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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.2 (2001) 181-206

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Antiquaries and Antiquities in Eighteenth-Century England

Rosemary Sweet


The importance of history for eighteenth-century culture has long been accepted as a truism, but historians have been rather slower to recognize the significance of antiquarianism as the essential element in Hume's "historical age." It was antiquarianism that provided the raw material from which the narratives of history could be fashioned. One of the themes that has dominated the recent historiography of the eighteenth century is that of the emergence (or non-emergence) of British nationalism and the cultural construction of national identities as a defining feature of eighteenth-century society. 1 A sense of the past and historic identities were essential features in the imagined communities of eighteenth-century nationalism. However, surprisingly little recognition has been given to the part played by antiquarian scholarship in pursuing the historic origins of these identities. 2 Antiquarianism pervaded many facets of eighteenth-century culture, but the discipline, and in particular the study of English or British antiquities, is not a subject that features largely in most cultural histories of the period. In one of the most recent and wide-ranging publications on eighteenth-century culture, the antiquarian tradition was barely even mentioned in passing. 3 The pursuit of classical antiquities, their collection, and their impact on art and aesthetics have been better served: Francis Haskell has studied the classical antiquaries of both Britain and Europe, while Philip Ayres has recently surveyed the influence of the [End Page 181] idea of Rome and classical culture upon English culture. 4 The antiquarian collectors of Paris and Venice have been the subject of illuminating and extremely suggestive articles by Krystztof Pomian. 5 However, the native antiquaries of the British Isles, those who devoted themselves to the historical remains and monuments of their own country, have in general received less sympathetic treatment and have been consigned to a backwater of pedants. Antiquaries and antiquarian pursuits merit our attention, on one level as a significant aspect of eighteenth-century culture, and, more broadly, to enhance our understanding of the development of national identities, the creation of a national heritage, and the emergence of the ethos of preservationism.

Sir Walter Scott's novel, The Antiquary, portrays a wildly eccentric and laughable figure, whose obsession with collecting the detritus of the past has warped his vision and clouded his judgment. Scott was drawing on a stock caricature, one that had become a commonplace of literature and could be traced back at least as far as the sixteenth century. 6 Jonathan Oldbuck had many prototypes--all of them slightly ridiculous, pedantic, and myopic, and definitely falling short of the expectations of Addisonian taste and politeness. However, antiquarianism was nevertheless widely regarded as a "polite" pursuit: the Oxford antiquary Francis Wise remarked (perhaps not entirely disingenuously) that "[y]oung Gentlemen have been taught, to reckon this study amongst their chiefest personal accomplishments." 7 Antiquarian books were presented as a contribution to polite learning; an interest in antiquities was the mark of a gentleman and a patriot; and the Society of Antiquaries could boast a fashionable, genteel, and rapidly growing membership.

Conventional historiography, best represented by the works of Stuart Piggott and D. C. Douglas, argues for a golden age in antiquarian scholarship which lasted from the 1660s to about 1730. 8 For Piggott, the career of William Stukeley created the paradigm by which he interpreted the fate of antiquarianism more generally. Stukeley, one of the founding members of the revived Society of Antiquaries, as he shows, was an outstanding archaeologist, who carried out immensely important fieldwork at Stonehenge and Avebury, in what Piggott identified as the Restoration tradition. His interests, however, took a religious twist in the 1720s, and in 1729 he was ordained into the Church of England. Thereafter he devoted his studies to the ancient religion of the Druids and to deflecting the Deist threat to the Anglican Church. Piggott, an archaeologist, found it hard to forgive Stukeley for abandoning his field work in this way and dismissed all his subsequent...


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