The General, The Scientist & The Banker

On Sunday I decided to take advantage of the rare combination of a free weekend and a sunny day and set off into central London to go and see a couple of things that had been on my to-do list for a while. One of these was to attend an exhibition at the Wellington Arch, a structure originally designed as an entrance to Green Park, but now standing oddly isolated on a roundabout between Hyde Park and Green Park, and run by English Heritage. The arch itself had an interesting and controversial history throughout the nineteenth century, which you can read about here, but it was the temporary exhibition in the arch that I had gone to see.

Entitled 'The General, The Scientist & The Banker: The Birth of Archaeology and the Battle for the Past', it's the first in a series of five exhibitions English Heritage are holding this year to mark the centenary of the Ancient Monuments Act. Taking as its starting point the year 1859, the exhibition follows growing interest in, and the campaign to protect, Britain's prehistoric sites, up to the Ancient Monuments Protection Act 1882 and its implementation.

The exhibition treats 1859 as a significant year for two reasons - the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, and the discovery by an amateur antiquarian of a flint hand axe in Abbeville, France. Darwin's work helped inculcate belief in the great age of the earth, by showing that the mechanism by which species change, natural selection, operated over vast periods of time. At the same time, the archaeological find precipitated an accelerated interest in the lives of early European people as its discovery, buried in the same gravel which was home to the fossilised remains of long extinct animals, revealed the vastness of human history.

The hand axe is on display at the exhibition, and looking at this rather unassuming lump of rock in a glass cabinet it's hard to imagine the flurry of excitement that it caused. A procession of geologists, anthropologists and archaeologists all traipsed off to Abbeville to see it for themselves, and it was photographed in situ, which was the first time that photography had been used to precisely document the location of an archaeological find.

The hand axe found in Abbeville, France.
 Image source: Natural History Museum

This set the scene for imaginative engagements with the life of early Britons, and one response to this challenge is a series of paintings by Ernest Griset, commissioned by the anthropologist Sir John Lubbock. There are 20 paintings in the set, 14 of which are on display at the exhibition, and they depict various aspects of prehistoric life; hunting, childcare, even a tomb. Mike Pitts, who was involved in curating the exhibition, has written a fascinating post about the paintings here

Ernest Griset, 'Mammoth Hunters', c. 1870. Image source.

The exhibition guide describes how the paintings were based not only on archaeological finds and fossils, but also the accounts of men who had met contemporary 'savages' on voyages of exploration to Africa and the Americas. Such groups were frequently described in the nineteenth century as 'primitive', and thought to inhabit a stage of development of the human race through which Europeans had already passed. These 'savages' were, to some, a kind of living history, removed both spatially and temporally from the world of the European explorers. This understanding formed the foundation of Lubbock's collecting practises, too - he sought both prehistoric artefacts and items in daily use by people from other cultures around the world, believing them both to shed light on early European life in a similar way. 

At the moment I'm researching the cultural conditions which paved the way for the founding of the anthropological discipline in Britain, and so this part of the exhibition was of particular interest to me. The works of Lyell and Darwin had attempted to divorce time from morality; both men envisaged a world with no guiding principles, a world where events cause events which cause events, but without aim or purpose. In such a world, time's marching on is accompanied by no inevitable or inherent development. Yet Victorian anthropology, which grew out of the culture created by and distilled in these writings, employs an idea of 'progress' which is deeply embedded in its practices and rhetoric - the advanced European studying other cultures as historical relics. How did the idea of 'naturalised' time become distorted in this way? What were the implications for collecting practices? These are some of the difficult questions I've been dealing with in my thesis and this exhibition has helped me regain a bit of clarity in this area, at a time when I was getting waylaid by descriptions of sedimentary formations and igneous activity.

Next, the exhibition follows growing concern with Britain's prehistoric heritage as Lubbock lobbied parliament to pass a bill to help protect 'ancient monuments'. Lubbock and his supporters believed that careful preservation, study and excavation of these sites of archaeological significance would help to improve our understanding of human history. After failing nine times to get the bill passed, Lubbock retired from his seat in 1880 and a somewhat watered down version was passed on 18 August 1882. It listed 68 monuments, and the final part of the exhibition shows both contemporary and modern sketches and photographs of some of the 26 English sites which were proposed for protection. Many of them are very visually arresting, particularly in aerial photographs which illustrate the scale of some of the barrows. 

West Kennet Long Barrow, Avebury, which was one of the sites on the 1882 list. Image source.

The sites were surveyed by General Augustus Pitt Rivers, who was appointed 'Inspector of Ancient Monuments' and tasked with persuading landowners to give the monuments over into the government's guardianship. I've only visited one, the Nine Ladies stone circle in Derbyshire, but doesn't a recreation of Pitt-Rivers' tour sound like an excellent premise for a holiday masquerading as a research trip?

'The General, The Scientist & The Banker' is a great exhibition, with a lot to see packed into a small space. I enjoyed following the narrative from the discovery in France right through to Pitt Rivers' tour, and I look forward to continuing it in the next in the series, 'A Monumental Act: How Britain Saved its Heritage', which begins on 1st May. The current exhibition only runs until this Sunday, the 21st April, so you'd better be quick if you want to see it.