Collecting's bastard sister

The Discovery of the Past
May 16, 1997

Jorge Luis Borges writes in one of his short stories of a world where objects exist only in so far as they are used or imagined. All excavation there is fabrication and, writes Borges, archaeologists are able "to question and even to modify the past, which nowadays is no less malleable or obedient than the future". Then there is the case of the ancient Mesopotamians, for whom the word for future was that which was found behind one's back, whilst the word meaning in the past derived from what was in front of one. These two examples, taken from Alain Schnapp's introduction to his book, The Discovery of the Past, draw the reader into the varied human imaginings of the past and the future: for, Schnapp suggests, "archaeological consciousness is born more of confrontation with the future than the past".

But a universal human motivation in the development of archaeology has been the passion for collecting, ranging from the grave robbers of ancient Egypt to 17th-century cabinets of curiosities. Schnapp remarks of this: "Archaeology is in my view the little bastard sister of collecting ... One can say that the archaeologist is a collector, but of a particular kind, more meticulous than the others, and accountable to various institutions, to the state and the public."

After this philosophical opening, he explores in his first chapter the consciousness of time past and time future in the classical and medieval worlds. Writers such as Herodotus, Pausanias and Thucydides all reveal an awareness of the past and its remains. Thucydides wondered what erroneous conclusions a future observer might draw from viewing the remains of powerful Sparta, which "contains no temples of magnificence", compared with Athens where "one would conjecture from what met the eye that the city had been twice as powerful as in fact it is". In his method of using archaiologia - knowledge of the past - Thucydides, says Schnapp, came close to modern archaeology.

The author goes on to spot the signs and trends of nascent archaeology from the early Middle Ages to the Renaissance. We encounter Charlemagne re-using Roman marbles and sarcophagi to help establish an iconography for his succession to the ancient Roman emperors; the monks of Glastonbury exhuming the remains of Arthur and Guinevere; and the Renaissance revival of Rome under the papacy, where "there was no architecture without archaeology". Then, in the 18th century, we find the antiquaries attempting to reconcile archaeological remains with scripture, with Adam and Noah, and the accumulation of evidence that seemed to suggest a human past datable not merely for thousands, but rather in hundreds of thousands of years.

The final chapter shows how in the 19th century, "antiquarianism'' became "archaeology" through the establishment of its "trinity of principles ... typology, technology and stratigraphy". An appendix giving an extensive archaeological anthology with extracts from the likes of Lucretius, Raphael, Rabelais and Johann Winckelmann completes the book. Happily, Schnapp is never reluctant to quote at length from his sources in the main body of his text, but these additional extracts add a useful series of brief documents for the more inquisitive reader.

But this fascinating account is marred by occasional errors. In writing of the antiquarian William Stukeley, still considered the major British archaeologist of the 18th century, Schnapp writes that "in 1717 he set up as a doctor in Lincolnshire and undertook a series of archaeological expeditions which were to determine his scientific career". In fact 1717 was the year Stukeley left his practice in Boston to spend nine years in London. This error might appear trivial except that it was during this period of his life that Stukeley was involved in the refoundation of the Antiquarian Society, became a fellow of the Royal Society and College of Physicians, and formed friendships with the likes of Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley that really determined his scientific (and theological) career.

Furthermore, Schnapp's text fails adequately to connect the scholars and antiquarians with whom he is concerned. He takes no note, for instance, of Stukeley's relationship with John Aubrey, particularly their shared fascination with Druids. Nor does he mention that Aubrey, in modelling the title of his "influential" Monumenta Britannica on Olaf Worm's Danicorum Monumentorum Libri Sex, thereby associated the two antiquarian projects.

In this respect Schnapp's story progresses - and he is very much concerned with the progression of archaeology - without all the necessary narrative links. When he does make these links, they can seem slightly haphazard. For instance, sections on Aubrey and Stukeley are followed by passages on Isaac Lapeyrere (born 1597) and then Giordano Bruno (died 1600); the 19th-century excavator of Wiltshire barrows, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, is followed by the 18th-century protogeologist Johann Jacob Scheuchzer. These chronological problems perhaps illustrate the difficulties attending any attempted coherent history that begins in ancient China and Mesopotamia and ends in 1859 with the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. There is so much ground to be (un)covered, that inevitably much worthy material will be missed.

Schnapp is head of the University of Paris I's department of art and archaeology, and one of the high points of the book is its extensive illustrations, which are accompanied by captions that form almost a parallel text to the main work. Unfortunately, the illustrations are not numbered and are not cross-referred to the main text, neither is there a separate list of illustrations with their provenance. One is thus left wondering where exactly (for example) Melchior Feselen's remarkable Siege of Alesia by Julius Caesar (1533) now resides - the only clue being in the brief acknowledgments at the end.

But I cannot allow these criticisms to detract from my overall enjoyment of the book. While the book may frustrate the more academic reader, the themes and ideas that Schnapp brings to bear on the history and origins of archaeology offer a fascinating insight into the prehistory of modern scientific archaeology, and indeed into the discovery of the long "prehistory" of humanity itself.

David Haycock is researching a PhD on William Stukeley, Birkbeck College, London.

The Discovery of the Past: The Origins of Archaeology

Author - Alain Schnapp
ISBN - 0 7141 1768 4
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 384

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