Antiquarians, yes or no?
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?
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.
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.
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 Cavendish, Elizabeth 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!