300 Years of Context for British Archaeology

By James, N. | Antiquity, December 2007 | Go to article overview

300 Years of Context for British Archaeology


James, N., Antiquity


The Society of Antiquaries is marking its tercentenary with the claim that, all along, it has enshrined the very spirit of British enquiry into the material evidence of history. Its first and biggest celebration was the exhibition, Making History, mounted in the gracious galleries of the Royal Academy of Arts, beside the Society's own premises in London, from 15 September to 2 December 2007. Compared to other recent commemorations of events perhaps more momentous than the foundation of a Society to consider 'such things as may Illustrate and Relate to the History of Great Britain' (Gaimster et al. 2007: 56), the story here of scientific progress was under-stated, sophisticated and confident. Had the occasion fallen a few years ago, would the title not have read 'histories'? Is our culture changing; or is it merely that the Society has always perpetuated a clique? Antiquaries', enunciated a sympathetic attendant--'it's really difficult to say' ...

Making History comprised about 100 pieces of the Society's own and some 80 borrowed from more than 25 other collections (Gaimster et al. 2007). From archaeology to heraldry, they were presented in 12 main sections, well spaced and quietly lit, covering, first, the Society's earlier emphasis on collecting and then Fellows' fieldwork and digs from the later 1800s to the mid 1900s. Whether or not that shift of emphasis in the exhibition itself was an effect of the division of labour in creating the show, it begged a question about how Fellows' various priorities and activities--archaeology, architectural history, landscape history and all the rest--relate to each other today.

Although scarcely acknowledging the wider historical context, the first section documented the prior development of chronological and archaeological awareness. There was a roll of Jacobean genealogy stretching more than 14m, Ussher's Annals of the World (commencing 4004 BC) and Browne's Hydriotaphia, a 'cabinet of curiosities' (with 'Finger of a Frenchman') and a handaxe. Then, after acknowledging predecessors (notably, Camden and his set, Aubrey, Dugdale), came portraits of early Fellows (Stukeley dominating), cartoons by Rowlandson and Cruikshank (barmy Antiquaries) and one of the Society's famous ballot boxes. Manuscripts, books and a series of sixteenth-century portraits, including caricatures of Kings Henry VI and Richard III, showed not only what sort of 'things' interested the Society but also what it could keep before gaining space in the 1750s.

The middle of the show argued that accuracy in recording then became a priority (Gaimster et al. 2007: 123; although, for the 1800s, Christopher Evans [2007: 280] found that, in the Society's series, Archaeologia, 'The quality ... of illustrations ... varies enormously'). Here were J.M.W. Turner's painting of Salisbury Cathedral's crossing (commissioned by Colt Hoare), an engraving after John Carter's technical drawing of Wells Cathedral, copies of medieval wall paintings at Parliament, the model of a passage grave (1785) and the startlingly effective watercolour of a palstave (c. 1796). Like so much other antiquarianism, some of these are now all that remains; but the Society's superb watercolour of the Roman helmet from Ribchester was accompanied here by the original. Here as well were the Bronze Age shield from Beith and the poignant processional cross from Bosworth Field. The Society also reconstructed historic events and documents: a copper plate (1771-3) showed the Field of the Cloth of Gold with fascinatingly high fidelity and there were colour engravings and even a cast of parts of the Bayeux Tapestry (1816-22). …

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