Antiquaries in Britain 1707–2007 (Exhibit/Royal Academy of Art UK)

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Making History is not a big exhibition. It takes up only three-and-a-bit of the Royal Academy’s main rooms. But it is full of charm and its catalogue burns with enthusiasm, more so than many a self-styled blockbuster that takes a period or style and smothers it in philistine commentary about the consumption patterns of a new leisured class. There are some beautiful objects on show that antiquaries have dug up or got hold of: the Roman legionary’s cavalry parade helmet, found in 1796 by a clogmaker’s son playing on waste ground at Ribchester, Lancs; the garnet-and-gold brooch found in the Kingston Barrow by the son of the Revd Bryan Faussett, the greatest of eighteenth-century barrow-diggers, who was himself sitting in his carriage at the time, suffering from a severe attack of gout; the big bronze shield found in an Ayrshire bog, along with five or six others which have all disappeared. There are also objects here whose historical associations must stir the most sluggish blood: the processional cross found on Bosworth field with the sunburst of York embossed at Christ’s feet; the golden spur from the battlefield of Towton with the motto “en loial amour tout mon coer”; the Jousting Cheque with the scores from the tilting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold – all these from the unsuspected riches of the Society’s own collection.

But the delight of the show comes not just from the objects on display but from the zest of antiquaries at work, their itch to see for themselves, to dig deeper, to retrieve, record, restore and collect. Collecting was a driving force from the start, going hand in hand with the business of scholarly recording. John Leland’s “Laboryouse journey and Serche for England’s antiquities” was undertaken as keeper of Henry VIII’s libraries, to pick up books by ancient writers from the dissolved monasteries. For all his scholarly virtues, he was the Official Looter. Sir Richard Colt Hoare of Stourhead had 400 burial mounds dug up to provide material for his pioneering two-volume History of Ancient Wiltshire, and he bought most of the relics off his digger-in-chief, the “ingenious tradesman” William Cunnington. At a humbler level, the pharmacist Charles Roach Smith built up his own museum of antiquities by trawling the foreshore of the Thames and scavenging in the rubble of building sites in Victorian London, purchasing direct from workmen, while at the same time meticulously recording the details of the site. Whether banking baronet or City pharmacist, the antiquarian had notebook in one hand and cashbook in the other.

What an impatient, desirous, hot-tempered brood they were, from William Stukeley to Robert Byron. In Burlington House you can hear the rumble of their carriage wheels, the clink of their spades, the buzz of their disputations. The show includes a drawing, possibly by Robert Smirke, the architect of the British Museum, of the excavation of the Woodchester Roman villa, near Stroud, Gloucestershire. In the foreground, the diggers are hard at work digging up the churchyard, perhaps about to reveal the great Orpheus mosaic, the largest mosaic discovered north of the Alps. A couple of yards away, an artist is sketching the scene. In the background, the church and the manor slumber amid the trees. One can sense the deep, absorbed pleasure of all involved, not least that of the sketcher who is sketching the sketcher. And over it all, the haze of romance yielding gently to scholarship. The only confusion I spotted in the catalogue actually underplays the romantic element. The stained glass that now occupies the east window of St Margaret’s Westminster is said here to celebrate the wedding of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon. In fact, it was first made to commemorate Catherine’s marriage to Henry’s ill-fated brother, Arthur.

Starkey makes it plain that the bulk of the work over the centuries, certainly the bulk of the enthusiasm, has come from amateurs rather than academics. We should not forget how, until the 1930s, the Society was virtually the sole institution to fund excavations on any scale. By now, many of the antiquary’s interests have been divided and subdivided into new specialisms. The study of human skeletons has been repeatedly renamed, first as physical anthropology, then human osteology, biological anthropology, osteoarchaeology and, most recently, human bioarcheology. Even as these disciplines multiply and spawn increasingly recondite technologies, the popular enthusiasm for the past remains undiminished. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?, Chronicle and Timewatch became some of the longest-lasting TV shows and Glyn Daniel, Mortimer Wheeler, Magnus Magnusson among the medium’s most enduring stars. In the RA show, there is film footage of Wheeler’s excavations at Maiden Castle and of early attempts to recreate the transport of the blue stones from the Preseli mountains to Salisbury Plain. None of these heavings has had any more success than Icarus had, the last such big stone coming to rest in the National Botanic Garden of Wales, having gone only a fraction of the distance.

If the exhibition has a gap, it is in the natural bias of national organizations to undervalue the local. County organizations of archaeologists and antiquaries get only a walk-on part. Yet their contribution both to preservation and knowledge has often been formidable. The Wiltshire Archaeological Society, for example, founded what is now the Wiltshire Heritage Museum at Devizes and bought Colt Hoare’s collection, from which it has lent the exhibition items from the Golden Barrow at Upton Lovell. Papers published by such societies may vary between the scholarly and the fantastical, but then this eclectic openness is the virtue of their defect. The Woolhope Club, the Herefordshire society which covers natural history and geology as well as history, architecture and archaeology, has included among its members Roderick Murchison, the investigator of early Palaeozoic rock formation, George Bentham the botanist, and the brewer-miller Alfred Watkins, pioneer photographer and inventor of the first profitable pocket calculator, but who is best remembered as the pioneer of ley-line theory and the author of The Old Straight Track. Where else could one find in the same room practitioners of the hardest science and of the most engaging fancy? It is in these obscure transactions that you can still recapture something of the old unity and uncertainty of human inquiry. Or, as a short cut, you can go to Making History.

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