Ancestral Archives: Explorations in the History of Archaeology

By Schlanger, Nathan | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Ancestral Archives: Explorations in the History of Archaeology


Schlanger, Nathan, Antiquity


Historiographic revelations

Back from his famous visit to Boucher de Perthes in the spring of 1859, John Evans hastened to invite some antiquarians friends in London to examine his finds. The flint implements he had collected with Joseph Prestwich in the undisturbed gravel beds of the Somme valley were indeed, or so he believed, altogether new in appearance and totally unlike anything known in this country (Evans 1869: 93-4):

But while I was waiting in the rooms of the Society of Antiquaries, expecting some friends to come out of the meeting room, I looked at a case in one of the windows seats, and was absolutely horror-struck to see in it three or four implements precisely resembling those found at Abbeville and Amiens. I enquired where they came from, but nobody knew, as they were not labelled. On reference, however, it turned out that they had been deposited in the museum of the Society for sixty years, and that an account of them had been published in Archaeologia ...

Of the many lessons to be drawn from this extraordinary revelation -- the gap between empirical finding and meaningful discovery, as in the case of John Frere at Hoxne, or the ambiguous role of the collection in the preservation and presentation of knowledge -- there is one that concerns us most. Much as it went unrecorded in the chronicles of the discipline, this episode amply demonstrates just how essential and integral is the history of archaeology to archaeology. The finds reported by Frere (1800) in Archaeologia were particularly valuable as a retrospective precedent because they provided independent corroboration for arguments -- over high human antiquity -- that were still extremely fragile and controversial. The same goes for the `British weapon' unearthed in Gray's Inn Lane, whose existence was indicated to the now eagerly attentive Evans by the British Museum's A.W. Franks (FIGURE 2). (On these stalwarts of Victorian prehistoric science, see notably Roe 1981; Chapman 1989; Van Riper 1993; Cook 1997; and Sherratt here). When the insular location of these hitherto unrecognized finds is further taken on board, we can understand that their historiographic appropriation represented for Evans a timely and powerful asset: as he put it, `it was exceedingly gratifying to find these discoveries in the valley of the Somme so completely borne out by a parallel case in England recorded so long previously' (Evans 1869: 94).

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

What this unexpected gratification amounts to, I would argue with but little exaggeration, is the very founding act of prehistoric archaeology's disciplinary history -- and, by extension, of the discipline itself. Archaeology, as now practised, became a self-conscious scientific discipline during the second half of the 19th century, a development touched upon here by Schnapp from a broad historical perspective, by Lewuillon in the light of its immediate antecedents, and by Kaeser regarding some of its agents and motivations. Among the different manoeuvres and undertakings surrounding this emergence, archaeology also had to construct for itself a history, recovering from previous records of interest in the material past convenient episodes and perspectives on which to base the discipline's current claims for novelty, rigour, expertise and truthfulness. With so much at stake, it is remarkable that Evans' disclosure on the serendipitous origins of his historiography was ever allowed to see the light of print (albeit in an obscure provincial publication, reproducing a fire-side conversazione for the re-opening of the Blackmore museum in Salisbury in 1868). In his formal communications to the Society of Antiquaries about the occurrence of flint implements on the Continent and in England (Evans 1860; 1862; and see Prestwich 1861), it is apparently evident to both author and readers that the search for relevant `milestones' in the annals of knowledge constitutes an integral component of the archaeological inquiry -- indeed a veritable imperative for a nascent discipline eager to display its positive ambitions and professional standards. …

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