Virginia Zimmerman, “On Accidental Archaeology”


Archaeological excavations in the nineteenth century presented images of past and present collapsed together. Examining the accidental excavation of Roman remains in London and the failed excavation of Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, this essay shows how the intrusion of material from one time into another disrupted notions of linear chronology.

Throughout the nineteenth century, archaeologists and amateurs excavated sites all over the world, exploring remains of the past as they explored distant places. In A World History of Nineteenth-Century Archaeology, Margarita Díaz-Andreu offers a comprehensive discussion of archaeology in regions as diverse as North Africa, Japan and Latin America. A discipline that has received scant attention in recent scholarship, archaeology merits investigation not only because of its relevance to all corners of the globe or because of its association with central concerns of the nineteenth century (i.e. colonialism and nationalism) but because it offers material remains as objects that convey meaning about individual and cultural identity, as well as about time itself. Shawn Malley asserts: “the archaeologist generates stories from material signifiers” (1). These are often stories about the present as much as the past, and excavation at home proved just as illuminating as excavation abroad. In this essay, I focus on the stories of two archaeological sites, both in England: the Roman remains uncovered in London during works to improve the city and Silbury Hill, a prehistoric monument on Salisbury Plain.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the study of ruins and artifacts was haphazard. No set methods governed practices of excavation, and what we now call archaeology was only a branch of geology or antiquarian studies. It was always amateur. By the end of the century, archaeology was a discipline in its own right with recognized practices. Many individuals and societies contributed to this transformation, but Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers can be singled out as a person who played a significant role in formalizing archaeology.[1] Named Britain’s first Inspector of Ancient Monuments in 1882, Pitt Rivers employed and promoted a system of organizing artifacts chronologically, forming a material timeline. His purpose was to chart the evolution of societies through the advancing sophistication of remains. Of course, we now recognize the problems with this linear notion of progress from primitive to civilized, but Pitt Rivers’s method of organizing archaeological material reigned supreme in museum collections from the late nineteenth century until quite recently.[2]

Pitt Rivers was also one of the first archaeologists to promote careful documentation of excavation sites. Many sites were damaged or destroyed by careless practices such as the exposure of long-buried relics to light and air, the removal of artifacts without noting their original location, and even plunder by tourists who plucked souvenirs from ruins. Pitt Rivers encouraged more control over excavations. In particular, he emphasized the importance of drawing site maps and detailing the location of each artifact. The interpretation of archaeological material depends upon knowing where each item was found and what other objects were assembled with it. Concurrent objects provide information about each other and enable archaeologists to date and interpret their finds.

In this essay, I focus on concurrence in a broader sense: archaeological excavations in the nineteenth century frequently offered images of the material coexistence of past and present. The presence of a Roman pavement alongside building construction in the 1840s, for instance, brought the past visibly into the present. The pavement is a trace of a great empire but also a fallen empire, and when it intrudes into the present, it invites reflection on the greatness and the potential fall of the British Empire. At a more philosophical level, the pavement endures: it outlasts its own moment and thus raises questions about the nature of time. Thomas Hardy takes up these questions in a collection of poems set in Italy. In his 1887 poem, “Rome: On the Palatine,” Hardy describes his experience of visiting Caesar’s house in Rome; he concludes, “Time seemed fiction, Past and Present one” (14). With this line, Hardy echoes his novel A Pair of Blue Eyes (1872) in which a character finds himself face to face with a trilobite and the narrator observes, “Time closed up like a fan” (209). With these descriptions of time collapsed at the site of artifacts, Hardy articulates an understanding of material as at once of a time and outside time. Archaeology is most literally the study of what is old, but what emerged in the nineteenth century was a study of how old and new or past and present were not always useful categories. The trilobite’s origin in prehistory is less important than the fossil’s continued existence in the present. Archaeologists like Pitt Rivers sought to order their evidence chronologically, but the very notion of chronology was challenged by the persistent endurance of archaeological remains. Rather than seeing himself and his contemporaries at the end of a timeline, Hardy describes how they are concurrent with material that remains.

In an age fixated on defining itself as an age, archaeology offered images of past and present assembled together in a synchronous fashion and disrupted the stability of the time line even as it grounded national identity in material remains. In Imperial Leather, Anne McClintock brings to her analysis of colonialism the notion of “anachronistic space,” the place where so-called primitive people appear to live outside the forward march of time. McClintock also examines efforts to construct anachronistic spaces where time’s movement is arrested: she writes of the Great Exhibition of 1851, “in the compulsion to collect and reproduce history whole, time—just when it appears most historical—stops in its tracks” (40). She could as easily have been describing a collection of archaeological artifacts in a museum. In The Birth of the Museum, Tony Bennett claims that museums turn time into space: he writes, “the museum, rather than annihilating time, compresses it [so] as to make it both visible and performable” (186). Thus, time is not stopped by collection and display: instead it is miniaturized or collapsed, as Hardy would have it.[3]

The concurrence of classical remains and nineteenth-century innovation invited reflection on the expanse and might of the British Empire. The Elgin marbles, for instance, were not only an imperial trophy but also offered a compelling revision of classical history. Rather than belonging in the Parthenon, the marbles belonged in the British Museum, where they became part of the material of British identity. As Díaz-Andreu asserts, “the understanding of the power of the classics as the source of prestige, of what was right, good, and useful, became appropriated by the nineteenth-century imperial powers to explain the origin of their might” (15). The presence of the remains in London reinforced this notion of a direct lineage from Greece to Britain, allowing the English visitor to the museum to borrow greatness for his culture and his century.

D. G. Rossetti explores this geographical and temporal confusion in “The Burden of Nineveh” (1870).[4] He describes the arrival at the British Museum of a winged bull from Austen Henry Layard’s excavations in Assyria, and he muses on how the artifact is “a relic now / of London, not of Nineveh!” (179-80). The statue, Rossetti imagines, will prompt future visitors to the British Museum to wonder which God Victorians worshipped. The artifact thus calls into question the identity of those who display it.[5] Unmoored from its geographic and temporal origins, the artifact disrupts notions of time and nation. Of course, the Elgin Marbles symbolized an idealized descent from classical antiquity. In contrast, the remains from Nineveh, though associated with Biblical history, were alien and other. Yet both were housed in the British Museum, the quintessential collection of material from a breadth of cultures and times. As Rossetti put it in his poem, they were “all relics here together” (107), and the various artifacts displayed in the museum signify the power to conquer distant places and times. The relics enrich and complicate national identity with their medley of meanings.

Striking images of temporal concurrence outside of museums also captured the public imagination. In London, excavations for sewers, roads, and buildings inadvertently uncovered Roman remains. This strange conjunction of city improvements and archaeological discoveries made the temporal conflation Hardy described—“Past and Present one”—a familiar part of the urban landscape. Writing in 1842, London archaeologist Charles Roach Smith describes the scene: “Since the spring of 1836 . . . there has been little or no intermission to excavations carried on throughout the City for what is termed ‘City Improvements,’ and for sewerage, all of which have been more or less productive in furnishing means for throwing light on the state of London and its inhabitants in a remote and interesting period of their history” (Archaeologia, 145). Roach Smith goes on to discuss two particular sites: “vast buildings” were encountered during work on London Bridge and excavations for a new wing at St. Thomas’s Hospital uncovered a perfect mosaic floor (148). In these instances and many others like them, the Victorian Londoner was confronted with sites of excavation that made the past visible in the present.[6]

Engraving of Roman Villa site

Figure 1: “Roman Villa Discovered in Lower Thames-Street,” from the _Illustrated London News_, 5 February 1848.

Images printed in popular media depict the concurrence of Roman ruins and present-day architecture. Figure 1 shows how excavations for the new Coal Exchange in 1848 uncovered remains of a Roman villa. The image presents a mélange of contemporary architecture, Roman ruins, and the debris of excavation. With the material of past and present jumbled together, it is as if the past asserts itself into the present, refusing to be left behind. In March 1854, another pavement was unearthed between Bishopgate Street and Broad Street under the Excise Office. (See Fig. 2.)
Engraving of Roman Pavement

Figure 2: “Tessellated Pavement,” from Charles Roach Smith’s _Illustrations of Roman London_ (1859)

This drawing shows the pavement emerging from the dirt, and the whole scene is framed by the straight walls of the modern building. The two figures standing in between the mosaic and the modern wall are literally surrounded by material from past and present. Both of these images show how remains from the past intrude into the present landscape, where the ruins and the modern-day construction are jumbled together. In as much as layers of the earth might be thought of as a sort of vertical time line, the discovery of the past layer amidst the stuff of the present breaks the line, and the Victorian finds himself concurrent with Roman remains. These encounters brought the synchronous experience of the museum out of doors and into the everyday, public world.

The accidental archaeology in nineteenth-century London not only collapsed past and present but also, like select museum displays, offered a compelling foundation to British identity. A building symbolic of economic success such as the Coal Exchange rests atop evidence of the reach of the Roman Empire. The presence of Roman remains in England invited the Victorians to make connections with that other empire and thus to celebrate their own imperial might. Yet the signs of Rome’s greatness lay fragmented and ruined, raising also the specter of Britain’s eventual fall. Turning again to Hardy, we find another sonnet from his trip to Italy that reflects on the connection between Rome and Britain. In “In the Old Theatre, Fiesole” (1887), Hardy comes upon a Roman coin and observes that he can find the same coin in the fields of his home in England: “For in my distant plot of English loam / ‘Twas but to delve, and straightway there to find / Coins of like impress” (9-11). The coins in Hardy’s sonnet, like the Coal Exchange in Victorian London, “flashed home / In that mute moment to my opened mind / The power, the pride, the reach of perished Rome” (lines 12-14). The accidental archaeology that revealed Rome beneath the surface of an improving London invited reflection on the reach of empire in space and time.

While most of the archaeology in London at mid-century was inadvertent, the 1849 excavation of Silbury Hill near Stonehenge in Wiltshire presented an accident of a different sort and ultimately offered an unexpected instance of concurrence. The largest man-made mound in Europe, constructed around 2400 BCE, Silbury Hill is 130 feet high. It looms large over Salisbury plain, presenting a colossal enigma. In the nineteenth century, the mound was thought to be a burial site likely to contain treasure, and local archaeologists set out to excavate the hill with the expectation of finding significant remains. In late July of 1849, the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (est. 1844) met at Salisbury and made an excursion to Silbury Hill, where a careful excavation was planned. Yet, after much anticipation, the site yielded very little: only some animal bones and antlers. Locals and visitors alike had imagined they would discover material artifacts that would illuminate the obscure British past. The nation was built atop Roman ruins, as excavation in London and throughout the country made plain, but native British ruins also lay at the foundations of Victorian identity. This past, however, was elusive, difficult to read from its material remains. In the case of Silbury Hill, archaeology failed to uncover any evidence of former inhabitants. The Victorian visitors to the site found themselves concurrent with a void.

After futile efforts to discover any material of interest, the local authorities re-sealed the hill; however, they deposited inside the prehistoric mound an urn filled with material documenting the excavation and including also a local newspaper and a poster announcing a meeting of the local Bible society. Effectively a time capsule, this urn remained buried in the hill until it was uncovered during an excavation in August 1969. Richard Falkner, the historian who supervised the business of the urn, likely intended to leave a record for future archaeologists, and he did, but he also created the remains the 1849 excavation failed to find. This material offers no insight into the prehistoric people who constructed the mound, but it reveals the society, the plans, and the hopes of the Victorians who dug into the hill. Failing to find themselves concurrent with any archaeological material, Falkner et al chose to assemble material from their own time. Thus, Victorian artifacts are jumbled together in an atemporal assemblage with the as-yet uncovered artifacts of the prehistoric past: archaeologists of the future will find a scene much like the one in the gallery of the British Museum described by Rossetti in “The Burden of Nineveh”: “all relics here together.”

The most interesting item enclosed within the urn and buried in the mound is a poem, “Lines, Suggested by the opening made in Silbury Hill. Aug 3rd 1849” by Emmeline Fisher, the daughter of the Reverend William Fisher, Cannon of Salisbury. Fisher published a volume of poems under her married name, Emmeline Hinxman, in 1856 and a series of poems in Fraser’s Magazine between 1861-1864. She is best known, if she is known at all, for her juvenile effort to write a new national anthem on the occasion of the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837. Asked to compose the anthem by William Wordsworth, her mother’s cousin, Fisher produced verses that were admired by her esteemed cousin and also by the queen, who gave Fisher a gift of an engraved writing set. Her poem on Silbury Hill was published in the Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine in 1854 but was then forgotten until it was uncovered in 1969.

In the poem, Fisher laments the absence of any remains in the hill:

No, all is still.

O that it were not! O that sound or sign,

Vision, or legend, or the eagle glance

Of science, could call back thy history lost,

Green Pyramid of the plains, from far-ebbed Time! (7-11)

Fisher goes on to imagine a series of possible pasts: “a zealous Savage” (14), a warrior’s funeral (18), and the “sacrificial ashes” of Druidic rites (21). The assembled possibilities illustrate the hopes of those involved in the excavation even as they reveal the persistent enigma of the site. In the end, the only artifacts in the hill are those set there by the excavators themselves. Thus, Fisher’s poem becomes the very material Fisher herself longed to uncover. She might have listed “Wordsworth’s precocious cousin” amongst the possible pasts to be excavated from the mound. Concurrent with notions of the prehistoric past if not any actual remains, Fisher’s poem and the other contents of Falkner’s urn became artifacts.

In this short essay, I have discussed only two archaeological sites. Domestic archaeology in the nineteenth century ranged across the whole country and thousands of years. Some excavations were carefully planned; others were accidental. All excavations produced material that prompted the Victorians to consider the foundations of their national identity and to rethink the construct of time.

Virginia Zimmerman is Associate Professor of English at Bucknell University where she teaches Victorian literature and culture as well as children’s literature. Her book, Excavating Victorians (SUNY 2008), examines literary responses to the expansion of the time scale with particular attention to geology and archaeology. She is currently working on poems that depict encounters with archaeological artifacts.


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—. “In the Old Theatre, Fiesole.” Poems of the Past and the Present. London: Harper and Bros., 1902. p. 44. Print.

—. Poems of the Past and the Present. London: Harper and Bros., 1902. Print.

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—. “Rome: On the Palatine.” Poems of the Past and the Present. London: Harper and Bros., 1902. p. 46. Print.

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[1] While William Stukeley (1687-1765) is frequently identified as the first real archaeologist because of his emphasis on studying antiquities in the field, it was Pitt Rivers who transformed the discipline into a science. For more on Stukeley, see Glyn Daniel and Barry Marsden.

[2] Itself a timeline, BRANCH raises questions about chronology, and it is noteworthy that the Victorians themselves interrogated linear time.

[3] For a more extended discussion of these competing philosophies of time and material, see Zimmerman, Excavating Victorians.

[4] Rossetti first published this poem in 1856, but I use the 1870 version published in Poems that year.

[5] See Shawn Malley for a thoughtful discussion of Layard’s Assyrian finds and their display in the British Museum.

[6] For more on accidental archaeology in London see Zimmerman, Excavating Victorians.