Did the Romans ever conduct archaeological expeditions (in Egypt or Mesopotamia, for example) in search of ancient artifacts? Many of the civilizations in the Levant and the Middle East predated the Romans by as much as the Romans predated us. Did they ever try to dig up ancient ruins and catalogue them, the way we do?Steve Theodore:

Not in the modern sense; the idea of systematically looking around for the unknown wasn’t really on their radar.

They were certainly interested in the past in a general sort of way—the famous image of emperor Trajan, wandering alone through the ruins of Babylon, comes to mind—but they didn’t have the notion of a sustained, deliberate effort to reconstruct the past from its physical remains.

Like many ancient cultures, they did have a lively interest in their own history (and, as their empire expanded, they patronized the antiquarian interests of their clients and subjects as well). A public-spirited Roman—or, later on, an emperor looking for good press—could always sponsor the renovation of an ancient shrine or the revival of a forgotten religious observance as an act of both piety and heritage preservation. Augustus, for example, was particularly fond of these kinds of projects because they fit in neatly with the conservative, patriotic gloss he put on his reign—he revived old rites (like the Lupercalia), refurbished sacred sites (one of the proudest boasts of his autobiography was the renewal of 82 different temples), and sponsored antiquarian research focused on the preservation of old traditions (like the works of Varro).

One of the most famous examples of this kind of antiquarian reverence is the Lapis Niger, one of the oldest surviving Latin inscriptions. It was part of a ritual complex of some kind built in the earliest days of the Republic, but the site was destroyed—probably during the Gallic sack of Rome around 390 BCE. The site seems not to have been rebuilt, but at some point in the first century BCE, it was protected with a pavement cover and a wall which protected it from the elements and from trespass. Later people weren’t certain what the site was—the majority opinion was that it was the tomb of Romulus, but there were many conflicting stories—but they clearly took care that the site be preserved and memorialized.

The site of the Lapis Niger. The “roof” is a carefully constructed covering from the 1st century BCE; underneath is the original monument from 500 years earlier.L. Allen Brewer via Flickr

The same site with the roof peeled away, showing the very ancient site under the Augustan pavements.Indissoluble Indissoluble via Flickr

Plenty of other Romans undertook investigations of the mysteries of the past—from the emperor Claudius, who wrote a 20-volume history of the Etruscans, to obscure bureaucrat John Lydus, who wrote treatises on obscure Roman rituals in Christian Byzantium five centuries later. But the big difference between this interest in antiquities—what the Greeks called archaiologia—and the modern practice is that descriptive accuracy was a secondary concern at best. For example, no ancient source records or tries to make sense of the actual inscription on the Lapis Niger itself, even though it must have been visible when the site was rehabilitated. No modern archaeologist would document the existence of such an artifact without recopying the text.

The “revival” of an ancient rite or the rebuilding of an old site was a very public, political affair with an agenda that had little to do with anything we’d recognize as science. Debating the sources of an obscure custom or the meaning of a cryptic text was a fascinating hobby. But the people footing the bills for such enterprises always had the present, and not the past, foremost in their minds.

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