Decorated initial H

istories of Victorian archaeology tend to focus on prominent individuals and their accomplishments. The first accounts of Victorian archaeological exploits were usually written by the protagonists, and they cast themselves, as Layard did, in heroic roles involving the plunder of spectacular objects from distant and frequently exoticised locations. These accounts were repeated and extended by biographers who were themselves generally also enthusiasts writing for a similarly enthusiastic audience. But this view of the archaeologist as a heroic adventurer omits a great deal and consequently distorts our understanding of Victorian attitudes toward and practices related to the material traces of antiquity.

Roman Remains Lately Found in Camomile Street, City [of London]. Source: Illustrated London News (1877).

In fact, a good deal of Victorian archaeological effort was expended close to home, in projects intended to unearth the history of Roman and pre-Roman Britain. In 1847, R. Grove Rowe, a solicitor, uncovered the remains of a Roman theatre at St. Albans (Verulamium) in Hertfordshire. In the 1830s and 1840s, Charles Roach Smith and E. B. Price, writing in the Gentleman’s Magazine, discussed remnants of Roman pottery discovered beneath London’s streets during the construction of sewers; that their extensive remarks were later republished in a compendium of articles on Roman Britain published by Gentleman’s Magazine in 1887 attested to the subject’s enduring appeal (Gomme 551-568 et passim). Hadrian's Wall proved an ongoing preoccupation, providing an invitation to unpick and rework relationships between English history and imperial Rome. Other investigators focused on the preservation of ancient remains that were distinctly part of England’s ancient past unconnected with Rome, e.g., the stone formations (cromlechs) in the Channel Islands, whose vulnerability to predation was emphasized in an article appearing in the Illustrated London News. Subsequent Victorian archaeologists, such as John Kemble (1807-1857), studied the artifacts unearthed by these local excavators, illuminating the everyday lives of medieval Britons. For instance in 1857, a hillock of 15-20 feet in height was levelled as part of a construction project at Hove, in the course of which excavators found an amber cup, among other Bronze Age relics; the find helped to fill out a picture of Britain’s Bronze Age inhabitants and their funerary customs. (On Kemble, see Williams 2006.)

Additional closer-to-home investigations were powered by simple fascination with spectacular ancient artifacts, as with Thomas “Mummy” Pettigrew (1791-1865), a surgeon who unwrapped Egyptian mummies before large, rapt audiences at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. (Moshenska 1-3) Other work took place in libraries and in the storerooms of museums, where scholars probed archaeological finds in search of keys to ancient scripts and links with extant ancient texts. Activity of this less spectacular type included contributions of the Egyptologist Samuel Birch (1813-1885), Keeper of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, which were largely philological and bibliographic; and of Rawlinson, the pioneering Assyriologist, who was similarly reliant upon materials unearthed by others, though he supervised excavations as well. Perhaps the most remarkable of these investigations was undertaken by George Smith (1840-1876). Born into a working-class family in Chelsea, Smith had left school at the age of fourteen to train as an engraver at Bradbury and Evans, also the publishers of Punch. During breaks in his workday, he visited the nearby British Museum, where he sifted through cuneiform materials sent from Mesopotamia by Layard and Hormuzd Rassam (1826-1910). One November afternoon in 1872, while puzzling over a trove of fragments, he discovered one that described a flood, an ark, and a suspiciously Noachic hero; the fragment was part of a rendition of the Gilgamesh epic (Damrosch 9-18).

The high-profile excavation -- grandly ambitious, undertaken by a heroic adventurer in a distant and easily exoticized place, and resulting in quantities of spectacular artifacts sent back for display in museums -- was hardly the only kind of archaeology done by Victorians. In fact, Victorians had a variety of encounters with the distant material past. Scholars have recently begun to study these encounters and in so doing have illuminated the ways in which the past was a rich resource, goad, and inspiration, even for those left out of standard accounts -- the spouses who accompanied the excavators at their work; the first women archaeologists, who struggled to secure positions that were appropriate for their training and aptitude beyond clerical activities; and the local workers who sifted, dug, carried, and not infrequently also provided linguistic, geographic, and other kinds of expertise and hospitality. (See, for instance, Cohen and Joukowsky, 2006; Champion 1998; Díaz-Andreu 2007.) Studies of institutions and disciplinary networks illuminate additional dark corners of Victorian archaeological projects, showing how these often quite expensive projects were funded, organized, and promoted to donors and the public (Thornton 2013; Gange 2013). Other recent work focuses on links between archaeology and other disciplines, such as geology (e.g., Cregan-Reid 2013).

Victorian Archaeology


Champion, Sarah. "Women in British Archaeology: Visible and Invisible."" in Excavating Women: A History of Women in European Archaeology. Edited by Margarita Díaz-Andreu and Marie Louise Stig Sorensen. New York and London: Routledge, 1998. Pp. 175-197.

Cregan-Reid, Vybarr. Discovering Gilgamesh: Geology, Narrative, and the Historical Sublime in Victorian Culture. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2013.

Damrosch, David. The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Henry Holt, 2006.

Díaz-Andreu, Margarita. A World History of Nineteenth-Century Archaeology: Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Past. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Gange, David. Dialogues with the Dead: Egyptology in British Culture and Religion, 1822-1922. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Gomme, George Laurence, ed. The Gentleman’s Magazine Library, Part II: Romano-British Remains. London: Elliot Stock, 1867.

Thornton, Amara. "'A certain faulty for extricating cash': Collective Sponsorship in Late 19th and Early 20th Century British Archaeology." Present Pasts 5.1 (2013): 1-12.

Williams, Howard. "Heathen Graves and Victorian Anglo-Saxonism: Assessing the Archaeology of John Mitchell Kemble." Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 13 (2006): 1-18.

Last modified 13 August 2021