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My history of archaeology

March 14, 2014

Sometime in the summer of 2005 I looked up from my trench full of dead Anglo-Saxons and gazed across a panorama of knees.  Like a good public archaeologist I asked the knee-owners if they had any questions, but they said no, they were just happy to watch me digging.  How curious I thought.

Several years later I found myself in the bowels of Yale University’s rare books and manuscripts library studying a faded letter in which a Victorian explorer described to his doctor the rather rotten condition of his diseased genitals.

How did I get from a sunny field in Norfolk to a basement full of box-files in wintry Connecticut?  My journey into the history of archaeology has been an odd but enjoyable one.  Along the way I’ve acquired a detailed knowledge of Milton’s theological writings and their associated controversies, studied the evolution of the scalpel, read some appalling light verse and been appointed to the editorial board of a freemasonry journal.

My PhD research was on the archaeology of the Second World War, and when I finished it I applied for about 18 post-docs to study war some more.  But somewhere along the way I’d remembered the Norfolk knees and the question: why do people like to look at archaeology happening?  What do they see – or think that they see?  And what does this have to do with the creation of archaeological knowledge?  I wrote a short and rather lazy article and forgot all about it, until all 18 of my WW2 post-doc applications got rejected and my one very speculative one on the history of public archaeology got accepted.  By the grace of god and the Leverhulme Trust I became a historian of archaeology.

What did I know about the history of public audiences at archaeology?  Not a lot – but I knew that Mortimer Wheeler had audiences at Maiden Castle, that W.F. Grimes had them at the Temple of Mithras dig (he hated it), and that back in the old days people used to unroll Egyptian mummies.  Mummies sounded fun, so that’s where I began, and that’s where I found Thomas Pettigrew, also known as “Mummy” Pettigrew: archaeologist, surgeon, mummy unroller, and by all accounts a total shit.

Thomas Joseph Pettigrew

Thomas Joseph Pettigrew

Thomas Pettigrew has taken over my life.  His portrait hangs on my office wall, his books have gutted my bank account, his handwriting has confounded me.  I have wandered through Brompton Cemetery looking in vain for his grave, visited the sites of his various London homes, and stood in his place at the Royal Institution.  I am writing a biography of Pettigrew and it is dragging me roughly and relentlessly through the social, intellectual, political, scientific, religious and cultural histories of Georgian and Victorian England. 

Pettigrew was a leading Freemason – I must learn about the doings of 1820s Lodges.  Pettigrew was a surgeon and anatomy lecturer – I must learn about the changing nature of medical education in the early nineteenth century.  He served the Duke of Sussex, so off to Windsor Castle I go to consult the Royal Archives, escorted inside by an armed police officer.  Two collections of Pettigrew’s papers are within a 3 minute walk of my office – bliss!  But the third and largest is in New Haven, Connecticut, home of the best pizza on the planet, so off I go.

And gradually I’ve come to know the man.  A happy and loving father, recalled with loving affection by his children and grand-children.  A lower-middle-class autodidact making his way in a ruthlessly upper-class intellectual milieu.  A schemer, plotter and back-stabber who caused schisms in the Royal Society, the Society of Antiquaries, and the British Archaeological Association – the latter a rift that remains unresolved to this day.

He stares out of his photographs and engravings with a good-humoured, mild gaze, and his writing is fluent, amusing and erudite.  In my imagination I can see him candle-lit onstage at a Victorian theatre ripping the bandages from an Egyptian mummy and entertaining his audience with tales from Egyptian history and myth.

History is (or ought to be) more than the biographies of dead white men.  Pettigrew’s letters to and from his friends led me down detours: he consulted on a long-lost Milton manuscript unearthed by a friend, so I’m off for a week in the Milton section in the library.  He spread rumours that mummified plants could germinate, creating a myth that fooled Charles Darwin and that Egyptologists have tried and failed to stamp out for more than a century.  He sent samples of mummy to his old friend Michael Faraday, and in a footnote I’ve found a neglected corner of the history of archaeological chemistry to poke around in.  The web spreads endlessly out, and the archive boxes keep revealing treasures.

Pettigrew was himself a historian of early science and medicine, and in his 4 volume lives of the great medical men he included an autobiography, an act of staggering but typical egotism.  He would not be surprised that his life is being studied with such fascination 150 years after his death – on the contrary, he probably imagined it as his rightful due.  And I am loving every moment of it.

Gabriel Moshenska


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