Decorated initial P

opular at home and linked to the projection of national power abroad, early Victorian archaeology sought to apprehend antiquity through its material traces, particularly those that could be presented to a wide public in museums, public spaces, visual art, and the press. After mid-century, however, archaeological spectacle gave way to more systematic forms of engagement, and it became possible to discern the contours of a discipline, including specialist publications, professional organizations, and formal curricula.

In an 1850 address delivered to members of the Archaeological Institute at Oxford, Charles Newton, then Keeper of Antiquities at the British Museum, comprehensively described the scope and nature of archaeology at that moment. Significantly, he viewed archaeology as an essential complement to ancient history, a key tool for filling in gaps in the documentary record. Newton conceded that documents held important keys to understanding the remote past, but he insisted that they were incomplete, and he situated non-textual objects -- the mace, the sword, the trumpet, the insignia, the utensils for a meal, the sacramental cup -- at the center of the archaeologist’s investigations. The purpose of archaeology, he declared, was to “collect, to classify, and to interpret all the evidence of man’s history not already incorporated in Printed Literature.” (2) Eager to separate the new archaeology from the older textual traditions of classical and Biblical studies, Newton presented archaeology as an immensely rich and largely unexplored territory. He emphasized the sheer enormity of the unwritten tradition, which extended even to living subjects who could be observed and analysed for the cultural fossils they contained, the echoes of the distant past “preserved” in their behaviors, in their “manners and customs.” (3)

Of special interest was speech, particularly the ways in which oral forms might capture real features of ancient life and memorialize historical events. “Every peasantry has its songs and mythic legends, its rude oral narrative of real events, blended with its superstitions. Archaeology rescues these from oblivion,” Newton wrote, “by making them a part of Printed Literature" (3). From this point of view, even Jacob and William Grimm's collections of folk tales and Sir Walter Scott's of folk ballads were considered archaeologically relevant; with this accession of folk materials, Newton launched a clear shot across the classicist's bow, for it was a short step from here to the long-standing controversy over the exact relationship between the original, perhaps sung, form of the Homeric epics and their textual tradition, particularly on the Continent. (Josefowicz, pp. 821-833) Newton nevertheless distinguished between composed and documentary records, emphasized the latter as the archaeologist’s proper domain, and then extended the realm of the “documentary” to include monuments and coins (11). Writing systems, particularly iconographic ones, were also of archaeological interest, according to Newton, insofar as their study also belonged to the history of art; and, of course, the instruments for making marks could also be excavated, described, and discussed.

Not everyone approved of this professional formation. Newton's comprehensive territory-marking notwithstanding, it was still the case that one did not need extensive knowledge of ancient Greek, Latin, or Hebrew to undertake archaeological work. "All that was needed," writes one historian, "was a great deal of meticulous fieldwork, skills in classification, and attention to detail” (Stevenson 32). Classical scholars remained particularly affronted by the pretensions of archaeologists. Calling for the rejection of “Schliemannism and spade lore,” Robert Tyrrell (1844-1914), Regius professor of Greek at Trinity College, Dublin, groused, in 1888, that when traditional philological matters were pushed to one side, the result was mere antiquarianism, articles and books written according to such a low standard, at least by his lights, that “it is more blessed to gush than to construe.” (qtd in Pearson, p. x)>

But this was 1888, and by this time Tyrell's handwringing seems less a response to the amateurish ethos of Schliemann and his contemporaries than an anxious grumbling prompted by archaeology's increasing academic respectability. Students hoping to become archaeologists even had a path at university by this point. Before 1879, students of classical archaeology undertook a course of study culminating in the Cambridge Classical Tripos, of which one part involved translations of ancient Greek and Latin texts. After 1879, the examination bifurcated; one part dealt with linguistic matters while the other permitted students to write papers on subjects of their choice related to classical antiquity, of which one was archaeology -- a major milestone for the discipline. By 1883, archaeology was no longer one topic among several but a complex subject with distinct sub-specialities. At Cambridge, late Victorian archaeology encompassed art, history, mythology, and religion, in addition to ancient languages. Students were expected to write papers on the histories of art and religion, on prominent excavation sites such as the Parthenon, and on objects used in ancient everyday life, in addition to a general essay that combined elements of the others (Beard, pp. 125-128). The education of an archaeologist might also include elements of anthropology, as debates raged about the relative sophistication of ancient science and technology and what that might suggest about societies both ancient and modern. The leading exponent of this line of thinking, the ethnologist Augustus Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900), used it to develop methodologies for the displays of archaeological artifacts; his collection was the kernel of the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford.

The Oxford University Natural History Museum that Houses the Pitt-Rivers Collection. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Although he was a classicist himself, Tyrell's animus surely extended to classical archaeologists whose excavations, mainly in Greece, threatened those who, by training and temperament, were deeply invested in philological and literary analysis rather than analyzing artifacts. Nevertheless the distinct and perhaps unique importance of ancient Greek civilization to the Victorians practically ensured that they would undertake extensive archaeological excavations there, regardless of the low opinion in which Tyrell and others held the work (Turner 5-7). Of the Victorian classical archaeologists, Newton, whose remarks on archaeology form the backbone of this essay, was perhaps the most important -- and he was primarily interested in Greece. As vice-consul at Mytilene and, later, consul at Rhodes, Newton could easily advance the interests of the British Museum in Greece and the Levant while undertaking excavations of his own, which he did at Kalymnos in the Dodecanese and at Halicarnassus, where he uncovered the famous mausoleum. He described his discoveries in two books, History of Discoveries at Halicarnassus (1862–1863) and Travels and Discoveries in the Levant(1865). Greece also provided a key training ground for archaeologists, as in the case of John H. Marshall, a key figure in the development of British archaeological work in India who had initally worked in Eastern Crete (Gill 524). Materials relevant to ancient Greece continued to flow from into Britain from Egypt, where a huge cache of thousands of Ptolemaic, Roman and late antique materials, collectively known as the Oxyrhnychus papyri, was uncovered by Bernard Pyne Grenfell (1869-1926) and Arthur Surridge Hunt (1871-1934), both papyrologists, at Oxyrhynchus (near modern El-Bahnasa) in 1898.

Meanwhile in Britain, classical archaeology continued its institutional consolidation. The Disney professorship in classical archaeology at Cambridge was established in 1851 by John Disney (1779-1857), an enthusiastic collector of antiquities. The first Disney professor was John Howard Marsden (1803-1891), who held the position while also serving as a parish rector. Both Marsden and Disney were also active in the Essex Archaeological Society. Marsden was followed by Churchill Babington (1821-89), who prepared editions of classical texts from papyri found in Egypt in the 1840s and 1850s; and later by Percy Gardner (1846-1937), a Greek specialist. His brother, Ernest Arthur Gardner (1862-1939), served as the second Director of the British School at Athens, founded in 1886, which was a major center for British studies of ancient Greece from 1887-1895.

Educating professional archaeologists was one thing; putting them to work, and paying for it, was another. Excavations were no longer simply a matter of putting shovels in the ground; stratigraphy mattered, as did careful, systematic classification of finds. Any expedition involved costs of travel, equipment, permits, labor, and cargo, to name the most obviously relevant expenses. But apart from work supported by universities and done as a sideline to military adventures, British archaeological projects tended to be funded through private organizations like the Egypt Exploration Fund, the Palestine Exploration Fund, and others like them (Thornton 2013; Gange 2013).

These organizations were, however, limited by characteristic pressures, such as being subject to outside influences in their operations. After mid-century, shifting expectations for professional archaeologists became evident in pressures on hiring. The Egypt Exploration Fund (EFF) provides a good example. When the EFF sought to hire its first excavator, Gaston Maspero, the French director of the Service des Antiquités in Egypt, rejected their initial candidate, the famous Schliemann. In his stead Maspero put forward Édouard Naville (1844–1926), an obscure Swiss epigrapher in the early stages of his career. He presented his reasoning in terms of professional qualifications, the very thing of which the otherwise astonishing Schliemann could not boast. "I have therefore thought of asking you," he wrote to the EFF, "for a young man who has made proficient classical studies, who is interested in the history and languages of the East, and who, with a little goodwill, could soon become something of an Egyptologist" (qtd. in Stevenson, p. 30).

The results were disappointing. In 1883, Naville led the EEF’s first excavation at Tell el-Maskhuta (ancient Pithom), and sent a cargo of antiquities to Cairo where they were divided according to local rules. After a negotiation involving Maspero and the Khedive, Muhammed Tewfik Pasha (1852–92), as well as the EEF’s president W. J. Erasmus Wilson, a single pair of granite sculptures was shipped to the British Museum. This meager result was not acceptable, and Naville was soon replaced by Flinders Petrie, whose excavations, as we have seen, prioritized the collection of many smaller pieces that were easier to transport, raised fewer objections among the gatekeepers (ie., Maspero), and were more appropriate for the municipal museums preferred in any case by the EFF as sites of distribution of knowledge about ancient Egypt (Stevenson 36.)

In addition to privately funded organizations like the EFF, Victorian archaeologists could also count for support on a growing number of professional societies and associated publications. Of these the British Archaeological Association (BAA), founded in 1843 by Charles Roach Smith, Thomas Wright and Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, was perhaps the most important; among other achievements, in 1844 it launched the Archaeological Journal, renamed in 1845 as the Journal of the British Archaeological Association. All three of the BAA's founders were also fellows of the The Society of Antiquaries of London, which brought out several archaeologically relevant publications as well. Of these the most influential was the Vetusta Monumenta, a profusely illustrated record of mainly British sites, objects, and architecture; another journal, Archaeologia, published papers presented at meetings of the Society; starting in 1844, the Antiquaries also produced a small-format publication, the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London, which was cheaper and less profusely illustrated than the other two. The Royal Archaeological Institute, established in 1844, focused on the archaeology of Britain. Founded in 1870 by Samuel Birch, Keeper of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, the Society for Biblical Archaeology promoted archaeological work that supported and advanced Biblical scholarship. Membership in these societies also sometimes overlapped with the Royal Society, as archaeologists were involved with paleontological and stratigraphic investigations in addition to their digs. (Hunter 119-120).

Victorian Archaeology

Related Material


Beard, Mary. The Invention of Jane Harrison. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Gill, David W.J. “Collecting for Cambridge: John Hubert Marshall on Crete.” The Annual of the British School at Athens 95 (2000): 517-26.

Hunter, Michael C. W. "The Royal Society and the Origins of British Archaeology." Antiquity LXV (1971): 119-120.

Newton, Charles. "On the Study of Archaeology" The Archaeological Journal, 8.1 (March 1851): 1-26.

Pearson, Richard, ed. Victorians and the Ancient World. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006.

Stevenson, Alice. Scattered Finds: Archaeology, Egyptology, and Museums. London: UCL Press, 2019.

Turner, Frank M. The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.

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.

Last modified 13 August 2021