Small Agencies and Great Consequences: Darwin's Archaeology

By Evans, Christopher | Antiquity, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Small Agencies and Great Consequences: Darwin's Archaeology


Evans, Christopher, Antiquity


'All great science is a fruitful marriage of detail and generality, exultation and explanation. Both Darwin and his beloved worms left no stone unturned.... Darwin has been gone for a century, yet he is with us whenever we choose to think about time' (Gould 1983: 129, 133).

Recent years have seen renewed interest in Darwinian concepts as an inspiration for evolutionary theory in archaeology (for example Barton & Clark 1997; Hart & Terrell 2002). This is not, however, the thrust of this paper, whose aims are more historiographic than programmatic. It will not focus upon Darwin's 'big book', The Origin ... of 1859 (or even The Descent ... of 12 years later), but rather his last volume, the wonderfully curious The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms of 1881 (hereafter Worms).

Darwin's earthworm studies subsequently engendered their own considerable scientific literature (for example Graff 1983; Feller et al. 2003; Butt et al. 2008), just as the potential effects of worms upon archaeological deposits is also a well-developed theme (for example Stein 1983; Armour-Chelu & Andrews 1994). It will be remembered that, in conjunction with his worm researches, Darwin dug at Stonehenge, inspiring Atkinson's 1957 Antiquity paper, 'Worms and weathering' (see also Chippindale 2004: 136), but the degree to which Darwin drew upon archaeology in the 1881 volume is not widely acknowledged by our discipline. Darwin's Worms is a 'small thing forgotten', or at least overlooked, by us; accordingly, the primary concern here is to explore the manner in which he employed archaeological findings and, also, the character of his sources and his own 'excavations'. However, before progressing to these, his broader connections with the subject first need to be explored.

Deep time--'a grand point'

Over the last decade Darwin studies have been enormously bolstered through direct web-access to his archival sources (for example van Wyhe 2006; Darwin online: http://Darwin-online.org.uk/). Among these is the Darwin Correspondence Project (http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/; hereafter 'CCD') and, in tandem with Cambridge University Press's The correspondence of Charles Darwin series (currently published up to Volume 16 and the year 1868), this represents a massive expansion of what original material has been previously available (cf. F. Darwin 1887). Exchanged with nearly 2000 individuals, his many thousands of letters allow for his intellectual networks to be traced to an unprecedented degree. They provide unique insight into the man/scholar, with their recipients/authors ranging from the 'greats' of the day (for example Falconer, Hooker, Huxley, Lyell and Tylor) to family relations.

Surprisingly, this resource shows us that Darwin was bur weakly connected to the developing world of archaeology. There is an enquiry of April 1860 to Albert Way concerning what archaeological evidence there was of the early history of dray horses (CCD Letter 2748). Darwin had got to know Way, an important archaeologist (he was a founding member of the British Archaeological Association), as a fellow beetle-chasing enthusiast while studying at Cambridge and remained in some contact with him in later life (Figure 1A) (Browne 1995: 99, 406). The archives hold a two-letter exchange with John Evans, one of 1878 relating to the Borneo Caves expedition (see Sherratt 2002) and there is also another from Boucher de Perthes (CCD Letter 4219). In April 1852 Steenstrup related shell-midden researches and in December 1873 Darwin sent J.E. Lee five guineas toward the William Pengelly testimonial fund (CCD Letters 1478a & 9180 respectively). All told, Darwin corresponded with some 20 individuals who could variously be described either as archaeologists or antiquaries/antiquarians and, reflective of the breadth of their research interests, the vast majority of these communications related to natural history topics. …

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