The birth of modern archaeology
In the second half of the nineteenth century, important changes occurred in both the preservation and collection of antiquities and in the development of archaeological method and understanding. Antiquities recovered from the rapid development of both London and other cities were only preserved and recorded by enthusiastic amateurs. In 1854, a fellow of the Society, Charles Roach Smith offered to sell his large collection of artefacts, rescued from the building sites of London, to the British Museum or the City Corporation. Both rejected his offer, and it was only extensive lobbying of the House of Commons by the Society that led to a special Treasury grant, enabling the British Museum trustees to purchase the collection and thus change their policy with the inauguration of a Department of British Antiquities in 1860.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, excavation and the practice of archaeology acquired a new classification of the prehistoric past and a growing sense of the timespan involved. Danish archaeologists had introduced the division of prehistory into the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages according to the type of tools that were made. Geological theories on the formation of different layers of rock led to the understanding of the stratigraphic principle that the oldest objects would be found in the deepest layers of excavation, and that objects found in the same layer would bear some relationship. So when Fellows of the Society returned in 1859 with the Abbeville hand axe, a flint tool that had been discovered in quarried gravel at the same level as the bones of extinct animals, Ussher’s dating of Creation had to be re-examined. John Lubbock’s influential Prehistoric Times, published in 1865, presented a view of ‘deep time’ influenced by Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution.
The work of Lieutenant General Augustus Pitt-Rivers at Cranborne Chase in Dorset would provide one of the most complete records of an excavation so far published (1887–98). Believing that everything was of importance, he annotated each step of his work, providing plans, sections, models and an array of illustrations. Realising that different questions might later be asked of the same material, he sought to record every detail ‘in the manner most conducive to facility of reference.’
In 1889 the Society started a Research fund from which grants could be made to encourage excavation. Work at the Romano-British town of Silchester was carried out from 1890 to 1909, employing the expertise of different Fellows. With Stonehenge after World War I and the important work by Mortimer Wheeler at the Iron-Age hill fort of Maiden Castle (1934–7), British archaeology was entering the popular imagination, an imagination now fed by the range and depth of television programmes that bring the modern forensic skills of the archaeologist to the attention of the public.
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This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department's guide, Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707-2007: An Introduction, by Greg Harris.
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