Unearthing the past
There were two strands to the recovery of the material remains of the past from the ground: the accidental and the deliberate. The principal targets for excavation were the raised mounds of earth known as barrows, which contained the graves of the distant past, sometimes with burial chambers of stone or wood. Of the two main types, long barrows dated back to the Neolithic or New Stone Age (3,500 BC), and were generally communal graves, while round barrows were common from the Bronze Age (c.1,800 BC) right through to the Saxon period (AD 500-11,000) and were for individuals or small groups of people. Many had been disturbed in the past, either out of simple curiosity or in hope of finding some buried treasure, but they were now being investigated to provide information about the past.
William Stukeley worked on the barrows near Stonehenge, proving that they were pre-Roman and leaving a record of his presence by depositing a contemporary coin, but he incorrectly assumed that the barrows were the same age as the monument. The two most successful barrow diggers of the eighteenth century were the Reverend Bryan Faussett and the Reverend James Douglas. Both worked in Kent, and Faussett, elected a Fellow of the Society in 1763, was responsible for opening nearly 750 mainly Anglo-Saxon burial mounds. Keeping careful diaries and recording and illustrating much information, he eventually collected over 400 items of Anglo-Saxon jewellery, including the beautiful Kingston Brooch, although he lacked the means to prove their origin, referring to the inhabitants of the barrows as ‘Britons Romanised’.
'I advised them … to open the ground above, till they should get down to the skeleton, and then carefully to examine the bottom of the grave. This advice … they did not at all relish; but after a little persuasion and a little brandy … they very cheerfully approved and very contentedly followed, so that in a very short time they got to the skeleton.'
- Bryan Faussett’s Diaries
Before becoming a priest, James Douglas worked as a military engineer on the defensive earthworks defending the Medway and Chatham Docks, work that involved the destruction of many grave-sites. Douglas was interested enough to collect and record the many Anglo-Saxon artefacts recovered, and went further than any of his contemporaries in his analysis of the process of burial.
Douglas wrote his Nenia (‘dirge’) Britannica over a number of years, publishing it in one volume in 1793. He aimed to write a general history of funerary customs but produced much more. He used both his own finds and the notes and drawings of Bryan Faussett, who had died in 1776. Douglas’s approach to the artefacts and his attention to their proper illustration enabled the reader to compare and contrast related objects, in what was to be the first systematic recording of such material. Unlike Faussett, he recognised that their finds were Anglo-Saxon in origin. Containing the first sections and plan of a grave, the book was regarded as too scientific by his contemporaries.
The excavation of barrows went on well into the nineteenth century, with more sophisticated attempts to classify the objects found and greater attention paid to the human remains. The antiquaries’ apparent obsession with death and burial, and the opening of royal tombs, inspired Thomas Rowlandson’s satirical print Death and the Antiquary, published in 1815.
During the eighteenth century, the landscape of the country changed with the expansion of agriculture and the building of canals and new roads. These and other interventions, such as the cutting of peat, quarrying for sand and gravel, or the search for new sources of minerals, all produced chance finds of objects that local gentry with an interest in antiquities might report or present to the Society. Sometimes the exact location of artefacts was unrecorded by the workmen who found them. Often their association with dateable items like coins was lost. But the flow of casual finds provided valuable materialthat needed to be properly recorded, both for the sake of comparison and as objects whose future preservation might be uncertain.
Right from the start, William Stukeley had recognised the importance of a proper description and illustration of the objects presented for discussion, but it was not until 1784 that the attendance of a qualified draughtsman became a formal requirement for meetings. Many artefacts ended up in private collections, some were lost, others melted down for bullion, and in these cases the Society’s records provide the only evidence of their existence. The majority would be acquired by museums.
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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.
Click here to download a PDF of this guide (1.3 MB)