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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


The Archaeology of Race

By Edmund Connolly, on 1 April 2013

guest blogger: Chris Webb


In recent history there are few contentious subjects that are as notorious as eugenics. There are not many areas of discussion that can illicit such heated debate. Indeed, even the simple task of blogging becomes a semantic minefield, my inclusion of the word ‘contentious’ above, inferring (erroneously) that there are two sides to ‘argue’. However, research into the concept of eugenics, its founding and articulation, is the focus of a new book by Dr Debbie Challis who asks ‘How much was archaeology founded on prejudice?’

On the 14 March The Petrie Museum hosted Dr Challis in conversation on her new book with Dr Carole Reeves (UCL Centre for the History of Medicine). The title: ‘The Archaeology of Race – The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie’, draws on archives and objects from the Petrie and Galton collections to explore application of racial theory in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. The discussion focused on the awfully Victorian appetite for classification and improvement to physical typology through a process of applied biometrics. Their aim: To improve the general population through selective breeding. Race is quantified as a social construction. According to the sources, the Victorian upper classes were concerned about the growth of the under-classes and over-crowding. The fear was that this would lead to a degradation of the population.

It was Francis Galton who first formulated both the term and field in 1883, which drew on the work of Charles Darwin, his cousin. Indeed, UCL Special Collections and the Galton Collection hold many objects connected to Francis Galton’s life. His handprint, hand writing, travel journals, family photographs, statistics from his laboratory, a stuffed wallet, all combine to provide an illustration of his life. In 1886 Francis Galton commissioned Flinders Petrie to take photographs of different ‘racial types’ on monuments from Ancient Egypt, thus marking the connection between Galton, Petrie and UCL.

Drawing back to my above reference to the issues of semantics, the term eugenics is now associated with malevolence. The early 20th century adoptions of the principles first set down by Galton have linked the term forever with Nazi Germany, genocide and racially motivated hatred. Embryo screening for diseases and other more nefarious goals, such as designer babies, also raise their head in the discourse. The debate over nature versus nurture was a Galton original, and continues today. The issues and understanding that surrounds eugenics instil impassioned responses, the term holding severely negative connotations. This was made evident in our question and answer session at the end of the evening. The launch of ‘The Archaeology of Race – The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie’, initiates dialogue into these principles and its adoption by various political, social and historical groups. But more than this, it examines how much of Victorian archaeology was founded on discrimination, and the outlook shared by both Galton and Petrie.


For more blog posts see:

Borrowing Galton

Race, Starkey and Remembering

The grave of Francis Galton


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