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Widecombe History Group Talk
“FOUNDATIONS OF ARCHAEOLOGY – A Community Archaeology Project 2015-17 “ a talk by Philippe Planel
The Foundations of Archaeology Project celebrates the work of the pioneering archaeologists Sir Richard Colt Hoare, William Cunnington and General Pitt Rivers.
The project is working with volunteers to help further investigate and evaluate archaeological sites associated with these pioneers in South Wiltshire and North East Dorset.
Philippe Planel told those present he would be talking about an area east of Mere, Somerset, probably known to those who travel on the A303. Archaeology emerged in this area as a discipline where discoveries would be treated in scientific way, a new development then for those interested in antiquities. The dates concerned were 1790s to the1800s. Cranborne Chase, being an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) is able to raise funding for local projects and had successfully applied for such funding for this project with the aim of bringing archaeologists and local people together, using the legacy of founding fathers of the discipline in this area, which of course includes Stonehenge and had therefore always had a very visible reference to ancient Britain.
The early luminaries of the subject he talked about were the owner in 1809 of Stourhead - Sir Richard Colt Hoare of the banking family, William Cunnington of Heytesbury (the man with the local knowledge) and General Augustus Pitt Rivers.
Colt Hoare was not involved in the banking business but his wealth from it allowed him to build a library (and plant trees, in defiance in the contemporary fashion set by Capability Brown in other parts of the country.) Circumstance played a part in the involvement of these men, with Colt Hoare indulging his interests in this country, because the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rise and campaigns had forced him to return from his “Grand Tour”, Cunnington because of his health and Pitt Rivers because of his unexpected inheritance.
In particular Colt Hoare produced a publication “Ancient Wiltshire” (1812) in which he paid tribute to the second of these luminaries, Mr Cunnington, a wool merchant whose ill health had encouraged his doctor to tell him “ride out or die”. He thus rode out and classified the features of the local landscape with the work being done by one John Parker. The third early “scientific” archaeologist was General Pitt Rivers who unexpectedly inherited a large estate and the cash to indulge his interest, working at the end of the nineteenth century. He in particular as a military man documented his finds in maps that are still used by archaeologists today. He was a polymath, interested in matters such as hybridising agricultural animals on his estate, and was later involved in the founding of the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford.
Philippe described the project as being in a perfect geographical area to understand such finds as it is easy to identify, for example, that on chalk, post holes for structures show up clearly as brown stains on the white chalk.
Early archaeology was hampered by a lack of “on the ground” evidence which these men sought to produce, as until then people were heavily influenced by, for example, Samuel Johnson’s belief that such information could come only from “the old writers” e.g. Tacitus. It also has to be remembered that theological thinking then set the date of the creation of the Earth at approximately 4000 BC. In fact Cunnington as a man of the land had no such hang ups and Philippe described one find made by him and currently in Salisbury Museum of a dagger handle decorated with 70000 pieces of gold that would each fit through the eye of a needle – a wonderful feat of craftsmanship. We were also urged to visit the museum at Devizes. Archaeological knowledge at the time was limited, though “Stone (age) to Bronze to Iron” was more or less already understood though not formalised until the next century.
During the talk we were shown maps both modern and contemporary maps of the sites where the project would concentrate, namely Wor Barrow, Stockton Camp, a Romano-British Site and first planned by Philip Crocker for Colt Hoare, and finally Winkelbury Hill.
Showing a photo of volunteers and a sketch by one of these of others in the party, Philippe finished by describing the project as “Archaeology: The pleasure of exploring the past in the present” and showed photographs of volunteers involved in the project whose research could be done now by such non-invasive methods such as geo-physics. In comparison, for instance, for the early archaeologist he had described, it had been for them a lightbulb moment to find, for example, causewayed enclosures overlaid with round barrows and realising that the latter must therefore have been of a later date. Pitt Rivers in particular produced plans and cross sections of the area that can be used now, although the methods he used to excavate these would not be, since they inevitably resulted in the destruction of the features he described.
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