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Antiquarians, yes or no?

January 20, 2017

George Cruikshank The Antiquarian Society, 1812

I was very interested to read Howard Williams’s blog post Assembling the living, Assembling the dead in which he says ‘The last 15 years has seen the renaissance of the study of early medieval assembly places and practices. What’s going on? . . . A focus of antiquarian interest and 19th-century scholarship, for much of the 20th century the study of assembly saw little work fieldwork or syntheses, certainly among archaeologists.‘ It struck a chord because since September I have been teaching first year undergraduates about the histories of archaeology, and, as is traditional, we began with the antiquarians – actually, we began before the antiquarians, I talked about prehistoric reuses of monuments and artefacts, but given this can be summed up as ‘ooh look, it’s ever so exciting, they obviously found this stuff meaningful and significant but we haven’t got a clue what they thought they were doing but isn’t it interesting?*’ to all intents and purposes I began with the antiquarians. But, why do we do this? Are antiquarians actually relevant to a general history of archaeology? Given the 1950s are as remote as the Romans to most undergraduates why do we tell them about medieval, renaissance and enlightenment thoughts about the past? Wouldn’t it be more relevant to concentrate on 20th century ideas, point them in the direction of earlier thinking and leave them to decide if they’re interested enough to pursue this?


Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities, from Museum Wormianum, 1655.

Do the antiquarians actually help us understand how archaeology got to where it is today? This is particularly apposite for my poor first years because this week they have an exam and one of the questions** they have to answer is ‘What role did the antiquarians play in the development of fieldwork and archaeology more generally?‘ Now, in my defence this is a question I inherited from the previous lecturer. I could have changed the wording, but the sense would have been much the same, i.e. Tell me what you remember about the antiquarians and where they slot into the narrative of archaeological developments. Because this is the problem. If you look at the general histories of archaeology – and I’m aware I’m talking only about those in English – they all have a narrative arc of ignorance to mastery of the past. The antiquarians are there to provide a telling instance of how we got it wrong before we got it right. Read Stiebing, or Bahn, Fagan or Romer, even Trigger and this is the story they tell. It’s only when you begin to dig deeper, to read Schnapp, Smiles, Sweet and the like, that the antiquarians become more than a stage that archaeology had to go through in order to reach enlightenment – a Rousseauesque stage of development perhaps – or a humorous example of irrationality.


Thomas Rowlandson, “Death and the Antiquaries”, 1816

In these texts antiquarians emerge as different people, not misguided and foolish but with different interests, different approaches, different understandings of the world. They are clearly not us. They may be our forebears but we are not their direct descendants. And, reading these, still fairly general, books another disparity becomes clear, they are not solely our ancestors, rather they are claimed by all the sciences and humanities. They are learned men***, members of many different learned societies and engaged in broad areas of research.

In fact, you could argue that their influence on archaeology is merely tangential, which is exactly what I found myself doing while going through this exam paper with my students. Now, this is partly because as a good postmodernist I distrust the metanarratives and teleological tales so many of these generalised histories of archaeology present. It’s also because in moments of stress I tend to start babbling and I am easily stressed, particularly when I’m standing in front of a group of students with 20 minutes of a lecture to fill – time which I thought would be spent discussing the exam but instead I was faced with a wall of sullen/bemused/indifferent silence. It’s at these points that my mouth starts speaking without consulting my brain. I made – I like to think – a reasoned argument for answering ‘not at all’ to that exam question. Certainly by the time I caught up with myself I was arguing that cabinets of curiosity are not precursors to museum displays, that Ole Worm and William Stukeley were not investigating the past to answer questions we would recognise as valid, and that Ussher’s biblical exegesis, however fascinating, erudite and interesting, is not archaeology.


William Stukeley’s vision of the complete Beckhampton Avenue. 1743.

I went on – a lot, I suspect – explaining how different the world was back in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, how unrecognisable most of the 20th century ideas and understandings of the world are to us now standing in the year 2017. I told them that antiquarians are a fascinating subject in their own right – even when I’m babbling I’m still a historian after all – with their experiences and perceptions and explanations shaped by their wider social milieu, just as we are formed by ours. I talked – eloquently, I’m sure – about religion, colonialism, political and economic theories. I remember speaking about the expansion of the world, the solar system, geology, biology and literature. I touched on chemistry and physics. I touched on metannaratives, plots and tropes. I imagine I left them far more confused than if I’d just said ‘Well, if there are no questions I suggest you head off and begin your revision’.

As an off the cuff speech I like to think it had a lot of merit, but I’m not sure I agree with myself. I really don’t know what I think – so I’m throwing it open to all of you:

Are antiquarians irrelevant to general histories of archaeology? How far have they affected where we find ourselves now as archaeologists? And, is there any purpose in teaching undergraduates about them as part of the history of archaeology? Would we be better either ignoring the antiquarians or devoting an entire module to their ideas and explanations? Would I then want to further subdivide the antiquarians by interests, chronology, nationality until I ended up with many modules? Am I the last person to think of this and is everyone else already dealing with the antiquarians in a structured and more intensive fashion?

Let me know what you think


One day I’m going to work out how to do footnotes rather than just asterisks

*From their expressions the answer to this would be ‘No’.

**They already know the questions because that way we get more coherent answers – why did no-one think of this when I was a student?

***You can be sure I tell them the reasons nearly all antiquarians were men and they get to hear all about Margaret CavendishElizabeth Elstob, bluestockings and the London Society of Antiquaries refusal to admit women as fellows – oh yes, they can’t say they haven’t been told!

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate Hill permalink
    January 20, 2017 1:49 pm

    Surely the point is to undermine that Whiggish narrative of progress and thereby produce more self-reflective practitioners who ask better questions about why they’re doing what they do? And don’t assume because it’s new it’s better? I also think it helps us (including students) think reflectively and without prejudice about disciplines and interdisciplinarity. Archaeology (and History) aren’t self-evident, they were put together out of materials to hand and might have ended up looking quite different.
    I mean what do I know, I don’t teach antiquarianism to archaeologists but to History students who are studying the culture of the nineteenth century (but in some ways History and Archaeology share [or shared, I don’t come across it in history much any more, couldn’t say about archaeology] a view of antiquarianism as a primitive ancestor they had to develop from). They (my students) are moderately keen on it and not too blank, and can certainly see the point of studying it.
    BTW first years always look blank, it’s their MO – it’s a good tactic from their point of view and doesn’t mean your lecture isn’t the best thing they’ve ever heard.

    • harngroup permalink*
      January 20, 2017 4:01 pm

      I think I was wondering why with so little time for teaching history – 22 weeks in total – I was telling them about antiquarianism and trying to undermine the standard narratives presented by the general histories of archaeology. Also, I was feeling guilty about spending so little time on the antiquarians when they merit way more attention than I’m giving them.
      Maybe I just need to agitate for more teaching of history as part of the archaeology degree?

      • harngroup permalink*
        January 20, 2017 4:04 pm

        Probably should make it clear that’s 22 hours of teaching, not 22 whole weeks if me banging on about history. Take out the exam, a seminar, a session going over the exam questions and it goes down to 19 hours.

  2. January 20, 2017 2:55 pm

    An understanding of nineteenth-century (and earlier) antiquarians is absolutely essential to modern archaeological practice. In their dependence on written sources (and the historical context in which they wrote), they established many of the narratives that we still hear today – in the early medieval archaeology, for instance, antiquarians’ interest in the origin of nations shaped debates that still continue on the Germanic migrations (or invasions, depending upon one’s national affiliation). And, we often still use their data; hence, it is essential we know how they collected it, what they were looking for, and what they left behind.

  3. Monica Barnes permalink
    January 20, 2017 4:27 pm

    Stefanie Ganger has done a good job of revealing how the criteria, assumptions, and knowledge of 19th century Latin American collectors of ancient objects have shaped the modern museums that acquired their collections.

    • harngroup permalink*
      January 20, 2017 4:35 pm

      Oooh, reference please

      • Monica Barnes permalink
        January 20, 2017 4:39 pm

        Sure. Gänger, Stefanie, Relics of the past : the collecting and study of pre-Columbian antiquities in Peru and Chile, 1837-1911 Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2014.

        also: Nature and antiquities : the making of archaeology in the Americas / edited by Philip L. Kohl, Irina Podgorny, and Stefanie Gänger. Tucson : The University of Arizona Press, 2014.

  4. Joann Freed permalink
    January 20, 2017 6:02 pm

    I think that museums are the link–we have inherited our museums, not just the material on display but the collections in the storerooms, largely from antiquarians, and the complete objects in museums are an intensely important resource for archaeologists. And surprisingly, a little research often reveals that these objects are not entirely without provenance, so score one, two and three for the antiquarians.

  5. harngroup permalink*
    January 20, 2017 8:25 pm

    Thank you Monica

  6. Tim Murray permalink
    January 21, 2017 6:49 am

    You might want to look at Schnapp et al. World Antiquarianism. Getty Research Institute for a more modern take on the issues you raised.

    • harngroup permalink*
      January 28, 2017 7:25 pm

      Thanks Tim, that looks a fascinating book. Not in our library but I’ll look out for it on my travels.

  7. William Stenhouse permalink
    January 23, 2017 2:45 am

    I thought that this was very interesting: I deal with so-called antiquarians and not with any later archaeologists, and so I come at these questions from that perspective. It’s useful to see how someone who comes from an archaeological background would approach them.
    My sense is that addressing antiquarians could help students to think in general terms about the raw materials of archaeology – antiquarians were pioneers in gathering and collecting and comparing objects, pioneers in the field of material culture, if you like – but their methods for doing this were for the most part very different from those archaeologists use today. Also, as Kate Hill suggests, thinking about antiquarians allows students to consider the ways in which the purposes for which people turn to material culture, and the perspectives from which they address archaeological questions, vary over time. (I found it interesting to compare the first and second editions of Trigger: in the second, he gives much more space to antiquarians, presumably under the influence of Schnapp, and has removed some intemperate language about their myopia deriving from their religious beliefs – he’s got rid of some of his presentist, whiggish bias).
    I think that there is a wider point, too – it’s tricky to define antiquarian: someone who is interested in objects? someone interested in writing the history of customs and institutions, not events? someone interested in the past without a real purpose? (this is largely an anglophone problem: the French term erudit, etc, is more useful I think) Within a narrative of triumphant progress, there is a danger that the antiquarian is simply the proto-archaeologist, before the real archaeologists emerged in the nineteenth century. It seems it’s part of the same narrative that uses the word science to distinguish proper archaeology from everything else, which immediately makes me sceptical.

    • harngroup permalink*
      January 28, 2017 9:37 am

      This is exactly why I’m now questioning teaching about antiquarians to 1st year students. I’m with you and Kate and I like to think this is how I teach my students – think critically, be aware of what has been said previously and why, look at what the antiquarians were trying to do. And, no, they are not proto archaeologists and no, what follows is not science or ‘the coming of age of archaeology’ or however it’s being phrased. My worry is that the students are not at the point of engaging critically with any of this. Archaeology is so new to them they don’t know what it is never mind what it was and when (if) they read Bahn and even new edition Trigger the old myths are perpetuated and this is what they repeat back to me. And, in that bizarre way of academics, I’m feeling guilty, I feel antiquarians deserve more than this.
      I’m also feeling despondent because I’ve now marked their exams and it is just same old same old mythology as I feared. Kate – is yours a first year course and are your students all historians?
      Thank you everyone who has commented by the way – I love it when HARN does its stuff!


  1. HARN 2017? | HARN Weblog

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