Archaeological Illustrations: A New Development in 19th Century Science (1)

Article excerpt

A museum on paper

A recent colloquium on French archaeology in the second half of the 19th century drew attention to the work of a talented illustrator, Victor Caucheme, several of whose watercolours may be seen at the museum in Compiegne. Additional research, intended to place this painter-archaeologist in historical context, showed that his situation was not unique and that, during the same period, in France well as elsewhere in Europe, there was a surge of interest in reproductions of objects and of archaeological sites. This is not to be confused with the fashion for romantic landscapes, of which Baron Taylor's Voyages dans l'ancienne France serves as a good example (Adhemar 1997), nor with the passion for monuments, as shown by the imposing collection of Laborde (Laborde 1816-1836). Rather, this activity was the doing of an archaeological school which, for three-quarters of a century, set out to explore the meaning of archaeological excavation and their associated finds.

The career of Victor Caucheme and others like him, such as the classical Francois Thiollet (Thiollet 1847-1859) or the innovative Charles Cournault (Collectif 1999), was no longer one of armchair scholars: these are rather a new generation of researchers which appeared during the Second Empire. Drawn to archaeology by personal interest, and later confirmed in this path through their activities in various learned societies, these new-style scholars became noted for their activities in the fields of archaeological excavation or conservation, in the course of which they compiled an impressive amount of documentation. Their portfolios of watercolours enriched an already burgeoning European production, rich in artistic and technical innovations, especially in the second half of the 19th century. In spite of the quality and the volume of the results they achieved, their efforts in the service of archaeological research have until now gone unnoticed.

The drawings made by this new school of archaeologists had neither technical nor artistic objectives but they were already in themselves bearers of meaning: the intrinsic meaning of the object, but also the meaning of collection sconsidered as coherent entities, able to suggest connections and similarities between cultures. The beautiful albums they produced are far more than moving collections of archived drawings: they testify to a vast historiographic undertaking whose time had not yet come. Indeed, comparative archaeology did not meet the success which several researchers had ambitiously predicted: the Salle de Mars at the Musee des antiquites nationales at Saint-Germain-en-Laye remained a half-fulfilled promise, and the project of its curator Henri Hubert disappeared completely with his death. The materials, however, remained: during the last third of the 19th century, the likes of de Ring, Chantre, Flouest and Cournault combed the museums of Europe in order to assemble, arrange and display the most widely varied collection of objects. With their rationalized collecting, these scholars postulated that archaeological collections would achieve their full value through the comparisons of the objects within them. A veritable `museum on paper' was thereby assembled through images, and put at the service of an ambitious comparative project.

The sense of the image

Unfortunately, this massive documentation -- estimated at more than 20,000 plates, printed books and originals together -- did not meet with the expected success among the scholarly community, and most editions remained very limited (several hundred copies at the most). So much energy spent for such meagre results! There are three distinct axes along which this paradoxical situation could be analysed. The first concerns scientific principles. These archaeological drawings were obviously not whimsical: the learned illustrators who produced them rather followed the highly ambitious and concrete goal of replacing each archaeological object in its wider cultural context. …