19th Century Time Team Unearthed In Wiltshire

By David Prudames | 31 May 2003
Shows a line drawing of Stonehenge.

Left: as this guide from the 18th century shows, we've been fascinated by prehistory for centuries.

With their geophysics, prime time TV programmes and unkempt beards, it's fair to say that archaeologists have stolen the public imagination of late.

But down at Wiltshire Heritage Museum, the tables have been turned for a new exhibition that digs up the past of this precise science.

Treasures of the Library runs from June 7 until the end of September and explores the birth of archaeology in one of the UK's richest archaeological regions.

Focussing on the exploits of the nineteenth century's answer to the Time Team, William Cunnington and Sir Richard Colt Hoare, the exhibition uses manuscripts and drawings from the museum library to tell the story of how they probed prehistoric barrows and investigated the mighty Stonehenge.

Shows the frontispiece of an 18th century guidebook for Stonehenge.

Right: the frontispiece of an 18th century guidebook for Stonehenge.

“I think there is increasing attention on archaeology, so people will be interested to see how it all started,” Lorna Haycock, Sandell Librarian and Archivist told the 24 Hour Museum.

“It's an opportunity to see very rare material, which you can't obtain elsewhere and see how archaeology has developed over time.”

As Lorna explained, it certainly wasn't all geophysics, carbon dating and lab tests; 200 years ago things were much different.

From an eighteenth century guide to Stonehenge, to drawings and watercolours of digs and the characters who carried them out, the exhibition tells an extraordinary tale of a science in its infancy.

“They had workmen and directed the excavations. They just sort of dug into the barrows, it was a very unscientific way of doing it in those days. People used to go and watch the excavations, the local gentry and clergy would come along, it was quite an occasion.”

Shows a drawing of William Cunnington and his daughter carrying the 'Stonehenge Urn' in 1802.

Left: this drawing by Philip Crocker depicts William Cunnington and his daughter carrying the 'Stonehenge Urn' in 1802.

Far from the delicate and precise business it is today, archaeology was strictly a hobby engaged in by those fascinated by antiquities and the ancient past. One gentleman would leave a brass token behind at each site to prove he had excavated it, while others would return artefacts after they'd dug them up.

Intriguing they may be, but to sniff at they are not. The legacy of eighteenth and nineteenth century pioneers is still with us, not least in the many artefacts still held at Wiltshire Heritage Museum, but also through our continued fascination with Avebury, Stonehenge and archaeology in general.

The rich archive on display is held by Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year and runs both the museum and library.

Much of the material was purchased by the society in 1883, while the Cunnington family has donated many items over the years.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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