Despite being ‘dated’ in their methods and interpretations, nineteenth-century archaeological reports are a goldmine of information about the human past and sometimes remain important to archaeologists working today. Equally, however, they are a goldmine of information about the mindset and interpretative agendas of early archaeologists. As a literary genre, they shed light on a first generation of archaeologists who were self-consciously using archaeology to rewrite the early history of Britain.
The archaeological publications of Richard Cornwallis Neville are goldmines in both these senses. In the 11th volume of the Archaeological Journal, for 1854, there is a detailed report on his excavations of a barrow in Essex entitled ‘Anglo-Saxon Cemetery on Linton Heath’. Two years earlier, he had reported his discoveries at Little Wilbraham in a book of 1852 entitled Saxon Obsequies. Neville is better known for his excavations of Roman remains in the Cambridge region, but in both of these excavations, he found early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries.
Both Saxon Obsequies and the Linton Heath article superficially appear descriptive and empirical reports, arranged by diary entry accounts of each grave uncovered. They are accompanied by a range of illustrations that shed further light on the finds.
Yet as an historical document shedding light on how early medieval graves were interpreted in the 1850s, these reports are an invaluable window onto the methods and interpretations of a generation of archaeologists who are discovering and reporting on the discovery of many thousands of early medieval graves by barrow-digging and sometimes larger scale cemetery excavations following discoveries made during agricultural work, the construction of roads, the building of railways and quarrying.
In a recent publication in the Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, I attempt to explore the motives, context and importance of Neville’s work on early medieval burial grounds in relation to his other work on prehistoric and Roman archaeology. I also outline the wider familial and socio-political context in which Neville’s endeavours and interpretations need to be situated. I suggest that Neville’s family’s aristocratic and military heritage provided a context for his fascination and investigation of the barbarians that succeeded the Romans and laid the foundations of the English nation. Neville’s great-grandfather was the Cornwallis who surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown. Not only was he himself a Captain in the Grenadier Guards and saw active service in Canada, but his archaeology stemmed from his ill health as a result and followed his retirement from the army. This led him to explore activities in the locality of his family home – Audley End, Essex – that were less arduous than hunting on horseback. This is where archaeology came in.
Yet more recent British imperial concerns also weighed on Neville and provided context for his writings on archaeology. He was exploring the archaeology of the environs of Audley End in the run-up and during Britain’s involvement in the Crimean War – a conflict in which his regiment saw some of the heaviest fighting and in which he lost two of his brothers – digging up old graves must have had more than a passing significance.
I argue that both Saxon Obsequies and the Linton Heath report are part of a growing Anglo-Saxonist discourse in early Victorian culture in which furnished graves were employed to write the origins of the earliest English onto the British landscape. Yet for Neville, digging up old warriors and the parallels it may have provoked with Britain’s Victorian empire were unlikely to have been motivated by broad notions of racial affinity and nationalism, they were about his own mortality and family.