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In focus

Segregated pasts

by Dmitrii Blyshko & Pratik Chakrabarti

Delving into the archaeological archives of the Royal Society, Dmitrii Blyshko and Pratik Chakrabarti  explore the ways in which territorial segregation and the definition of 'antiquity' have left their mark upon the modern collection.

The archive Science in the Making of the Royal Society represents an important phase in the formative period of archaeology as a discipline. One can find archaeological documents in five collections: 'Classified Papers' (1592-1741), 'Philosophical Transactions' (1802-1865), 'Archived Papers' (1768-1920), 'Letters and Papers', 'Referee Reports' (1832-1949). These archaeological documents are dated from 1707 to 1899. Two-thirds of documents belong to the eighteenth century and one-third to the nineteenth century. We can find here some of the key features of archaeology in the making.

The early history of archaeology developed alongside engineering projects, such as road construction. For example, in the document by Charles Mason “On the discovery of a skeleton, swords, helmet, necklet…”, we can see that these were discovered while constructing a road between Thrapston and Kettering”.

The second significant mark of early archaeology, which too is reflected in this archive, is its diversity. The early papers of this archive capture the significantly diverse and interdisciplinary nature of archaeology as a discipline. In the eighteenth century, the term archaeologia referred to antiquity in general. In this collection, important attention is paid to Roman antiquities from Italy to England. While medieval materials are less prevalent within the collections, they are represented: a report presented by Jeremiah Mills on the “Arabic numeral 1144 on a stone in the foundations of the Black Swan, Holborn", is just one example of the Fellows' interests in this period. 

However, the oldest objects discussed in the reports, letters and papers preserved within the Royal Society's archive are pre-historic. Until recently, the discipline of archaeology often encompassed and overlapped with palaeontology and included studies on remains of extinct animals. In the paper 'Of a fossil alligator at Whitby' by William Chapman (1758) one can find perfectly executed drawing of the fossilized reptile.

Furthermore, the interdisciplinary character of the early period of the archaeological research is exemplified in the collection by papers such as Joseph Prestwich 1859 report, 'On the Occurrence of Flint-Implements, Associated with the Remains of Animals of Extinct Species in Beds of a Late Geological Period, in France at Amiens and Abbeville, and in England at Hoxne'. 

In his paper, Prestwich associated stone tools with 'the remains of the Elephant, Rhinoceros, and other extinct mammalia…'. It challenged, as he states, the idea that 'man did not exist until after the latest of our geological changes and until after the dying out of extinct mammals' - a precept which eventually resulted in his conclusion that human history was much deeper than Biblical chronology.

Despite the expansive nature of the discipline in its formative period, archaeology was also marked by territorial segregation, of which traces are still evident within the archival holdings of the Royal Society. For example, the collection has a preponderance of documentation related to the early civilizations of western Asia, ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire, providing  readers with a distinct trajectory from antiquity that connected West Asia and Europe through the Roman empire. These reports cover predominantly the territory of the ancient civilizations including the Roman empire and its colonies.

There are 29 documents related to the territory of Great Britain; 17 documents discussing findings in Europe including Germany, France, Spain, and Switzerland. Twelve documents describe objects in Italy. Antiquities of Northern Africa, including Sudan, Egypt, Tunis, and Libya are presented in 11 texts. There are also 3 letters on Syria, 1 on Ireland, and 1 on Greece.

Within that scope, all types of artefacts were collected. As a result, in this archive, one can find descriptions of material objects belonging to all epochs (from Stone Age to Modernity), but only from the territory of the Roman Empire.

Compared to that, only 5 documents inform the readers about geological and paleontological findings from the Americas and almost nothing from South Asia or the Pacific. There are several reasons for this exclusion. First, the discovery of antiquity, particularly archaeological excavations in these places was taking place under other organizations such as the Asiatic Society of Bengal which made diverse collections in Asia from the end of the eighteenth century. The American Philosophical Society and the American Antiquarian Society conducted various archaeological projects in North America. Second, these discoveries were not often seen as compatible with those of Europe or West Asia which were still seen as the sites of antiquity. The discoveries in the New World and Asia appeared as curiosities and diversions from the central European archaeological projects of the time. The collections of the Asiatic Society of Bengal challenged that idea and suggested that Asia had played a significant role in human antiquity, but these were yet to be accepted widely.

As suggested by Klejn in his Istorya Archeologicheskoy Mysly [History of Archaeological Thought] (2011), there are still legacies of this segregation in the contemporary period as archaeological research in different territories and epochs struggle to overcome differences in approaches, terminology, and understanding of a deep time.

Fellows of the Royal Society mentioned in this article

About the authors

Dmitrii Blyshko is a second-year PhD student at the University of Houston, where he studies the history of science, with a focus on the history of archaeology. He received a Specialist degree with honors in History from Petrozavodsk State University, Russia, in 2011. Then he completed a Master of Anthropology and Ethnology from European University at Saint-Petersburg, Russia, in 2013. Dmitrii has been participating in archaeological works in North-Western Russia for more since 2006.

Pratik Chakrabarti is the NEH-Cullen endowed chair in History & Medicine at the University of Houston He has contributed widely to the history of science, medicine, and global and imperial history, spanning South Asian, Caribbean, and Atlantic history from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. He is the author of five research monographs. His most recent research monograph, Inscriptions of Nature: Geology and the Naturalization of Antiquity (2020) was awarded the Pickstone Prize in 2022.