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Susan Pearce (ed.). Visions of Antiquity. The Society of Antiquaries of London 1707-2007.

SUSAN PEARCE (ed.). Visions of Antiquity. The Society of Antiquaries of London 1707-2007. xii+452 pages, 116 b&w colour illustrations, 27 tables. 2007. London: Society of Antiquaries of London; 978-0-85431-287-0 hardback 75 [pounds sterling].

This rich and erudite volume brings together a set of scholarly articles on the past, present and future of the Society of Antiquaries of London. Many of the papers emphasise the unusual origins of this society, formed through the private and professional passions of gentlemen scholars for the study of antiquities (the Royal Charter only being granted in 1751). With its origins in the early eighteenth century, the early interdisciplinarity of this society makes this volume an invaluable addition to the history of archaeology, which will also be of interest to anthropologists, historians and social scientists.


The unusual 'fellowship' of this community made for lively debate, and various papers touch on both the serendipitous relationships forged through its membership, as well as the tensions and disagreements that arose in this ferment of ideas and clash of identities (papers by MacGregor, Sweet and Hingley). The selective membership of the early Society--based both on financially demanding subscriptions and personal connections--is not shied away from, and Barker's contribution updates this analysis by considering the contemporary membership and constitution of the Society. Whilst some biases are still evident (women are still under-represented although their relative percentage of the membership has risen over the last few decades), Gaimster sets out an important agenda for further diversifying growth of this 'tree with many branches' (as Mortimer Wheeler described the Society). Many of the papers skilfully set the institution's changing fortunes within the broader context of contemporary social events, as well as evaluate the influence of individual Presidents and their roles in politics or academia. Rivalry and competition with other institutions (such as the Royal Society) is also colourfully discussed.

Important issues--such as the development of deep-time chronologies and challenging of biblically-based timeframes (Hingley), the refinement of typologies and critique of conceptual frameworks (Evans), or the course followed by protective legislation for monuments (Morris)--are well documented and evaluated. Equally, some of the more recent roles played by the Society are given prominence in later papers: vital support for major excavation programmes in the twentieth century (Fulford), the Society's part in the increasing professionalisation of the discipline (Barker) and its current remit as both advisory and lobbying group for contemporary issues of national archaeological importance.

This volume is lavishly illustrated with both black and white illustrations and colour plates, bringing out the marvellous visual legacy of the Society; it includes an insightful evaluation of how early antiquarians were 'seen' (Woolf) as well as how they pioneered, fostered and encouraged the development of technically and aesthetically adept representations of antiquities (Myrone and Smiles). It also highlights the importance of the Society's financial, infrastructural and academic resources (such as its library and meeting places, see papers by Nurse and Sweet respectively). One of the key academic outcomes of the Society was Archaeologia, first published in 1770, and initially based upon papers presented to the Society's meetings and drawn from its minute books. Hingley presents a revealing analysis of the topics and themes which featured in its pages, showing how members' interests changed over rime. This is usefully complemented by Barker's later exploration of the content and character of the Antiquaries Journal, published from 1921 onwards. The lack of an extensive collection of objects is also considered by different authors, and related to the private acquisition practices of the members and haphazard nature of donations, as well as lack of quality material and appropriate storage or exhibition space. Had things been different, wonders Pearce, might this not have resulted in a national museum of archaeology? Meanwhile, papers by Evans and Smiles bring out the 'performance of the past' which characterised the nineteenth century meetings, with imaginative magic lantern shows, facsimiles, maps, plans, sections, models and reconstructions, all used to bring the past to life.

One of the highlights of this volume is the way in which individual papers move with ease between the documentary and artefactual evidence for the Society's activities, bringing an up-to-date, museologically informed approach to the history of collecting, exhibiting and debating the past (especially papers by Pearce, Evans, Smiles and Turner). Individual members' biographies are explored in relation to their network of connections, the changing ideological or conceptual frameworks within which they worked, and the material remains upon which they established both their professional reputations as well as the cornerstones of archaeological knowledge.

These clearly written, fascinating studies are a pleasure to read, and the volume provides an indispensable insight into not only into the workings of an individual society, but the construction of the discipline itself.


School of Arts, Histories & Cultures, University of Manchester, UK

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Author:Giles, Melanie
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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