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18 September 2014
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Notepads to Laptops: Archaeology Grows Up

By Julian Richards
Age of antiquarians

Image of John Aubrey
Engraving of John Aubrey, 17th-century antiquarian ©
There is evidence that people have been interested in ancient objects at least as far back as Roman times. There is, however, a difference between collecting objects for their curiosity or monetary value and collecting them for the information they can provide.

In Britain, the roots of what would eventually become archaeology can be found in the studies of 17th- and 18th-century antiquarians such as John Aubrey (1626-97) and William Stukeley (1687-1765). They observed ancient sites, speculated about their age and function, collected artefacts and even carried out basic excavations to try and prove their theories.

'... his observations ... made before modern agriculture brought many radical changes to the landscape, are still valuable.'

John Aubrey was one of the first to realise that some of the sites he observed must have belonged to the pre-Roman period, and he is credited with bringing the monumental stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire to the attention of Charles II. On the orders of the king he also prepared a detailed description of Stonehenge, and compiled a great work, Monumenta Brittanica, which contained a vast body of notes and drawings of sites of all periods.

William Stukeley was one of the first people to investigate properly the sites that he discovered by means of excavation, and his observations on his findings, made before modern agriculture brought many radical changes to the landscape, are still valuable. Unfortunately, in later years, he became obsessed with Druidism and tended to view much of what he observed as the result of the Druids' influence and labours. One exception was a long prehistoric enclosure near Stonehenge that he interpreted as a Roman chariot racing track, or ‘cursus’. The date has changed but the name remains.

Both men experienced major problems with chronology. The first was of timescale as, according to the calculations of an Archbishop Usher, the Bible stated that the world was created in 4004 BC. The second was concerned with artefacts, which the early archaeologists thought had more to do with status than age. They assumed that weapons or tools of stone must belong to the poorest members of society and those of iron to the middle ranks, while bronze was reserved for the higher orders. The potential for such objects to provide evidence of date rather than social position was unrecognised

Published: 2005-01-24

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