Antiquaries: the discovery of the past in 18th-century Britain, by Rosemary Sweet

A unique record of our national past
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The Independent Culture

We live in an age in which family and local history societies, journals and websites abound. History-based adult-education courses are more popular than ever, while radio and television have many programmes of historical interest. What the above share is that they foster the "hands on" approach to studying history. The communications revolution has had a big part to play in this renaissance. Though such an approach can involve digging around in archives, a virtual equivalent is now on offer. A good genealogy website can bring much siftable data to one's own PC, and we can watch the excavation of an Anglo-Saxon burial mound from the comfort of our front room.

We live in an age in which family and local history societies, journals and websites abound. History-based adult-education courses are more popular than ever, while radio and television have many programmes of historical interest. What the above share is that they foster the "hands on" approach to studying history. The communications revolution has had a big part to play in this renaissance. Though such an approach can involve digging around in archives, a virtual equivalent is now on offer. A good genealogy website can bring much siftable data to one's own PC, and we can watch the excavation of an Anglo-Saxon burial mound from the comfort of our front room.

In this thorough, magnificently-written study, Rosemary Sweet shows how the origins of the popular fascination with our national past lie with an often-overlooked, frequently eccentric 18th-century group known as "antiquaries". In general, they consisted of "those who occupied a position at the apex of society", since "education, money and leisure were all but essential if the study of antiquities was to be pursued to any high degree".

While the antiquaries were rarely more than ebullient amateurs, Sweet is careful to remind us they should not be seen as the equivalent of "stamp collectors or devotees of Civil War re-enactments". Out of their diverse interests in topology, genealogy, etymology, numismatics and so on, the first real awareness of British history emerged. Their work offers "a unique record of churches which have since been lost, landscapes which have disappeared or antiquities which have been destroyed, but they also bear witness to the commanding presence of the past in the lives of 18th-century Britons".

While the non-specialist will derive a great deal from Sweet's study, chapters four to seven should prove of particular interest. These provide a chronological survey of "the ways in which antiquaries approached the study of different periods of British history", starting with "the ancient Britons" and moving through the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval periods. Sweet shows how monuments we now think of as integral to the fabric of the British landscape, such as Stonehenge and Hadrian's Wall, were first seriously studied by antiquaries like William Stukeley - who combined scholarly fieldwork at Stonehenge and Avebury with fantastical theories about the Druids' descent from Abraham - and John Horsley. The latter's comprehensive guide to Roman remains in Britain was "probably the most important in terms of its scope, its innovatory approach and its influence upon subsequent antiquaries".

Sweet's study crucially recognises the different approaches of antiquaries in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. One of her major themes, after all, is that "antiquarian activity was directed by the imperative of establishing a national past".



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