2.3 The late 18th century and the 19th century

The pre-scientific period

The late 18th century marks the end of the 'pre-scientific period of archaeology's development' (as termed by Chapman et al. 1981). This was mainly one of invaluable monument recording by such men as Leland (?1506-1552), Camden (1561-1623), Aubrey (1626-1697) and Stukeley (1687-1765). In this period antiquaries, travellers and the public often believed that burial mounds contained the direct ancestors of the local population, or were the graves of giants, of the battle-dead or of 'the great persons and rulers of those times' (Aubrey, Monumenta Britannica). Ideas on their purposes and on those of other monuments were frequently based on myth and folk-tales, or suggested by references in Classical authors to practices of Druids as recorded during the advance of the Roman Empire into these territories. Borlase in his work on the antiquities of Cornwall (1769) is a good example of how writers of the time were thus influenced, and yet if the Druid overlay is set aside, Borlase's work does contain some fundamental sensitivity to the meaning of burial rite and belief in his observations on the soul's progress. This is an example of the sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious initiation of an idea by a writer which may take a long time to achieve full exploration and reach maturity, even at times in different academic contexts. Other notable examples of such anticipation of future directions of thought and practice are in materials classification (de Montfaucon 1734) and stratigraphy (Rudbeck 1937-50).

Excavation methods and recording techniques

Nonetheless there grew an appreciation of the value of material remains. The late 18th century and the early 19th century saw the start of the systematic excavation of burials, and indeed this material was to prove to be the most substantial body of UK archaeological data in the 19th century. The initial emphasis in this phase was on the collection of relics. The century's greatest achievements came in advances in burial excavation technique, with Hoare (1812; 1821b) and Cunnington at the outset attempting to excavate in a fashion more organised than hitherto, and each feeling a debt to publish. The common assessment is that they were in the vanguard of their time. They were much deficient in what they did, both in recording and in interpretation, but if some large-scale excavators in the same century such as the Reverend Skinner had emulated them, then the archaeological record would be much the richer. Other excavators such as Bateman (1848; 1861), Warne (1866), Thurnam (1869; 1871), Pennington (1877), Greenwell (1877), and Mortimer (1905) to varying degrees appear to have used much the same approaches subsequently, and they published in much the same style and reasonably quickly. Their records are invaluable and still used by researchers. The Cunnington/Hoare style obtained through most of the century alongside less disciplined methods of the antiquarian school, until the advent of Pitt-Rivers.

He had the benefit of time, money, a zeal for order, organisation, method and procedure derived from military training and experience, a sense of public duty, his own inherited estate richly endowed with archaeological sites, an innovative mind, an interest in ethnographical research, and a strong interest in archaeology which dated from the 1870s. His imprint on excavation techniques and his principles and methods of recording a site and its data lasted for decades in UK archaeology. It was not, however, the case that his methods immediately took root: well into the 1920s there were still examples of poor work done on important sites and of poor or indifferent reporting, and only combinations of time, professional training and official controls have in due course reduced their incidence.

Pitt-Rivers was, however, a cautious contributor to thought on the meaning of finds and there is little interpretative content in his great works on the Cranborne Chase excavations (Pitt-Rivers 1887; 1888; 1892; 1898). Although he integrated evolution, typology and anthropology into his interpretation of excavated material, the major developments were to take place elsewhere. His contribution was to set immaculate standards for the next two generations of excavators in site examination, site data collection, three-dimensional data recording (objects and physical aspects of the site such as planning of features and stratification) and data publishing, in terms of completeness, presentation and speed. He recognised that later scholars must have checkable data. Petrie also integrated theory with practice.

Typology and chronology

By the early years of the 19th century, the collections of excavated material were mounting, and the classification of these developed the typological methods which now form part of the basis for archaeological studies. The most notable high-level typology was first published by Thomsen in his guide to the national collections at Copenhagen (1836), although it had been anticipated by an earlier worker (de Montfaucon in 1734). His Three Age system put forward the idea of progressive development in the effectiveness of tools from their being made of stone, to their manufacture from bronze and then iron, which led to progressive human control over the environment. Nilsson (1838-43) applied the same scheme to Norwegian evidence, and extended the thinking to embrace stages of economic development of peoples from hunting, herdsmen or nomads, agriculturalists and then civilised communities. Thus within seven years archaeological evidence (from mainly burial sites) that lacked any yardstick save myth and speculation had been provided with a framework of sequence and social economy against which to make trials. It was Lubbock (1865) who introduced the ideas of Thomsen and other Scandinavian archaeologists to the UK public a generation later. Worsaae's work on Danish burial mounds helped to verify the system and to establish the chronological approach to the analysis of mortuary practices (in which the association of grave goods was recognised). This approach was further developed, and aided by the development of typologies, and Montelius (1885), Reinecke (1904-11) and Dechelette and Grenier (1908) produced chronological schemes which provided the basis for the study of European prehistory in the 20th century.

Geology and biology

The 1850s were the pivotal decade of the century for science. In 1859 Darwin published the Origin of Species, and in the same year Boucher de Perthes' claims (1847, Antiquités celtiques et antediluviennes) for the finds in the Somme valley were endorsed by geologists and antiquarians Falconer, Prestwich and Evans who visited the site. These ideas of human and geological evolution, progression and succession were consonant, and were important as a developmental backdrop to burial archaeology, and to the discipline generally.

Ethnology (anthropology), psychology, sociology and philosophy

A few years later Lubbock (1865, ix) was writing optimistically: 'Ethnology ... is passing at present through a phase from which other sciences have safely emerged; and the new views with reference to the Antiquity of Man, though still looked on with distrust and apprehension, will, I doubt not, in a few years be regarded with as little disquietude as are now those discoveries in astronomy and geology which at one time excited even greater opposition.' Until then, evidence to illuminate burial archaeology had been adduced somewhat casually and unsystematically from other primitive peoples, either from contemporary accounts or from descriptions in, usually, Classical literature. Miles (1826) in his account of the Deverel barrow suggests interesting parallels with Red Indian and Lapland practices, Kemble (1855) in discussing burial and cremation is a less good example of the use of such parallels; Thurnam (1869; 1871) quotes many analogies with both practice and belief (anticipating some of the work of Hertz) and, in advance of his times, is prepared to push beyond consideration of the material remains. Borlase (1872) also has pertinent comment on the apparent universality of modes of burial. However, after noting these analogies the writers seldom moved on to consider the implied mortuary processes underlying the material remains. Concepts of acts of propitiation, piety, purification, the journey of the soul, the purpose of grave goods and the possibility of an after-life make rare and fragmentary appearances, save in Thurnam, and are usually heavily influenced by a background in the reading of the Classics. What is lacking from the discipline of ethnology until the 1870s is any framework to which to attach the evidence and theories.

The first such constructions were by Tylor (1871, revised editions 1873, 1891 and 1903) in which he developed the argument that animism or the belief in spiritual beings arose in the context of dream and death experience. A body-soul dichotomy was perceived in dream and projected into the death situation in which survival of the ghost-soul after destruction of the body was postulated. The belief in a soul for the human was extended to animals possessing a soul, then trees and plants and then inanimate objects. He based his theory on a number of anthropological studies. The work examined attitudes to belief in a soul and its destiny in different situations, concepts of the soul's journey to the land of the dead, ideas of what that land was like and why, the role of ancestors in primitive society, and the division of religious rites into 'expressive and symbolic performances' and 'intercourse with and influence on spiritual beings' with directly practical intention (1903 Volume 2, 362). Tylor notes how continuation of form in ritual may conceal underlying change in meaning over time (ibid. 363) and then goes on to illustrate with examples of prayer, sacrifice, fasting, 'and other methods of Artificial Ecstasy, Orientation, Lustration.' (ibid. 364). The last rite is purificatory, and fire and water are the media in various situations of life and death. This very important work offered the material for a major advance in the subject in the next century. However, its influence on archaeological explanation in the 19th century seems to have been moderate, and the role of ethnology or social anthropology was to take a long time to develop and establish.

Frazer (1886) elaborated on Tylor, and argued that all mortuary ritual was motivated by fear of the deceased's ghost-soul, and was an attempt on the part of the living to control the actions of the ghosts of the dead, and induce or compel them to remain at rest. He used hundreds of examples drawn from peoples from all over the world illustrating different methods of doing this through the media of behaviour, space use and materials. The approaches of Tylor and Frazer invoked ideas and beliefs as the reasons for mortuary practice in primitive religion, using a method that was characterised by later philosophical analysts as the 'rationalist-idealist's argument' (Binford 1971). On a more general but related theme, Robertson Smith (1889, 18) wrote that 'in the study of ancient religions we must begin, not with myth, but with ritual and traditional usage'. This criticism was to be elaborated and developed by the school of Durkheim in the next century, which stressed that rites were related to other institutions of the social system and could be expected to vary as did the social variables.

It may be that there was reluctance to explore the implications of Tylor's work because it was not believed that the prehistoric peoples of this country were capable of such sophisticated thinking, and the common 19th century concept of primitive peoples as 'savages' supports this notion. Thurnam appears open to other possibilities (1869, 237-43), but Borlase does not when he says that the state of their society was such that death was considered 'a total extinction or annihilation ... nor, on the other hand, had the future life yet been defined as a matter of certitude or religious contemplation' (1872, 27); as to the grave goods, 'whether any peculiar ceremony or superstition caused them to be laid beside the dead, it is impossible to say' (ibid. 88). Other workers (like Pennington 1877, 23) were more ambivalent. It was Borlase's conservative approach that was to persist in the discipline for many decades.

In the view of Bartel (1982, 33), many of the 19th century anthropological works stemmed from earlier pseudopsychological principles related to the universal occurrence of religious beliefs. A broader interest in relating funeral and other ceremonial death activities to society at large was shown by Fustel de Coulanges (1901). Inferences about social organisation were made, and he first related their significance to specific kinship structure. The late 19th century archaeologists were generally interested in the same questions as the ethnographers and other students of society at that time. Most of their observations were about social stratification and other social roles, as reflected by the presence of certain types of artefact. Others were also in search of social analogies, with the notion of tombs as houses being not unusual (Thurnam 1869; Borlase 1872).

However, Lubbock (1882; 1909) was a principal archaeological synthesizer who took matters on. He developed an isodirectional system of religious beliefs and then described burial treatment by stage of belief and theorised on how differences arose. He noted that differences can occur through age, sex, and status. Like Tylor he thought that dreams were the origins of religious beliefs and judged that the care taken with burial and the grave goods indicated 'a belief in the immortality of the soul, and in material existence after death' (Lubbock 1909, 133). He advanced the idea of symbolic killing of artefacts by their deliberate breakage, so that they could travel to the afterlife with the deceased. He did an analysis correlating monumentality with the economic stratum of the individual, but with no interpretation of the irregularities of correlation. He was typical of most late 19th century and early 20th century archaeologists in acknowledging the extreme variability found in the worldwide ethnographic sample of mortuary practice, in applying simple singular analogic argument to archaeological cases, and in making direct correlations among socio-economic status, qualitative and quantitative aspects of grave goods, and monumentality of burial (Bartel 1982, 36-37 in summary). Lubbock had much to thank Thurnam and Greenwell for, since they had already in 1869 and 1877 respectively laid the foundations for aspects of his work in their extensive analyses and commentaries on their archaeological evidence.

There were others who reacted to or extended the formulations of Tylor and Lubbock, and yet others who attempted to show relationships between death behaviour and artistic endeavours, using ethnohistoric literature such as the Iliad and Beowulf. The quality of some of these efforts may be criticised, but the idea of using the 'softer' sciences of ethnology, social anthropology, psychology and sociology to help to explain the archaeological record had taken root by the end of the 19th century. By 1900, archaeology had thus developed some potential for more scientific interpretation of material remains to describe past culture.


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