Walter Scott's Romantic Archaeology: New/Old Abbotsford and the Antiquary

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All changes round us, past, present, and to come; that which was history yesterday becomes fable to-day, and the truth of to-day is hatched into a lie by to-morrow.(1)

The past is recovered as private estate.(2)

A WATERSHED DATE IN THE HISTORY OF ARCHAEOLOGY IN SCOTLAND IS 1851. In this year, Daniel Wilson introduced the term "prehistory" into the English language with the publication of Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, the first systematic application in the United Kingdom of the relative dating system of prehistoric artifacts into stone, bronze, and iron epochs developed by Danish archaeologists C. J. Thomsen and J. J. A. Worsaae. In the same year, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, under Wilson's secretariship, donated its entire collection for the establishment of a National Archaeological Museum. Herald of a dawning scientific consciousness in Scotland, Wilson asserts in the preface to Prehistoric Annals that archaeology had outstripped the "laborious trifling" of the amateur antiquary and had joined "the circle of the sciences."(3) The national museum was to play a fundamental role in these shifting sensibilities. In the first volume of the Society's revamped Proceedings, Wilson argues that government sponsorship was needed "to secure the advancement of Archaeological science" by providing funds for proper housing and management of the collection. Within the public sphere of the museum, then, Wilson's professional motives are allied to more democratic principles: in the archaeologist's words, "to promote popular education, and to excite a national interest in the preservation of the monuments of early art and ancient civilization" (2-3).(4) Wilson thus roots the origins of Scottish archaeology within a curious paradox. Having on one hand raised archaeology above the enthusiasms of amateur antiquarianism, Wilson on the other grounds prospects for scientific archaeology within the popular emotive appeal of backward-looking heritage.

Antithetical to "objective" scientific archaeology, heritage assembles objects within a discourse of national identity and educational entertainment, attractions that inevitably transform objects through desire for particular pasts. Peering into his disciplinary crystal ball, Wilson searches for a professional pedigree saturated in cultural value. Promoting amongst the Scots a possessive attitude toward the material past, Wilson, furthermore, locates archaeological origins in a more recent heritage site. In the preface to Prehistoric Annals, the archaeologist asserts that the

   zeal for Archaeological investigation which has recently manifested itself
   in nearly every country in Europe, has been traced, not without reason, to
   the impulse which proceeded from Abbotsford. Though such is not exactly the
   source which we might expect to give birth to the transition from
   profitless dilettantism to the intelligent spirit of scientific
   investigation, yet it is unquestionable that Sir Walter Scott was the first
   of modern writers `to teach all men this truth, which looks like a truism,
   and yet was as good as unknown to writers of history and others, till so
   taught,--that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled with living
   men.' (xvii)(5)

Lingering at disciplinary crossroads, Wilson distances scientific archaeology from the "profitless dilettantism" of text-based antiquarianism, yet he draws Scott's (and Carlyle's) humanistic history along with him. Wilson translates for his professional audience the study of material history within a mode of storytelling that takes the place of, or is a substitute for, the objective history the archaeologist claims to represent. Quoting Carlyle's encomium to Scott, Wilson writes Scottish prehistory as ontological narrative. Indeed, Scott's own heritage claims within historical romance--the preservation of "ancient manners," as he states baldly in the "Postscript" to Waverley--encode the affective nature of archaeological discourse that Wilson attaches to the origins of his profession. …