Early archaeology in Wales: the ‘Precambrian’ era

August 11, 2023 0 Comments
William Coxe, Monmouthshire

The Cambrian Archaeological Association, established in 1847, was the first society devoted to the study of archaeology of Wales. This piece aims to tell the story of archaeology before that date.

Archaeology, in the sense of the systematic study of the material remains of prehistoric and early historic times, can hardly be said to have existed in Wales much before the end of the sixteenth century. Before that time there was little or no attempt to record, let alone analyse, archaeological remains, and thinking about them was confined to speculation based on the known Biblical and classical sources and the fantastic stories used or constructed by writers like Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Wales did, however, share in the Tudor awakening of interest in antiquarian studies whose beginning was signalled by the John Leland’s mission in the late 1530s and 1540s to list and rescue the contents of monastic libraries. Leland toured Wales as well as England, gathering information about towns, monuments, libraries and genealogies.  But his accumulated records remained unpublished, so that his direct influence was small, except among the scholars who had access to his manuscripts, which were later dispersed.

Humphrey Llwyd

Antiquarian activity within Wales increased during the second half of the century, with the work of Humphrey Llwyd of Denbigh (1527-68) and Rice Merrick of Cottrell in the Vale of Glamorgan (d. 1586-7). Both men were primarily documentary historians. Llwyd is best known for the first printed map of Wales, published in 1573; Merrick was chiefly interested in his native county from the point of view of post-Norman history and genealogy. More significantly archaeologically were the younger Elizabethan antiquaries, notably William Camden and George Owen. Camden (1551-1623), a master at Westminster School, conceived the ambitious scheme, perhaps suggested by his reading of Leland’s manuscripts, of writing a topographical account of the whole of Britain, from the Roman period onwards. The result, Britannia, was first published in Latin in 1586. Arranging his material under the headings of the English counties and, in Wales, the traditional Celtic tribal areas, Camden discussed not only the classical literary sources but also sites and antiquities he had seen himself on his tours around the country, including Wales in 1590. The book proved highly successful, and appeared in new editions in 1587, 1590, 1594, 1600, 1607 and 1610, the last an English translation by Philemon Holland intended to cater for the new Latinless readers, eager to learn about the antiquities of their native land.

A Welsh contemporary and acquaintance of Camden’s was George Owen of Henllys (c.1552-1613), the author of The description of Penbrockshire. This work is important as one of the first British county histories, together with Richard Carew‘s Survey of Cornwall (1602). Part One, a general history of Pembrokeshire, was completed in 1603; little has survived of the second book, a detailed history of the county, parish by parish, and probably the work was never finished.

However, it is clear that by the early seventeenth century the county and the parish were accepted as the natural geographical units within which to pursue antiquarian research: the adoption of the former had a profound influence not only on the writing of topographical history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but also on the pattern of the nineteenth century archaeological societies.

Although the period between Leland and Camden saw a greatly increased curiosity about the material remains of the remote past, the interpretation of those remains showed little advance. It is true that Polydore Vergil and others had discredited Geoffrey of Monmouth’s derivation of the ancient Britons from Brutus and the Trojans, but the place of Brutus had been taken by equally speculative ancestors, Japhet, Noah’s son, Gomer and the Cimbrians (1). Progress could only be made by a more searching investigation of existing evidence. This more systematic approach was made possible by the flowering of observational and experimental science in the second half of the seventeenth century, associated in particular with the foundation of the Royal Society in 1662.

Edward Llwyd

Perhaps the most remarkable exponent of the archaeological branch of the new learning was the Welshman Edward Llwyd (Lhuyd) (1660-1709). Educated at Oswestry and Jesus College, Oxford, Llwyd was appointed assistant to Dr Robert Plot, the first keeper of the newly opened Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and succeeded Plot as keeper in 1690-91. The Ashmolean, which incorporated both the collection of classical sculpture and inscriptions formed by the second Earl of Arundel and the more miscellaneous collection known as ‘Tradescant’s Ark’, was the first major institutional museum in Britain. With its varied archaeological, zoological, botanical and palaeontological collections it provided an ideal base for the polymathic Llwyd, who in the early 1690s turned his attention from botany, geology and fossils to antiquities and philology. He contributed to Edmund Gibson‘s new edition of Camden’s Britannia (1695) by adding notes to the sections on Wales, and by the same year he had conceived the idea of compiling a comprehensive archaeological, historical and topographical survey of Wales and the other Celtic countries, to be published under the title Archaeologia Britannica. Lhwyd’s methods of obtaining information for this work were thorough. Between 1697 and 1701, accompanied by three trained assistants, he visited every county in Wales, as well as Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany, carrying out fieldwork and making innumerable notes and sketches of the monuments he encountered. Other information came from his many correspondents within Wales, a network of whom he had built up while working on Gibson’s Britannia, and from replies to a questionnaire entitled ‘Parochial queries’ which he had printed in 1696 and sent to the gentry and clergy in each parish in the country, to take advantage of local knowledge of antiquities, natural history and language. The questionnaire had been used by Llwyd’s predecessors, including George Owen, Rice Merrick and Robert Plot, and was still in use in the nineteenth century. Not all of the hundreds of replies Llwyd received now survive, but those that do testify to the latent interest in antiquities and other local phenomena taken by many Welsh clergy and gentry. Volume 1 of Archaeologia Britannica, a ‘Glossography’, was published in 1707, but no further volumes appeared before Llwyd’s death. Volume 3 was to have been ‘An account of all such monuments now remaining in Wales, as are presum’d to be British; and either older, or not much later than the Roman conquest: viz. their camps and burial places; the monuments called cromlecheu and meineugwyr; their coyns, arms, amulets, &c’ (2). Its loss – most of Llwyd’s manuscripts were later destroyed by fire – deprived Wales of the first systematic, detailed description of her ancient monuments. Llwyd’s achievements – his insistence on original, first-hand observation, his care in recording antiquities and sites, his caution in the interpretation of prehistoric monuments, and, above all, the ambition of his design and the assiduity with which he pursued it – these achievements were not aspired to until the second half of the nineteenth century, and not attained until the twentieth (3).

By contrast, the eighteenth century represented a period of stagnation in archaeological thought and activity, as it did in geology, palaeontology and history (4). The spread of dilettantism and Romanticism gradually eroded the scientific ethos prevalent during Llwyd’s lifetime. Ancient monuments were now ‘ruins’ to be admired as part of a landscape, which was itself viewed pictorially rather than analytically. William Gilpin, in the second half of the century, formulated his theory of the ‘picturesque’, which sought in landscape the same aesthetic qualities that could be appreciated in paintings. The search for ‘picturesque’ landscapes, which Wales possessed in such abundance, became a regular pursuit for wealthy and leisured Englishmen of the period, especially those who could not afford to embark on a full European Grand Tour, and at times of war on the Continent (5). Furthermore, just as the Welsh landscape could be viewed primarily in an aesthetic or romantic light, so too the prehistoric antiquities it contained aroused the imagination of the visitor and prompted the most extravagant and fanciful interpretations.

The most unfortunate result of this tendency was the association of ruined prehistoric constructions, especially chambered tombs, with the Druids, an association which bedevilled the study of Welsh prehistory till the 1860s. Interest in the Druids, mention of whom was made in a number of classical texts available from the sixteenth century, was already strong when John Aubrey, who visited Wales and some of its monuments, tentatively suggested that they were responsible for building the ‘temples’ of Stonehenge and Avebury. The hint was taken up by William Stukeley, who investigated and surveyed both monuments in the 1720s, and published accounts of each in 1740 and 1743. In these books he expanded the Druidic connection into an elaborate and fantastic system, which had a powerful influence on later writers on prehistory, as well as the popular imagination.

Henry Rowlands’s druid

But in Wales, recognised as the land of the descendants of Caesar’s ancient Britons and the home of Tacitus’s Druids, the ascription of prehistoric remains to the Druids had been made earlier, with the publication in 1723 of Henry Rowlands‘s Mona antiqua restaurata, subtitled ‘An archaeological discourse of the antiquities of the isle of Anglesey’. Tacitus had described Anglesey as the seat of power of the Druids in the first century A.D.; accordingly, Rowlands, vicar of the parish of Llanidan, sought, in the absence of any other named pre-Roman inhabitants, to people the prehistoric landscape of the island with Druids, whom he descended from Noah. Cairns and the capstones of denuded chambered tombs he interpreted as their altars, a notion which exerted a peculiarly tenacious hold over antiquarians for over a century. Nonetheless, Mona antiqua restaurata is important as the first archaeological county survey in Wales. In 1710 Rowlands had begun in Latin Antiquitates parochiales, a parish-by-parish account of the ancient and medieval monuments of Anglesey: no comparable survey was undertaken of the county until the 1850s. It is worth noting that Rowlands was one of the first representatives of a class that was to play a prominent role in Welsh antiquarianism: the Anglican clergy.

Drych y prif oesoedd

Unfortunately, Rowlands had few followers. The study of material antiquities benefitted little from the flowering of native Welsh literary culture in the mid-eighteenth century, associated with the Morris brothers of Anglesey. The most influential work on Welsh antiquity published during the century remained Theophilus Evans‘s Drych y prif oesoedd, first published in 1716, which went through many subsequent editions during the eighteenth century. Evans’s version of Welsh prehistory was entirely speculative and lacked any basis in the study of existing antiquities: Japhet and Noah, for example, again appear as proto-Welsh historical characters. Like Rowlands, Evans was an Anglican cleric and part of his purpose in writing was to uphold the Church against the rising tide of Methodism. He glorified the distant past of the Welsh people in order to attack the ‘enthusiasm’ of the upstart dissenters, in much the same way as Stukeley later used the results of his antiquarian researches to attack his enemies the deists by asserting the venerability of the established religion (6). The fact that his book was written in Welsh was significant, because Welsh was the first and often the only language of the vast majority of Welsh people until well into the nineteenth century. Those who did not have access to English archaeological literature remained dependent for their view of Welsh prehistory on Evans and his followers for more than a century. As Donald Moore has shown (7), Evans’s stories were still being repeated as late as 1852, in Rev. Thomas Price‘s standard Hanes Cymru.

William Coxe, Monmouthshire

Meanwhile the flow of travellers and tourists to Wales in search of dramatic scenery, antiquities and the picturesque Welsh themselves increased throughout the eighteenth century, reaching a peak in the early years of the nineteenth. Travel was made easier by improvements in the state of the roads as a result of the activities of the turnpike trusts after 1750. Many of the travellers published accounts of their tours, often equipped with engraved illustrations, which found a ready market among the gentry and wealthy middle classes. Descriptions of antiquities encountered by these tourists were often perfunctory, and illustrations tended to be romantic rather than accurate, but the works of the best of them, for example, Thomas Pennant of Downing, Flints, contain careful and valuable accounts of stone circles, cromlechs and hill-forts, which were accepted as authoritative descriptions until well into the second half of the nineteenth century.

Excavation, as a method of ascertaining the purpose and age of ancient monuments, rather than as an expression of simple curiosity or treasure-seeking, began to be practised only in the second half of the eighteenth century, and culminated in the work of William Cunnington and Sir Richard Colt Hoare in Wiltshire. Colt Hoare dug nearly 400 barrows on Salisbury Plain, subjecting them and their contents to a thorough process of classification, and although he confessed himself no wiser about the identity of their builders he did succeed in demonstrating the potential value of evidence brought to light by the systematic excavation of sites of a similar type within the same region. From his home at Stourhead Colt Hoare made frequent trips to Wales. One of his Welsh friends, the Pembrokeshire-born Richard Fenton (1747-1821), took up his lead and conducted several excavations in Wales, and especially Pembrokeshire, as part of a project to publish the rests of his tours between 1804 and 1813. Most of these remained in manuscript at his death, but in 1811 he published a Historical tour through Pembrokeshire, which, in spite of its lack of rigour and system, was not superseded for almost 100 years. Unlike Colt Hoare, Fenton was not an especially wealthy man; his excavations were not on a large scale, nor could he afford to publish his findings in as sumptuous and well-illustrated a manner as Ancient Wiltshire. The relatively limited means of the Welsh gentry continued to hamper the progress of Welsh archaeology for many years. (7a)

William Coxe, Monmouthshire

The first half of the nineteenth century is significant less for any important developments in the theory or techniques of Welsh archaeology than for the publication of a series of works of synthesis which laid the basis for future research. These followed the traditional pattern of county histories. Archdeacon William Coxe, another friend of Colt Hoare’s, published An historical tour of Monmouthshire in 1801, which paid particular attention to the county’s ample Roman remains; Theophilus Jones produced his parish- by-parish History of the county of Brecknock in 1805-1809, and Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick his History and antiquities of the county of Cardigan in 1809-10. All these works mingled the description of ancient monuments with documentary history and genealogy: no one in Wales could emulate the single-minded archaeological emphasis of Colt Hoare.

However, archaeology was beginning to play its part in antiquarian writing, and the county was confirmed as the conventional geographical unit within which archaeological remains were considered. There now followed a comparatively barren period of about 30 years, during which little of importance was written on Welsh antiquities, until the formation of the Cambrian Archaeological Association in 1847 stimulated a burst of fresh activity.

The story of the development of archaeological studies in Wales up to 1847 can be told satisfactorily only in terms of the individual scholars who contributed to that development. There is barely any trace of any corporate activity directed towards archaeological ends. Although scholars like George Owen, Llwyd and Pennant built up extensive networks of friends and correspondents throughout Wales, these networks rarely developed into formal societies with agreed aims and programmes.

Thomas Rowlandson, Death and the antiquaries

In England the situation was rather different. As early as 1572 a College of Antiquaries was established in London, though it did not survive long (8). The Royal Society, formed in the 1640s and granted its charter in 1662, while it is now best known for its contributions to the natural and physical sciences, took an intermittent interest in archaeology (9). In 1717, ironically just as the Restoration learning was waning, the Elizabethan College was revived as the Society of Antiquaries of London, the first specifically archaeological society in the country. Its aims included the protection and recording of threatened antiquities, and the sharing of accumulated knowledge about them. Membership was at first limited to one hundred. Meetings took the form of convivial gatherings in taverns, at which papers were read and antiquities exhibited. A museum and a library were collected and engravings of antiquities were published. However, it cannot be claimed that the achievements of the Society, at least in the eighteenth century, were impressive. The standard of much of the work done by members was very variable; there was little attempt to organise and coordinate programmes of research or preservation; its proceedings were not regularly published until the establishment of Archaeologia in 1770. Nevertheless, the Society provided an example to other groups of antiquarians in other parts of the British Isles: in 1780 Societies of Antiquaries were formed in both Dublin and Edinburgh; in 1813 there followed the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Lewis Morris

Wales did not share in this movement, partly because of the lack of a sufficiently large centre of population – Swansea, the most ‘metropolitan’ of Welsh towns, had only 6,831 inhabitants in 1801 (10) – partly because of the absence of a leisured and cultured upper and middle class sufficiently interested in its own material heritage. Welshmen were not indifferent to their cultural past. However, the focus of their interest was not in Wales, but London. It was here that the most important eighteenth-century Welsh society, the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, was formed by a group of Welsh expatriates in 1751. Originally a social and philanthropic foundation, the Cymmrodorion Society developed, under the influence of one of its leading members, Lewis Morris of Anglesey, literary and antiquarian interests, which, however, seldom materialised as publications or concerted action. Membership was not restricted to the upper classes, nor was it confined to London Welsh: ‘corresponding’ members living in Wales included Thomas Pennant and the poet Goronwy Owen.

After the death of its organising spirit, Richard Morris, in 1779, the first Cymmrodorion Society collapsed, but it was succeeded by societies of a similar nature, the Gwyneddigion (founded 1770) and the Cymreigyddion (founded 1794) both also London-based. The Gwyneddigion Society, which counted Richard Fenton as a member, was active in collecting and publishing Welsh literary manuscripts, many of which appeared in the Myvyrian archaiology of Wales, a three-volume corpus of early and medieval Welsh poetry issued between 1798 and 1807 and financed largely by one man, Owen Jones (‘Myfyr’). The enthusiasm of these societies transferred itself during the 1820s to Wales, when a group of clergymen, notably Rev. Walter Davies (‘Gwallter Mechain’), Rev. W.J. Rees (‘Cascob’) and Rev. John Jenkins (‘Ifor Ceri’), organised a series of Cambrian Societies throughout the country. The first, the Cambrian Society of Dyfed, was formed at Carmarthen in 1818, and by 1821 others existed for Gwynedd, Powys and Gwent. This movement, approved and encouraged by the Bishop of St David’s, Thomas Burgess, had as its aim a revival of interest in Welsh language and culture among the Anglican clergy and gentry. Regional eisteddfodau were held, at which prizes were awarded for outstanding musical or literary performance; it was planned to arrange national eisteddfodau, but the idea came to nothing after disagreements about the disbursement of funds. The London Cymmrodorion Society was even revived, with a view to coordinating the activities of the Cambrian societies, but differences of opinion bedevilled the contacts between London and Wales, and the local eiseddfodau degenerated by the end of the 1820s into little more than musical entertainments, having lost their commitment to the Welsh language (11).

William Coxe, Monmouthshire

All the societies mentioned above evinced little real interest in the study and preservation of material, as opposed to literary antiquities. That interest came from a different direction, the literary and philosophical societies. These societies sprang up throughout England at the turn of the nineteenth century, starting with Manchester in 1781, to provide a forum for the educated upper and middle classes to discuss a wide variety of topics in literature, history and especially the natural sciences. By 1822 many large commercial and manufacturing towns, including Birmingham, Leeds, Hull and Newcastle, could boast such an institution. The first example in Wales was established at Neath in 1834 as the Neath Philosophical Society (12). Its first President was Howel Gwyn of Baglan, and most of the original 113 members lived in or around Neath, by this time a thriving industrial town. Among them were some well-known antiquarians and scientists: Rev. W.D. Conybeare, the geologist and later Dean of Llandaff, Rev. J.M. Traherne, historian of Glamorgan, Lewis Weston Dillwyn, pottery-owner and naturalist, and Rev. H.H. Knight. It was a powerful combination of landed gentry, rich industrialists and cultured Anglican clergy. By 1835 a building had been purchased to house a museum. Like most such museums at the time it contained very miscellaneous collections, on natural history, geology and botany as well as archaeology. A library was also established, and in 1842 an observatory tower was constructed nearby to house the astronomical telescope the Society had recently bought. The museum continued until 1867, when its contents had to be returned to their owners or sold off. It was the first institutional museum to be formed in Wales, and it is unfortunate that no detailed catalogue of its contents survives. The Society’s interests also extended to the excavation of antiquities. In 1848 members dug on the site of Neath Abbey and recovered many of its inlaid tiles, which were published by the Society in 1850. In addition, they sought the help of the owner of the site in preserving the structure from further decay, a far-sighted action which a writer in Archaeologia Cambrensis (13) welcomed as ‘an admirable example, which we would willingly see followed in other parts of the country’.

Swansea Museum

Several members of the Neath society were instrumental in the establishment of a similar organisation in Swansea in 1835, the Swansea Philosophical and Literary Society, known from 1838 as the Royal Institution of South Wales (14). One of the moving spirits behind the enterprise was George Grant Francis (1814-1882). Like many other antiquaries in Wales in the nineteenth century, Francis had found the leisure for his antiquarian pursuits through success in business. An interest in local history led him to publish privately books on Swansea Grammar School, the Swansea charters, copper smelting in the Swansea area and a history of Neath Abbey. He was one of the founding members of the Cambrian Archaeological Association in 1847 and was for many years Welsh secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

The Philosophical and Literary Society was established ‘for the cultivation and advancement of the various branches of natural history, as well as the local history and antiquities of the town and neighbourhood; for the extension and encouragement of literature and the fine arts; and for the general diffusion of knowledge’ (15). The range of interests was thus very wide, and, like the societies in Bristol and Neath, which it acknowledged as its parents, the Swansea society undertook many different activities to promote them. Lectures were arranged, open to all, on subjects of scientific importance; meteorological records and tide tables were kept; statistics were gathered on Swansea’s economy and trade; a museum and a library were formed which grew in size so rapidly that new premises were needed to house them within a year. During that time between 3,000 and 4,000 specimens were arranged in the museum, divided into five categories: Zoology, Botany, Geology, Mineralogy and Antiquities. Although Geology was perhaps the favourite pursuit – a remarkable group of geologists, including Henry de la Beche and Sir William E. Logan, lived in Swansea at the time – the antiquities included ‘Celtic weapons’, a flint hatchet, arrow and spear heads found mixed with fossil bones in Paviland Cave (first explored by Lewis Weston Dillwyn in 1822), a Roman milestone from Pyle and numerous coins from the Swansea area. Supported by a strong membership (172 in number after the first year), including many wealthy local industrialists, such as J.H. Vivian and L.W. Dillwyn, the Institution thrived. In 1841 a new building was opened, containing the library and museum, lecture room and a laboratory. By this time each section of the museum was in the charge of an honorary curator. The Antiquaries section, however, was not attracting the support it had initially enjoyed, and the officers had to plead with the members to present local antiquities to expand the collection (16).

Mechanics’ institutes, the first of which was formed by George Birkbeck in Glasgow in 1800, were intended by their founders (generally well-off middle-class philanthropists) to provide a basic technical education to workers in the new industries of the Industrial Revolution. The first Institute in Wales was established in Swansea in 1826. By 1850 Institutes had been formed in 23 towns in South Wales. Thomas Evans (17) has distinguished three phases in the development of these societies. At first they adhered to their original purpose: the Swansea Mechanics’ Institute, whose aim was ‘instruction of the members in the principles of the arts they practise, and in the various branches of science and useful knowledge’, was firmly connected with the expansion of local industries. Later, however, during the late 1830s, science and technology lost their monopoly and the Institutes became more culturally based. Finally, during the 1840s, lectures became much less scientific and much more popular in character, and were more dominated by the middle classes than before. The influences of the Institutes, short-lived though some of them were, on the interests of the middle classes, in rural as well as industrial Wales, was probably substantial around the middle of the century, especially when one considers that most of them maintained libraries, before the development of public libraries after 1850, which members could use to extend their interests. Some Institutes, like Carmarthen, even supported small museums. None, however, developed any serious or lasting interest in local antiquities.

So far, no society devoted exclusively to the study of archaeology had yet appeared in Wales. The closest approximation was the Welsh Manuscripts Society, founded in Abergavenny in 1836 at the instigation of members of Cymdeithas Cymreigyddion y Fenni (18). Its aim was to transcribe and print the more important literary and historical manuscripts of Wales, with English translations. Supported by the gentry of south east Wales it survived for about 30 years, and published such important works as the Liber Landavensis (1840) and Lewys Dwnn’s Heraldic visitations (1846).

Yorkshire Museum

It is interesting at this point to compare the position in England. The Society of Antiquaries of London had sunk during the first decades of the nineteenth century into a prolonged period of inactivity, so that N.H. Nicolas could say of its proceedings in 1827 that they ‘have tended to render the name of the antiquary almost synonymous with Boeotian dullness…’ (19). This, it may be noted, was at a time when C.J. Thomsen and other members of the Royal Nordic Society of Antiquaries (founded in 1825) were making their exciting breakthroughs in thinking about prehistoric chronology, later known as the ‘three age system’. Outside London there was rather more activity. In 1822 the Yorkshire Philosophical Society was formed following the excitement generated by the discovery of fossil bones, and it soon established a museum specifically to house geological specimens and antiquities. In 1839-40 J.O. Halliwell founded what was the first English county archaeological society, the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, to study the history and antiquities of the university, county and town of Cambridge. It may have been established in opposition to the militant Cambridge Camden Society (20), founded by J.M. Neale and Benjamin Webb, which, together with the Oxford Society for Promoting the Study of Gothic Architecture, was part of the quickening interest in medieval English architecture, itself the physical counterpart of the High Church revival of interest in liturgy and the search for a remote origin for the Anglican Church.

However, the most significant advance did not come until December 1843, when a group of antiquaries, including C. Roach Smith, Albert Way and Thomas Wright, dissatisfied with the record of the Society of Antiquaries of London in preserving ancient monuments from decay and destruction, founded the ‘British Archaeological Association for the encouragement and prosecution of researches into the arts and monuments of the early and middle ages’. Its purpose was to enable people from different disciplines to combine ‘to elucidate the events and memorials of past ages’ (21). 1,200 members were enrolled during the summer of 1844, a periodical, The Archaeological Journal, was started and a successful Congress was held at Canterbury. Soon, however, an internal dispute broke out, which led to the division of the Association into two warring factions. The original central committee formed a new body, known from February 1846 as the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Despite attempts at reconciliation the two organisations found it impossible to reunite and each went its own way.

The chief interest of both societies was in medieval antiquities. Although the Canterbury meeting of 1844 had divided into four sections, Primeval, Medieval, Architectural and Historical, by the Norwich meeting of the Archaeological Institute in 1847 these had been reduced to three (Medieval, Historical and Architectural). Many of the Institute’s members lived in or around London but there was a considerable number of corresponding members in the provinces, who paid no membership fee: Jane Williams of Talgarth, Brecs was admitted as the first woman corresponding member in 1846.

William Coxe, Monmouthshire

Both the British Archaeological Association and the Archaeological Institute maintained the tradition of holding summer meetings at a different town each year: in 1846 the Institute visited York at the invitation of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, while the Association chose Gloucester. These meetings marked an important step forward in the organisation of archaeology in Britain. The Society of Antiquaries had been and remained London-based and paid little attention to local antiquities outside the capital, despite the system of ‘local correspondents’. The BAA and AI, on the other hand, deliberately national in scope, spent several days in their chosen towns each summer, visited local sites and monuments, listened to papers and attended conversazioni, and reported the proceedings in their periodicals, the Journal of the British Archaeological Association and the Archaeological Journal. Often temporary museums were established in the towns visited, where local antiquities could be seen and studied.

The effect of all this activity was to arouse the interests of the middle classes in many parts of the country in the history and antiquities of their neighbourhoods and to spur them to independent action. Almost immediately county archaeological societies sprang up in the south and east of England. 1844 saw the establishment of the Architectural Society of the Archdeaconry of Northampton and the Lincolnshire Society for the Encouragement of Ecclesiastical Antiquities – both societies in the tradition of the Cambridge Camden and Oxford Societies founded in 1839. In 1845 the St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society first appeared and in 1846 the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society and the Sussex Archaeological Society. By the end of the 1850s 17 more local and county archaeological associations had been established.

Stuart Piggott (22) has attempted to isolate some of the underlying factors which led to this extraordinary growth of local societies. One, the influence of the Oxford Movement on the effort to preserve and record medieval ecclesiastical architecture, has already been noted. Another was the pervasive and persistent influence of the Romantic movement, especially after Sir Walter Scott, on attitudes to ruined monuments. More practically, the improvement of roads and the rapid advance of the railways after the 1840s facilitated transport in parts of rural England previously isolated and difficult of access. Other factors Piggott mentions include the Victorian enthusiasm for self-improvement, clearly expressed in the Mechanics’ Institute movement, and the opportunities the societies afforded for women to indulge in a respectable pursuit which also allowed relaxed social intercourse with men. Especially striking is the geographical concentration of the earlier societies in rural counties of south-east England, where the Anglican Church was unchallenged and the traditional social structure dominated by the local squire remained intact. One factor not mentioned by Piggott was the passing of the Scientific Societies Act in 1843, which exempted scientific and literary societies from ‘county, borough, parochial and other local rates’. These taxes had previously been a severe financial burden to local societies, depriving one, the Birmingham Philosophical Society, of one quarter of its income (23), and their removal lent some degree of financial security to small associations which relied entirely on individual subscriptions for their incomes.


This paper was originally written in the early 1980s, and does not incorporate relevant scholarship published since then. Corrections and updates would be welcome. 


1. Stuart Piggott, ‘Celts, Saxons, and the early antiquaries’ in Stuart Piggott, Ruins in a landscape: essays in antiquarianism, Edinburgh, 1976, p. 55-76.

2. Bodleian MS Ashm. 1820a, f.228, quoted in Piggott, p.108.

3. Glyn Daniel, ‘Edward Lhwyd: antiquary and archaeologist’, Welsh History Review, vol.3, 1967, p.345-59; Brynley F. Roberts, Edward Llwyd, c. 1660-1709 : naturalist, antiquary, philologist, Cardiff, 2022.

4. Piggott, op. cit., p.117-129.

5. Donald Moore, ‘The discovery of the Welsh landscape’ in Donald Moore (ed.), Wales in the eighteenth century, Swansea, 1976, p.143–50.

6. Stuart Piggott, William Stukeley: an eighteenth-century antiquary, Oxford, 1950, p.129.

7. Donald Moore, ‘Cambrian antiquity: precursors of the prehistorians’ in George C. Boon and J.M. Lewis (eds.), Welsh antiquity: essays mainly on prehistoric topics presented to H.N. Savory upon his retirement as Keeper of Archaeology, Cardiff, 1976, p.197.

7a P.A. Ward, ‘Aspects of the work of the Pembrokeshire antiquarian Richard Fenton, 1747-1821’, MA thesis, University of Wales (Cardiff), 1978.

8. Joan Evans, A history of the Society of Antiquaries, Oxford, 1956, p.8-13.

9. M. Hunter, ‘The Royal Society and the origin of British archaeology’, Antiquity, vol. 45, 1971, p.113-121, 187-192.

10. David Williams, A history of modern Wales, London, 1965, p.195.

11. R.T. Jenkins and Helen M. Ramage, A history of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, London, 1951.

12. D. Rhys Phillips, The history of the Vale of Neath, Swansea, 1925, p.178-180; Anon., ‘Neath Philosophical Society, 1834-1866’, Trans. Neath Antiq. Soc., 2nd series, vol. 6, 1936-37, p.93-5; Report made by the Committee to the Annual Meeting of the members of the Neath Philosophical Society, Neath, 1836.

13. Arch. Camb., 1850, p.239.

14. W.A. Beanland, The history of the Royal Institution of South Wales, Swansea, 1935, p.2; Hugh M. Davies, ‘The place of the Royal Institution of South Wales in the history of scientific and general education in the nineteenth century’, MA thesis, University of Wales (Swansea), 1940.

15. Beanland,, p.14.

16. Royal Institution of South Wales, Fifth annual report, Swansea, 1850.

17. Thomas Evans, ‘The mechanics’ institutes of South Wales’, PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 1965.

18. Mair Elfet Thomas, Afiaeth yng Ngwent: hanes Cymdeithas Cymreigyddion y Fenni, 1833-1854, Caerdydd, 1978, p.139-140; G.J. Williams, ‘Ab Ithel’, Y Llenor, vol. 12, 1933, p.217-219.

19. Joan Evans, op. cit., p.240.

20. J.G. Pollard, ‘The Cambridge Antiquarian Society’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, vol. 68, 1978, p.105-116.

21. Joan Evans, ‘The Royal Archaeological Institute: a retrospect’, Archaeological Journal, vol. 106, 1949, p.1-11.

22. Stuart Piggott, ‘The origins of the English county archaeological societies’ in S. Piggott, Ruins in a landscape: essays in antiquarianism, Edinburgh, 1976, p.171-195.

23. Barbara J. Ronchetti, ‘Antiquarianism and archaeological scholarship in Warwickshire, 1800-60’, MA thesis, University of Birmingham, 1952, p.36.

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