly the Description of Greece that Pausanias, a writer of the 2nd century A.D., developed after his travels and which still remains a very important testimony for classical archaeologists.
* (TURCAN R., L’archéologie dans l’Antiquité. Tourisme, lucre et découvertes, Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2014)