thinking about archaeology

Archive for February, 2013

Ernest Griset in London

Wellington Arch, Griset paintings

I really want you to see these paintings. Made around 1870, they’ve never been hung in public before. They are a wonderful early experiment in archaeological reconstruction illustration, are little known, and need researching – along with their creator. This is going to be a long blog, but the subject deserves it.

There are 14 of the paintings in the Quadriga Gallery in the Wellington Arch, in the exhibition The Birth of Archaeology & the Battle for the Past (until April 21). The show is about Charles Darwin, Sir John Lubbock and General Pitt-Rivers, and the 1882 Ancient Monuments Act. There are some wonderful things, including these two gems below – a slice of Silbury Hill from inside the 1849 tunnel (I like to think it was originally wrapped like a piece of wedding cake), and one of William Stukeley’s commonplace books (both loaned by Wiltshire Museum in Devizes).

Silbury slice

Wellington Arch Stukeley common place book

But I want to write about the paintings. There are 20 in the full set, 19 scenes of prehistoric life, and a view of a tropical island. They were apparently (a word one can use a lot here) commissioned by John Lubbock around 1870 (only two are dated), and used to hang in his home-cum-museum at High Elms in Downe, Kent. They were never published. All but one are now in the care of Bromley Museum Service, some owned by the BMS, some by Eric Avebury, John Lubbock’s grandson. The one not in Kent is in Australia (according to Avebury, this was given by his sister to her friend Robert Gordon, a Sydney doctor).

Ernest Griset (1844–1907) seems to have been an extremely industrious illustrator, well known in his time but not now outside salerooms – it’s fun to write about someone who has no Wikipedia entry. Born in France, he came to London as a child, and though busy apparently died poor. There is a useful essay about him at the Look & Learn website, the British Library lists his books, and Lionel Lambourne edited a short illustrated book over 30 years ago. An article published in 1945 called “A forgotten illustrator” seems to have got it right (see end references).

This particular group of Griset paintings, however, has recently attracted interest, when Adrian Green was curator at Bromley Museum (he’s now curator of the Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, which has also lent material for the exhibition). Tim Murray (La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia) “discovered” the paintings for archaeologists, and Richard Milner (who among us could not warm to the man who edited Stephen Jay Gould’s column “This View of Life”?) did the same for natural scientists: Murray wrote about Lubbock and Griset, and Milner about the coral island painting, both in 2009 (see references).

Murray tracked down the Australian work, illustrated three paintings, and numbered the collection. It’s possible to correlate most of his numbers with Bromley Museum’s catalogue, so I list them here (he refers to an online feature at La Trobe, but as I write that seems to have been taken down). They are:

Mammoth Hunters (71.1.7, Murray 1)
Wolf pack and man (71.1.8, Murray 2)
Bison hunt (71.1.9)
Interior of a megalithic tomb (71.1.10, Murray 4)
Bison hunt in forest (74.83.1)
Stag in snow covered landscape (74.83.2)
Stag killing (74.83.3)
Beached boats with figures at sunset (74.83.4, Murray 8)
Prehistoric group around fire in cave (74.83.5, Murray 9)
Boat making (74.83.6, Murray 10)
Seal hunter (74.83.7, Murray 11)
Earth house (74.83.8, Murray 12)
Spear making by skin tent (74.83.9, Murray 13)
Lake village (74.83.10, Murray 14)
Lake with wildlife (74.83.11, Murray 15 or 16)
Dead mammoth on ice flow (74.83.12, Murray 15 or 16)
Lake village with blue mountain (74.83.13, Murray 17)
Sunset group with tent by water (74.83.14, Murray 18)
Bear savaging man (in Australia, Murray 19)
Atoll (in Bromley, but apparently no catalogue number, Murray 20)

In the exhibition, we say they were painted “around 1870”. All we have to go on is the dates on two of them, “Sunset group with tent by water” (18, dated 1869) and “Atoll” (20, dated 1871). Perhaps more information would be revealed if they were taken out of their frames.

“Atoll” was apparently commissioned as a gift for Darwin (his first book, in 1842, was The Structure & Distribution of Coral Reefs), but never presented. Milner shows the painting (a long image in three pieces), and this detail which he suggests is HMS Beagle – the ship that took Darwin round the tip of South America and introduced him both to coral reefs, and to indigenous people whose descriptions inspired Lubbock in his thoughts about prehistoric Europe:

Coral ship

As for the rest, “around 1870” is a powerful date. Lubbock’s two, highly influential books about early people were published at that time: Pre-Historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains & the Manners & Customs of Modern Savages (1865), and The Origin of Civilisation & the Primitive Condition of Man: Mental & Social Condition of Savages (1870).

The titles make clear his agenda: he believed that prehistoric times could be understood through a combination of studying archaeological remains (“the unwritten records of our earliest national history”, as he described them to parliament) and modern peoples. He collected prehistoric European artefacts, and contemporary objects from around the world beyond Europe, to study and to show visitors to his home. The contemporary pieces – over a third of his collection – were what we would now call ethnographic artefacts from indigenous communities. To Lubbock these were products of ancient technologies, still alive in the skilled hands of ‘savages’, which could help him understand early Europe. In the exhibition we have some spears and clubs from Australia, the Cook Islands, the Marquesas and Cameroon: such pieces make notable appearances in Griset’s paintings.

This is what makes these works so interesting. They were done, we may imagine (and research may yet unearth documentation to prove this) under Lubbock’s instructions: they were the product of a prolific illustrator and a leading, pioneering archaeologist. We can see why that is special by looking at two examples of contemporary work where such collaboration was absent – Griset’s other illustrations, and a book published in 1870 called L’Homme Primitif, by another writer on ancient times, Louis Figuier.

Figuier occasionally notes ethnographic studies (how fire is made, for example), but his book is primarily an archaeological work, with much more detail in this area than Lubbock gave. He goes along with the case for ancient Europeans alive with now extinct animals, though he doesn’t like the idea that humans evolved from apes (variations shown by fossils, he says, can be put down to the tougher times of the ice age). It’s a book that students interested in the 19th century arguments about early humans and archaeology can read with great profit. And it’s got 30 “scenes from the life of primitive man”, by Émile Bayard. Here are four of them.

Figuier, Louis (1819-1894). L'homme primitif : tableau de la natFiguier, Louis (1819-1894). L'homme primitif : tableau de la natFiguier, Louis (1819-1894). L'homme primitif : tableau de la natFiguier, Louis (1819-1894). L'homme primitif : tableau de la nat

These are classic examples of how prehistoric artefacts can be put into modern hands to make them come alive. In the last, the ice age artists are not just, in Figuier’s words, “precursors of Raphael and Michelangelo”, they are Raphael and Michelangelo: their noble stance and ragged dress put them half way between a 19th century Bohemian and an ancient Greek athlete (no ape blood here). The deer hunters are straight from classical mythology. The only archaeological or ethnographic references are in the weapons, flint handaxes roughly bound to wooden handles.

Griset went to a different extreme. He excelled in caricature and quick sketch (too much realism and atmosphere risked exposing his technique), and illustrated many books. Among these was Legends of Savage Life, by James Greenwood (1869). This was a crowd-pleasing collection of stories, set in the worlds being revealed by European explorers, that had no concern with reality. In The luckless Adaphang (first image) native Patagonians had abandoned their traditional diet of seal meat, and as a consequence shrunk from giants to a fraction of an inch high. The Elk demon (second image) is a story about famine amongst native north Americans.

The luckless AdaphangThe elk demon

The gap between that Griset and Lubbock’s Griset is enormous. Equally, the latter and Figuier’s Bayard are also quite different. For Lubbock, Griset was aiming for a sense of prehistoric verisimilitude. His dominant theme is of near-naked men battling with savage beasts, including mammoth and bison, known from excavated bones to have lived in the ice age. Griset drew on ethnographic reports from around the world and other archaeological evidence from Europe, as did Lubbock in his books on evolution and society. The images show nature shaping early civilisations in the same way that Darwin’s process of natural selection lay behind the great variety of life. Early people were not noble, but struggling to survive, innocently laying the foundations for millennia of progress.

This is the painting in Australia:

Bear savaging man

Here is a lake village. An unusually dry winter in 1853 caused Swiss lake levels to fall, exposing ancient remains that attracted much attention – Lubbock helped to excavate some. In contrast to palaeolithic sites, the neolithic “Swiss lake villages” – Lubbock coined the terms “Palaeolithic” and “Neolithic” – produced bones of domestic cattle and cultivated cereal grains, signs of Europe’s first farmers.

Lake village with blue mountainAnd here is a neolithic tomb. Uniquely in Griset’s series of paintings, this shows an archaeological monument rather than an episode of daily life with imagined or reconstructed houses. It is almost certainly based on the West Kennet long barrow in the Avebury world heritage site with a good view of Silbury Hill, which was bought by Lubbock in 1873. A description of excavations in the barrow published in 1868 conjured a chamber lined with six large slabs, the gaps filled with dry-stone walling, four articulated skeletons (two “apparently in a sitting position”) and stone tools and pieces of pottery; Griset shows the bodies trussed with rope, and a symbolically extinguished hearth.

Interior of a megalithic tombMost of the paintings, however, show hunter-gatherers, especially ice age ones. And here an interesting area opens up. Thanks to Google images, we can see that the scenes Griset painted for Lubbock weren’t the only ones of their kind. And as most of these other pictures are in private hands having briefly surfaced through salerooms, at present we can know very little about them.

This painting is in our show, no 15 or 16 in the Bromley list.

Dead mammoth on ice flow

Here are some other Griset mammoths, not in the show, the first listed by


These two were sold in consecutive lots in Cirencester (UK) in 2008:

Fighting mammoths

And most interestingly, throwing new light on the Bromley mammoths, is this. Sold in Naples, Florida, in 2008, it is apparently titled, “Strait between France & England Frozen”. This astonishing scene of dying mammoths, spear-wielding hunters and their dogs, may, perhaps, be the first depiction of an ice age world in which Britain and France were connected.

Strait between France & England

Here’s another mammoth scene in the show:

Mammoth Hunters

Compare the above with this, from The Story of the Earth & Man, a geological book by JW Dawson (1873). Which came first?

Dawson 1873

Another picture from the show, this time illustrating someone making a dugout canoe.

Boat makingNow, when we put the exhibition together, we assumed this was an ancient scene. It may well be. But now I’ve found this, I wonder. It was sold in 2008 in Massachusetts, when it was described as “Two American Indians making a canoe”. Significantly, it’s dated, to 1876.

American Indians making canoeGriset undoubtedly did do some illustrations of north Americans, such as this, from a 1922 Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, Villages of the Algonquian, Siouan, & Caddoan Tribes West of the Mississippi, by David I. Bushnell, Jr:

Drying Buffalo Meat

And he did other archaeological scenes:

The Ancient Britons


Bronze Age village 1887

And finally this, in the collection at Turton Tower, Lancashire:

(c) Turton Tower; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

I’m quite sure this is only the tip of it all. At least we now have the unprecedented chance to see 14 of his works in one go.


“A forgotten illustrator: Ernest Griset 1844-1907”, by Hesketh Hubbard, The Connoisseur 115 (1945), 30–36

Ernest Griset: Fantasies of a Victorian Illustrator, ed Lionel Lambourne (Thames & Hudson 1977)

“Illustrating ‘savagery’: Sir John Lubbock & Ernest Griset”, by Tim Murray, Antiquity 83 (2009), 488–99

Seeing Corals with the Eye of Reason”, by Richard Milner, Natural History (Feb 2009) (Milner talks about it here – and sings)

The art of animals

129 Mar-Apr 13

Reindeer engraved on a bone from the British Museum’s Ice Age art exhibition, and a white horse carved into a Dorset hillside – both feature on the cover of the new British Archaeology. The horse is to flag up the unexpected re-appearance of a lost dummy for an illustrated Puffin book about chalk hill figures, that Eric Ravilious was working on when he died (and now acquired by Wiltshire Museum, where you can see it on display this week). James Russell has written about that, and Jill Cook, who curated the British Museum show, describes an ancient world “teeming with game and symbols”.





Eric Ravilious's White Horse

Eric Ravilious’s White Horse


Photo Lens Young Dimashqi 2012

Emma Cunliffe writes about the destruction of Syria’s heritage, and Dot Boughton rounds up a very curious group of new-found prehistoric bronze hoards from Wiltshire and Hampshire. Other features include the annual Requiem – obituary notes on many of the British archaeologists and lovers of antiquity who died in the past year – the extraordinary geofizz at Brancaster on Time Team’s last dig, and the centenary of the passing in August 1913 of an act to protect ancient monuments. In News we broke the story that Wiltshire’s museums have called a stop to excavation because they have nowhere to store the stuff archaeologists are digging up. And all the usual regulars, with strong pieces from the CBA about architectural history and the Marconi Factory. It’s a great edition. As always, if you are a member of the Council for British Archaeology you will have received a copy of British Archaeology as part of your members’ package. Or you can obtain the magazine separately in print (by subscription or in selected newsagents including WH Smith) or digital form, including an app for iPhone, iPad or Android.

And Richard it was

Richard III

University of Leicester

A press conference revealing research? To read some of the reactions, you’d think it was a panel of bankers explaining why our mortgages had to go up to pay for their bonuses.

Unsurprisingly, there was huge interest in the news about the car park dig in Leicester. Yet not everyone was happy about the way the study of Richard III’s remains was presented. It’s coming from both sides – arts (critics and historians) and science (focussing on the DNA analyses). Why couldn’t we have had a proper peer-reviewed academic process before any further information was released? The scientific research is incomplete. What’s the interest anyway? It’s not proper history, and doesn’t tell us anything new. And, of course, the real motivation is money: Leicester University needs the publicity.

Well. Where to start? There is a huge amount of information out there. (Did you hear? They held a press conference.) Still, it’s worth summarising what we know so far, to help some of the critics catch up. A good single source is the University of Leicester Press Office, and I got most of my info from there and a very good feature and diary of the dig at the university website (and of course there is a Wikipedia entry). Do skip the next few paragraphs if you think you know all this.

History: Lin Foxhall (Leicester)
Richard III was 32 when he died in in 1485, on the field of the Battle of Bosworth. Accounts of his death variously refer to a blow sufficiently severe as to embed his helmet in his skull, of shaving his head and of a death blow from a halberd. John Rous said in his History of England (completed in 1486) that Richard was buried among the Friars Minor (Franciscans) of Leicester in the choir of the church.

Rous wrote (in Latin) that Richard was “slight in body and weak in strength”. The Silesian Nicolas von Poppelau (who met and liked Richard III) wrote (in German) that he was “taller than himself, but a little slimmer and not so solid, also far leaner; he had delicate arms and legs”.

Rous also described Richard’s body as misshapen, with one shoulder higher than the other. Later descriptions elaborated this, culminating in Shakespeare’s Richard III who has a hunched back, a limp and a withered arm.

The car park on Tuesday

The car park on Tuesday

Note the infilled trench (the new tarmac) and the still open bit under the tent

Note the infilled trench (the dark new tarmac) and the still open bit under the tent

Excavation: Richard Buckley (University of Leicester Archaeological Services)
The site of the Grey Friars church was identified from a map drawn by Thomas Roberts in 1741, and confirmed by Deirdre O’Sullivan (University of Leicester) and another friary specialist. The Social Services Car Park and Alderman Newton’s School Playground were selected as accessible areas of that church. Ground-penetrating radar survey at three locations revealed little more than modern utilities (gas mains etc).

On the first day of excavation, in the car park, a human leg bone was found – described at the time as “a good find but not particularly surprising when excavating around a church”. Wall foundations and floors later confirmed the discovery of a church, and identified much of its plan. The burial cannot be more recent than 1538, the year of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The burial was in the choir (several other graves were uncovered, dating to “a much earlier period of the friary’s history”, but not excavated as they did not relate to the project’s purpose). The grave appeared hastily dug, and was not long enough so that the head was raised. There was no evidence for a coffin, shroud or clothing. The unusual disposition of the arms suggests the hands might have been tied.

Radiocarbon dating: Universities of Oxford (ORAU) and Glasgow (SUERC)
Replicated independent tests show the individual died between AD1450 and 1540 (95% probability), or 1475–1530 (69% confidence). The individual had a high protein diet – including significant amounts of seafood – suggesting high status.

Behind one of those panes, laid out on black velvet like Damien Hirst's diamond-studded skull, with security and chaplains, lie the remains of a former king of England

Behind one of those panes, laid out on black velvet like Damien Hirst’s diamond-studded skull, with security and chaplains, lie the remains of a former king of England

Osteology: Jo Appleby (Leicester)
The individual was male, in his late 20s to late 30s, with a gracile or feminine build. He had severe scoliosis (onset perhaps at puberty), causing him to stand up to 30cm (1 foot) lower than his full height of 1.72m (5 ft 8ins), and his right shoulder to be higher than the left. His arms were of similar size and used normally during life, and no evidence for a limp has been described.

Either of two significant blows to the back of the head from “a bladed weapon” would have led to almost instant loss of consciousness, and rapid death. Other injuries (to the head, a rib and the pelvis) may have occurred after or immediately before death, but are consistent with post mortem “insult wounds”, and are “likely to have been inflicted after armour had been removed from the body”. The face was undamaged.

Micro-CT: Professor Guy Rutty, (East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit, Leicester), Sarah Hainsworth (Materials Engineering, Leicester)
In what is said to be the first application of micro-computer X-ray tomography in an archaeological investigation, the wounds and scoliosis can be studied in great detail. No specific results yet described.

Genealogy: Kevin Schürer (Leicester), David Annal (formerly the National Archives), Morris Bierbrier (Fellow of the Society of Genealogists)
The maternal link between Anne of York (Richard III’s sister) and Michael Ibsen’s mother Joy has been confirmed, with documentary evidence for every link in the chain. A second living maternal descendant (not royal) was found: “again with solid documentary evidence for every step of the way”.

Turi King faces the press review process

Turi King faces the press review process

DNA analysis: Turi King (Leicester), Gloria Gonzales Fortes (York), Patricia Balaresque and Laure Tonasso (Toulouse)
There is a match between fossil mitochondrial DNA from the skeleton’s teeth, and the two direct descendants of Richard III on the female line; the mitochondrial DNA sequence is “relatively rare”. The modern DNA work was conducted at the University of Leicester, the ancient DNA analysis at the University of York, independently verified at the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse.

Future work. The skeleton’s DNA may be compared to those of descendants down the male line. Analysis is complete of the DNA of a “number of the men identified as descendants of Edward III through his son John of Gaunt ­– who would both have shared the same Y chromosome as Richard III”. Turi King reports “a consensus Y chromosome type of these individuals”. Preliminary DNA work has confirmed that the skeleton is of a male, so analysis of the Y chromosome should be possible.


Putting the R in Car Park. Leicester Mercury

Putting the R in Car Park. Leicester Mercury

So, there’s a lot of stuff we now know about “skeleton 1”, found on the first day of the dig under a white R painted on the tarmac (apparently the only one there, and not in a parking space), where the determined Philippa Langley “had the strongest sensation that I was walking on Richard’s grave”.

There are two things that make me happy to say – as I did to the Associated Press – that as much as we can ever prove anything, these remains are those of Richard III. First is the evidence I’ve summarised above. But there’s a second, important reason. A lot of people have been working on this project, and continue to do so. Everything I’ve seen so far gives me confidence that as a group, they are working together well, trust each other, and are driven by the thrill of science and the urge to solve problems. I’ve seen no grandstanding of egos, no point scoring against colleagues, no sensationalising, no playing to the media.

You may think all that irrelevant. Well, I’ve been around a long time in this business, both as a research archaeologist and as a journalist, and I’ve seen plenty of those things – and they matter. They can interfere with academic research, they can lead to futile projects and they can produce unsubstantiated claims. Just one person in a large team can mess it all up. This isn’t the place to give examples of bad practice, but I’ll give one of good. The AHOB project, a huge conglomeration of research scientists from around the world that is now coming to an end, was aimed at better understanding the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain. It cost millions, and produced many academic publications, with more to come, and many very significant discoveries. And, despite the occasional press junket, it was distinguished by a strong desire just to know more, energised by the knowledge that it really was changing the way we understand the past. And when it happens like that, you trust it.

I trust the Leicester team and its colleagues outside the university.

One of the complaints has been the lack of peer review. Mary Beard was put off by “the priority of the media over peer review”. “This is a complicated bit of scientific analysis”, she writes, “being given its first outing in a Press Conference… DNA evidence is tricky and any scientist would want their results peer evaluated before going completely public.” Any scientist? I can’t say, having met some at the press conference, that I sensed much resentment against the process. But the classical historian was not alone with her concern.

Charlotte Higgins (whose book on Roman Britain we await with interest)  was concerned that “the findings have been published in a peer-reviewed journal rather than just announced in a press conference” (“the bone evidence is clearly circumstantial… though I can’t claim to know enough about DNA evidence to understand what the margin of error is here”). Science correspondent Alok Jha, also at the Guardian, was similarly concerned: “because the results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, it might be worth throwing in a little scepticism”. Nature newsblog saw a “twitter of discontent among scientists who are wondering why the university publicised the discovery before putting the data out for peer review”.

Others just questioned what the fuss was about. Why the interest? We haven’t learnt anything new or important. The only explanation is that the university wants publicity – more grants, more sponsorship, more students. “What possible difference is the discovery and identification of this skeleton going to make to anything?”, says classicist Neville Morley. His answer? “It’s all about money”.

In the real world, where most of us live, money matters. Universities do need to raise it, and whether the funds come through enlightened despots throwing around their cash, public-minded governments, philanthropists, parents or commercial activities, there has always been a general assumption that research and teaching (at least in our culture) are largely independent – and academia has had centuries to learn how to maintain that position.

Also in the real world, peer review, while important, is not perfect. Perhaps archaeology is unique, but in my experience there is no doubt that reviewed papers are published that should not have been, that the process is subject to academic fashion, and that individuals or groups occasionally use peer review as a way of blocking competitors’ work. Reviewers, the best of whom are the busiest, do not get paid and do not get public reward for their work – it can be easy to skim a paper and err on the side of doubt, to the benefit of authors. Relying too much on paper trails has messed up the National Health Service. This must not happen to academic research.

And is the difference between a press conference and an academic presentation necessarily so complete? It is common for archaeologists to present their work at lectures to learned societies while it is still in progress. Colleagues want to know about it, and researchers appreciate feedback – and it allows them to mark out their territory, gain publicity and add to their CVs, all recognised strategies.

For example, the Society of Antiquaries has a weekly lecture programme. Tomorrow as I write, David Gibson is talking about the extraordinary finds at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire. That will be popular. But it is not peer reviewed.

Which leads me to a curious blog by Catherine Fletcher, lecturer in public history at the University of Sheffield. She says quite positive things about the research and the archaeologists, but then adds, “releasing results directly to the media before their publication in learned journals is a new trend. The approach of Cern in the quest for the Higgs boson has been influential here. Universities have realised that media interest generates publicity and with it – they hope – cash.”

Well. She must know what she is talking about given her job title, so I can only imagine that history as an academic subject is behind on this one compared to archaeology – well over a century behind.

As long as it has existed (which isn’t that long), archaeology has caught the public imagination, and archaeologists have wanted to tell the public what they are doing. Mortimer Wheeler, who did much to shape our profession in the 1930s and 40s, was famous for putting publicity before peer review: his great excavation at Maiden Castle was on the front page of the Daily Mail before it was reported in the Antiquaries Journal, and people queued to pay to see the trenches.

In 1859 (as our exhibition at the Wellington Arch, which opened today, explains), two antiquarians made a momentous discovery in a French quarry that was to change the course of archaeological research and our understanding of humanity. They rushed back to London with their find, and proceeded (with like-minded colleagues) to address one learned society after another – hotly pursued by the press. The world knew about it all before the peer-reviewed papers were out, and the world believed them: like the archaeologists in Leicester, they presented their case clearly, with the evidence to back it up.

Now how does an academic lecture – or rather a session of such talks – differ from Monday’s conference in Leicester? Introducing the line-up, Richard Taylor, deputy registrar at the University of Leicester, said that all this will be published in peer-reviewed journals – not a promise I often hear at learned societies (or indeed one that is always fulfilled). Six specialists then talked about their respective fields, starting with Richard Buckley on the archaeology, with pictures on a screen. At major presentations at the Antiquaries, selected people in the audience are pre-warned that they will be asked for comment. So in Leicester, we had prepared reactions from six people, followed – as at the Antiquaries – by questions from the floor.

If that sounds like an academic conference, it was like an academic conference. The major difference was that Leicester was better than a typical group of talking academics. We had no text-filled PowerPoint slides to show the speaker’s mind was switched off. Everyone talked clearly, in good English, to the point and to time. Each presentation followed logically from its predecessor, and they added up to a coherent story that was brought to a conclusion by Buckley – at an academic meeting we would more likely have been treated to a series of unconnected talks under a theme heading whose meaning might itself have been a topic of specialist investigation. At which point, to my astonishment, there was a whoop and applause from the audience, something you’re even less likely to hear from journalists than from academics. We were enjoying ourselves.

A cheer from the crowd. University of Leicester

A cheer from the crowd. University of Leicester

Now none of this matters a jot if the conference was all presentation and no content. But we were being shown a substantial research project that was a case study in how archaeology works at its best, from questioning and planning, to fieldwork, analyses and conclusion. The distinct but linked strands of research were given to us in one go, so their joint impact on the questions could be evaluated. Peer-reviewed publication will take longer, and will see those strands unravelled, as different journals and different research lines complete at different speeds. Armed only with those, the media would make it look more confusing, reporting some of the studies and not others, with differing emphases, and – a key point – the public would be less well served.

And, this is the rub, so would academia. Asking specialists to address a wider audience, during their research, forces them to think beyond the narrow confines of their immediate tasks, to see the bigger picture. It demands that they communicate in clear language, which means they have to think clearly. It encourages them (though in this case I doubt such incentive was needed) to work together, not competitively. And it asks them to think very hard about what they are going to say. For if they get it wrong, they surely will be fried.

Sometimes the peers in the street are the ones that matter most.

It’s Richard III! (see footnote)

Panel 5 Emma Vieceli-Kate Brown-Paul Duffield

Emma Vieceli, with Kate Brown (flat colours and textures) and Paul Duffield (panel borders, text)

Richard III (or, perhaps, a skeletal imposter) is giving us an interesting media moment. As has become apparent over the past week, on Monday the University of Leicester (to quote one of its press releases), “will reveal the results of a series of scientific investigations into human remains – which are possibly those of King Richard III”. By now we all know the reference is to remains excavated last year in a Leicester car park. There is a very carefully orchestrated press event on Monday morning , where I hope to be. But the timing leaves weekend editors in a quandary.

By next weekend, the story will have been well turned over, and it will be difficult for papers to find much really new to say. Yet the results of the research, and all the details, seem to have been truly kept secret (certainly, I have no inside knowledge). So what do you do a day or two before the release? It’s hardly a story you can ignore.

You could, with sufficient resources and cunning, find someone to spill the beans, and run your own exclusive, ahead of the event. That may well happen. At the very least, you could run headlines that suggest that that is what you have managed to do, and after a couple of pages or so fess up in the last sentence and admit that actually, you don’t really, really know.

Or without too much work, you could just look at everything that’s been put out over the past few months. So here, without comment, is my little contribution.

Monday’s Channel 4 film is called “Richard III: The King in the Car Park”. No question mark, no “Mystery of…” or “In search of…”, just “The King”. That, of course, is pure hype. As is this book release from The History Press, which I received on January 29  (and which I reproduce below in full, so you can see the complete, unembargoed thing).

The book is by the resourceful John Ashdown-Hill, who has been credited with the research that identified a living descendant of Richard III. It is a revised edition of a book originally titled, The Last Days of Richard III, and published in 2010. Now it’s called, The Last Days of Richard III & the Fate of his DNA: The Book that Inspired the Dig. Fair enough. But did Leicester University press office approve this?

“…with the discovery of Richard’s skeleton at the Greyfriars Priory [the release actually says “Greyfrairs Priory”, but I think that’s a typo] in Leicester, England, John Ashdown-Hill… [gives] details of how Richard died, and how the DNA link to a living relative of the king allowed the royal body to be identified…

“Richard III’s family tree took John Ashdown-Hill three years to trace – now the living ancestor he found provides the key to analysing the DNA of the skeleton unearthed in Leicester.”

Either John Ashdown-Hill knows something most of us don’t, or he’s got horribly carried away. We’ll know on Monday morning. Or possibly over the weekend.

The Last Days of Richard III

On a portrait of Charles Darwin

Down House

Some extraordinary things are coming together in the Wellington Arch in London. English Heritage is getting ready to open a new exhibition in the Quadriga Gallery (The Birth of Archaeology and the Battle for the Past), which opens next week – the first public event in a year of celebration of the Ancient Monuments Consolidation & Amendment Act 1913 (really!). They should’ve given the act a snappier name:  it is in fact a great story.

Anyway, among the stuff being unpacked and examined in the arch when I was there on Wednesday, were three portraits: an oil of John Lubbock, an oil of General Pitt-Rivers, and a photo of Charles Darwin.

The latter (above, ready to hang), is from Darwin’s home at Down House, managed by English Heritage. Online it’s sometimes described as 1859 (the year his On the Origin of Species was published), which would be great – we also have a first edition copy of the book in the show, and the flint handaxe that John Evans and Joseph Prestwich took back to London from the quarry at St Acheul, also in 1859 (another story, but the find that amongst other things, showed archaeology could write history). But when was the photo really taken?

On the face of it, that date comes from an odd book by Karl Pearson (1914) about Francis Galton (it has an unsettling obsession with genealogy). He reproduces the image as below:

Pearson 1914Pearson says Darwin (February 12 1809–1882) is aged 51, which would mean the photo was taken between February 12 1860 and February 11 1861. Which is nearly there, but not quite.

(Interestingly, Pearson also notes that the photo was “touched up by Mrs Darwin”. Comparison of images here suggests she was particularly concerned with his trousers.)

When the Down House print was unpacked in the arch, I was able to look at the back of the frame. There are two stickers, including a business label from Messrs Maull & Fox, at 187a Piccadilly.

Down House back

I learnt about Henry Maull (1829–1914) from a useful website about London photographers. Maull traded from a number of addresses, typically three at any one time, and with a number of different partners. One of those addresses was 187a Piccadilly, Westminster (above Hatchards booksellers), where he had premises between 1857 and 1885, and the business continued there under Maull’s name until 1924. His name appeared above the shop in four guises:

1. Maull & Polyblank: partnership  with George Henry Polyblank (1828–?), May 1857–March 1865.

2. Henry Maull: after this partnership was dissolved, Maull re-established himself on his own, March 1865–1871.

3. Henry Maull & Co: 1872–1877.

4. Maull & Fox: a new partnership with John Fox (1832–1907), 1878–1885; the partnership was dissolved in 1885, but the studio continued until 1924 under successive owners with the original name.

So this print must have been made, or at the very least framed and sold, some time between 1878 and 1924. Apparently after it was sold, on two occasions notes were added which suggested the photo was taken in 1859: one says “original taken about 1859”, the other, in a different hand, “…taken about the time of the publication of the ‘Origin’. Belonged to William & later to Horace Darwin. J.D.”

Maull’s first studio opened on Gracechurch Street, City of London, in 1854 (as Maull & Polyblank), so on that basis, the photo could theoretically have been taken between 1854 and 1862, when Darwin grew his beard. So far so good.

However, the photo was reproduced by Francis Darwin, Charles’s son, in 1899, when he described it thus:

“The portrait of Charles Darwin is by Messrs Maull and Fox, who have been good enough to permit its reproduction. The date of the photograph is probably 1854; it is, however, impossible to be certain on this point, the books of Messrs. Maull and Fox having been destroyed by fire. The reproduction is by Mr Dew-Smith, who has been at some disadvantage, having only an old and faded print to work from.”

The photo (cropped, perhaps reflecting the print’s condition – no trousers) was also reproduced by Darwin & Seward in 1903, again with the date “c 1854”. This image is on the Darwin online website:

Darwin & Seward 1903

A version was published in in 1884 in Harper’s Magazine (also from Darwin online):

Harper's Magazine 1884

In 1899, Maull was trading as Maull & Fox, and would have provided the print that Francis Darwin used under that name. But if the shot was taken in 1854, it would have been by Maull & Polyblank. That is the attribution to a very similar portrait. It looks like the same jacket, but otherwise different clothes, so apparently not actually at the same sitting, though one has to wonder:

Christ's College

This is now owned by Christ’s College, and was taken by Maull & Polyblank for the Literary & Scientific Portrait Club. The Darwin online website quotes a letter from Darwin to Joseph Dalton Hooker on 27 May 1855 that apparently refers to this image:

“if I really have as bad an expression, as my photograph gives me, how I can have one single friend is surprising.’

The website says there is a pencilled note on the back of the frame:

“This photograph of Darwin was presented by him to my Uncle, FD Dyster, of Tenby. I am informed by Francis Darwin, his son, that the photograph was probably taken in the year 1854, but he had never seen it. FHH Guillemard.”

So Francis said both of these photos were “about 1854”.

It seems likely that if these two really were taken in 1859, that date would have been associated with at least one of them from the start. Yet it was added later, and not to both. It’s a bit circumstantial, but the testimony of Francis and the sitter’s comment that is apparently about one of them, add up to the photos having been taken in 1854 or 1855. The Down House print was made in or after 1878.


Pearson, K 1914. The Life, Letters & Labours of Francis Galton