Early archaeological excavations are equal parts jolly adventure, hard labor, and – to a modern reader’s sensibilities – tragicomic horror show. Standards of best practices had to be developed through trial and error, as this spirited memory of the 1759 excavation of an Anglo-Saxon grave by antiquarian and sometimes Church of England cleric Bryan Faussett makes clear:
Happening to be at Ash in the end of the year 1759, on the purpose of copying the monumental inscriptions in that church among others, and inquiring, as I always do on such occasions, whether there were any antiquities or other remarkables in the neighbourhood, I was informed of this famous sand-pit, and of the particulars above mentioned.
I immediately visited the place; and after having looked about it and examined it for some little time, one of the miller’s servants came into the pit to me and shewed me something sticking out, about three or four inches out of the sand, at about three feet from the surface of the eastern and deepest part of the pit. It appeared to me to be nothing more than some piece of stick or some root; but he assured me it was the head of a spear; and said he was certain there was a grave there from the colour of the sand, which, in a small line of about eighteen inches in length, parallel to the surface, and about two inches in thickness, appeared in that place of a much darker tinge than the rest of the sand. He told me also, that, if I pleased, he would get a ladder and a spade and see what was in it.
It was now pretty late in the day, which made me object to his proposal, imagining he would not have time to go through with his work. However, on his assuring me that he had been used to the work, and that by the help of another miller, his fellow-servant, he should soon rifle it (for that was his expression), my curiosity prompted me, though at a considerable distance from home, to set them about the business and to wait the event.
The miller and his companion immediately produced two ladders and as many spades; and with these began to delve in a very rough manner into the sand rock in an horizontal manner, as if they had designed to have made an oven. The head of the spear (for such indeed it proved) they, at the first or second stroke of their spades, contrived to break all to pieces. Indeed it was very brittle. At the next stroke or two, part of a skull and a few vertebrae of the neck (all much decayed) were indiscriminately with the soil cast down into the pit, without the least care of search after anything. That concern, they said, they left to me and my servant at the bottom, who were nearly blinded with the sand falling on us, and in no small danger of being knocked on the head, if not absolutely buried, by the too zealous impetuosity of my honest labourers.
I found, in short, that this method of proceeding would not do; but that if the grave did chance to contain anything curious, it must, most likely, be lost and overlooked. I therefore desire them to desist, and advised them rater to open the ground above, till they should get down to the skeleton, and then carefully to examine the bottom of the grave. This advice, having been used to proceed oven-fashion, if I may call it, they did not at first at all relish; but after a little persuasion and a little brandy (without which nothing, in such cases as the present, can be done effectually), they very cheerfully approved and very contentedly followed, so that in a very short time they got to the skeleton, I mean to what remained of it.
From pages 1-2 of Inventorium Sepulchrale: An Account of Some Antiquities Dug Up at Gilton Kingston, Sibertsworld, Barfriston, Beakesbourne, Chartham, and Crundale, in the County of Kent, from A.d. 1757 to A.d. 1773, by Bryan Faussett and Joseph Mayer, published 1856.
Faussett returned later and dug up the rest of the sand pit, and I was able to examine the additional the spearheads he recovered last summer (all are now carefully preserved by the World Museum in Liverpool). Thanks to Faussett’s efforts, they are in considerably better condition than the first spearhead he describes!
18th and 19th century amateur archaeologists like Faussett slowly developed standardized methods to recover and record the graves they discovered, but this was a very long and rocky process. Unlike history and classics, which both gained institutional support during the 19th century and developed into professional academic disciplines relatively early, archaeology remained a project for interested, excited, and variously competent amateurs into the 20th century. Most of the 19th century’s archaeological discoveries were carried out by members of Europe’s rising middle class like Faussett who took advantage of the increased industrial development of the landscape (especially, the construction of railroads) to locate, excavate, and – sometimes – document early medieval cemeteries across western Europe. Their discoveries were recorded in the minutes and journals of the local antiquarian societies they formed.
The stories of these antiquarians (and their societies) are fascinating blends of excitement and tragedy. Some antiquarians approached their studies with a care and professionalism which allows their work to be used and appreciated more than a century and a half later. Others were no better than grave robbers, plundering the ground for antiquities which could be sold to a growing market (including American J.P. Morgan, whose purchases are on display in the Met). All struggled to overcome the lack of institutional support: society journals were printed in small batches and were often difficult to access, and it was a long time before there was any kind of national framework to support their work, or allow for discussion of standards for excavation and recording. Throughout the 19th century, most archaeologist-antiquarians were left to make things up on the fly.
In Faussett’s case, that meant just ‘a little‘ brandy.
My supervisor Bonnie Effros tells the fascinatingly colorful (and occasionally darkly humorous) story of France’s antiquarians in her recent book, Uncovering the Germanic Past.
You can read more about Bryan Faussett, and browse an inventory of his finds, on the Novum Inventorium Sepulcrale. You can see many of his finds on display in the World Museum in Liverpool, and the Maidstone Museum in Kent.