ELHAS Meeting Report - March 2011

Victorian Pioneers of Archaeology

Our March meeting saw 35 members and guests hear Katherine Baxter, curator of archaeology for Leeds Museums and Galleries deliver a fascinating presentation on the Victorian Pioneers of Archaeology. Katherine has been in post in Leeds since 2005, and previously worked for three years at the Manchester Museum. Her particular areas of interest are the Middle East and human remains. Last year Katherine took time out from her day job in Leeds to spend a year sabbatical in Canada.

She began her talk by saying she would tell us about some of the eccentric characters who were the leaders of the development of archaeology as a science, and ended by bringing us up to date on some of the ethical issues now associated with the acquisition of ancient artefacts. She explained that the first artefacts were collected by wealthy Europeans taking the Grand Tour, who thought nothing of filling their trunks with finds and displaying them on their return in 'Wunderkammer' or Cabinets of Wonder.

Katherine informed us the first person to develop rules and processes to support a dig was the Danish archaeologist Christian Thomsen who, during the 19th century pioneered the three-age dating system, which is still in use today. This identified three consecutive time periods, the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age which was based on the tool making technologies of the time.

Amelia EdwardsShe then went on to explain a major event which allowed budding archaeologists to make giant strides forward - the finding and subsequent interpretation of the Rosetta Stone, a feat attributed to Frenchman Jean Francois Champollion. We were delighted therefore to hear her then describe the work of another important Victorian archaeologist the English novelist Amelia Edwards who developed an all consuming interest in Egyptology following a trip down the Nile in the 1870's. This seemed to spark a golden age in archaeology, and other significant participants were Flinders Petrie, who itFlinders Petrie seems supplied most museums in England with ancient finds, and Heinrich Schliemann who discovered Troy. Both these gentlemen appeared flawed however. Petrie had such a high opinion of his own intellect that on his death he donated his head to the Royal College of Surgeons believing they could learn much from studying such a tremendous brain. And Schliemann was not above having objects created and buried in order for him to 'discover' them later.

Issues like these as well as the practice of removing significant finds from the country of origin have led to changes in archaeological practice, and nowadays no museum would purchase overseas objects, or indeed acquire any objects without observing defined protocols. However argument still rages for example over the Elgin Marbles where the British Museum is steadfastly resisting requests for them to be returned to Greece. Ending with some lovely images of the displays in the Leeds Museum Katherine had held her audience spellbound for over an hour. We were all left wondering how she had managed to pack so much interesting information into such a short time.

The next meeting on Monday 18th April will be an illustrated talk by James Lomax on Lady Meynell Ingram - Victorian Chatelaine Extraordinaire . This will be followed by the annual Pea and Pie Supper.