Engineering the Past: Pitt Rivers, Nemo and the Needle

By Evans, Christopher | Antiquity, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Engineering the Past: Pitt Rivers, Nemo and the Needle


Evans, Christopher, Antiquity


Recently, having had the pleasure of re-reading Verne's 20 000 Leagues Beneath the Sea for our children, I was struck by the similarities between the novel's elusive protagonist, Captain Nemo, and the renowned later nineteenth century British archaeologist, Lt.-General Pitt Rivers. Could they have been the same person? How could something so seemingly blatant have gone unnoticed? These questions are, of course, only raised in a spirit of academic tongue-in-cheek. Yet, in an ethos of 'learning through amusement' (itself directly relevant to the themes of this study), exploring the parallels between these two 'heroic' individuals provides insights into the nature of nineteenth century science, Victorian edification and disciplinary institutionalisation (e.g. Levine 1986). This eclectic contribution will, moreover, be introduced with the third component of its headline--Cleopatra's Needle--as this provides an appropriately quasi-nautical, scene-setting parable on the project of nineteenth century archaeology and the problem of 'deep time' (Murray 1993; see, for example, Freeman 2004 concerning the development of 'geological time').

Cleopatra's voyage

Worthy of Conrad or Stephenson, the transhipment of the obelisk, Cleopatra's Needle, is a tale of both imperial symbolism and high seas adventure, and it was thoroughly covered in a series of articles in The Illustrated London News between March 1877 and September of the following year. The monument had actually been presented to the nation in 1829 by the Viceroy of Egypt in commemoration of the Battles of the Nile and Alexandria. The British government, though, declined the cost of its transportation and it lay embedded in Alexandria adjacent to the City's railway station until threatened with construction. It was then only through the private benefaction of the eminent surgeon, Erasmus Wilson, that it was to be shipped to London; Britain's capital, of course, needing an obelisk in the same way that they adorned Paris and Rome (New York receiving its own in 1881). The engineering solution hit upon by John Dixon was ingenious. It required wrapping a great wrought-iron pontoon (the Cleopatra) around the prone, in situ 150 ton monument (Figure 1). Having a deckhouse and accommodation for three men, albeit 'submarine-like' it had to be towed by the steamer, Olga, during its voyage to London. However, in October 1877 a severe gale in the Bay of Biscay caused its abandonment, with six crew of the Olga losing their lives while attempting to rescue those in their tow. Cast adrift, the Cleopatra was eventually picked-up by another steamer destined for Spain, and was left in port at Ferrol with a claim of salvage against her. Only in January of the following year was she finally delivered by steam-tug to London (the cost of the enterprise rising by 50 per cent to c. 15 000.00 [pounds sterling]).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Not surprisingly, the arrival of the obelisk in the city drew great crowds. Having previously detailed the engineering methods to be employed in its erection (as it had also celebrated the manner of its encasement and shipment from Egypt), on 21 September 1878 The Illustrated London News announced that the obelisk had finally been raised at the Thames Embankment. Remarkably, the same article also outlines the contents of the time capsule that was placed within earthenware jars beneath the obelisk: bibles, a Bradshaw Railway Guide, a Mappin's Shilling Razor, a box of hairpins, a case of cigars, pipes, an Alexandra Feeding-bottle, an assortment of toys, a complete set of British coins (including an Empress of India rupee) and the photographs of 'a dozen pretty Englishwomen' (Figure 1). In short, a thoroughly domestic, middle-class assemblage of Christian Victoriana on which to found a rare monument of exotic antiquity, and its placement created the kind of extraordinary juxtaposition of 'things' that was a hallmark of post-Medieval globalisation. …

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