"He does not concern himself with the future, for the future is simply another today. He is interested in yesterday, in the past that is vanishing, and in peril of fading from memory, of being lost to us forever – a prospect that fills him with panic. We are human because we recount stories and myths; the past – that is what differentiates us from animals. Shared histories and legends strengthen community, and man can exist only as part of a community, only by virtue of it." - Ryszard Kapuscinski on the Greek historian Herodotus, 2007.
The growing popularity of internet sites that enable us to research our family’s past, or the number of history and archaeology programmes on television suggest a need to understand our own personal and national origins. Faced with the mass of information now available, it is hard to enter the mindset of people whose sense of the remote past was shrouded in mystery and speculation.
This exhibition, to celebrate the founding of The Society of Antiquaries in 1707, asks us to do just that. Tracing the development of efforts to grasp the complexity of antiquity, it reveals the faltering and haphazard steps with which the monuments, buildings and material remains of the past came to be recorded, illustrated, recovered, preserved, collected and understood. In the nineteenth century, those efforts devoted to the architectural glories of the medieval period bore fruit in the Gothic Revival.
In the second half of the century, under the influence of theories of evolution and geology, the timespan of pre-Roman history expanded in a manner that would have been unimaginable to the founders of the Society—a Society that was now contributing to the development of archaeological practice and understanding, helping to refine methods which would be used in the study of that iconic British monument, Stonehenge, whose origins and purpose have fascinated antiquaries for the last 400 years.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter RA News and keep up-to-date with our current and forthcoming exhibitions
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)