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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


From Delphi to the Dodo: Finding Links Between Archaeology and Natural History

GemmaAngel1 October 2012

by Felicity Winkley






Initially, my response to the challenge of finding a link between my research and the zoological specimens in the Grant Museum was one of dread and panic. Such a thing could simply not be done – it would be impossible to engage a member of the public for long enough to travel the conversational distance from a dissected Thylacine to British archaeology. On closer inspection, however, I was to find that the museum which houses Grant’s collection of some 67,000 zoological specimens, is not, in fact, dissimilar to those great anthropological collections that were also assembled during the 19th century. The shadowy corners and densely-packed glass cases are reminiscent, certainly, of those at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, where the shelves overflow with ethnological artefacts.

And yet the similarities go beyond the simply aesthetic. Both Robert Edmund Grant ( 1793-1874  – pictured left) and Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt Rivers (1827-1900 – pictured below) were undoubtedly, if unconsciously, influenced by a long-established tradition of collecting in England, which since the 17th century had been a gentlemanly pursuit acceptable to the social elite [1]. Indeed, for ambitious scholars it was even a method of propelling oneself up the social charts. Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) was the son of a saddler, but with a good eye and some wily investing he was able to accumulate a collection that when bequeathed to Oxford University (along with its own custom-made premises), would provide a lasting legacy to maintain both the collection and his own prestige [1]. But Ashmole was only one of any number of ‘Antiquarians’ as these collectors were soon to become known; men who, for Sweet, “were important actors in that explosion of print and ideas, that thirst for knowledge and understanding with some have called the British Enlightenment” [2].

The rise of the antiquarian popularised the collection of all kinds of objects and artefacts, from coins and medals, to maps and even fossils; the over-arching motivation was simply a thirst for information about the past, and particularly information that was not provided by the historical record. This lack of concern for the ‘what’ that was being studied, often meant that focus was instead placed upon the ‘where’, so that authors would compile an in-depth study of the local parish or county – a regional framework which brought their work into obvious connection with natural historians compiling similar studies. The connection between antiquaries and natural historians was cemented further still by their agreement on epistemological models, and a sympathetic “culture of inquiry” according to Sweet [2].

In order to find a link between my own research and the Grant Museum collections, I determined to find out whether this undeniable spirit of discovery which so connected antiquarians and natural historians during the 17th and 18th century persisted into the 19th century also – and I was very happy to discover that it did. Whilst the methodology had been modernised into a recognisable early archaeology, and the investigative locations had moved from the local county to the more exotic, there was still an undeniable relationship between antiquarian and natural historical research. Just as the history of the local parish had been a relative unknown several hundred years previously, by the 19th century researchers had begun travelling further afield to collect archaeological information alongside samples of foreign flora and fauna. And this is where Darwin comes in.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) had studied under Robert Grant during the 1820s and was much influenced by his ideas; however, his focus was by no means limited to the comparative anatomical interest they both shared. Written records show that even later on in his career, Darwin was contributing to funding for voyages that would provide evidence for archaeological investigations as well as natural-historical studies. A trip, funded in part by the Royal Society (then The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge), to Borneo in 1878, had the archaeological aim of finding evidence for early human occupation, but plainly also had great implications for Darwin and his colleague Alfred Russell Wallace as a potential source for proving the evolution of anthropoid apes [3]. Wallace had already visited Borneo in 1855, where his observation of orangutans native only to that island and neighbouring Sumatra, prompted his composition of the very paper that would inspire Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Darwin pledged a sum of twenty pounds to the voyage [3]. Any discovery, whether made by an archaeologist, anatomist, collector or naturalist, was seen as a contribution to enlightenment. As testament to the limitless horizons of this quest for knowledge, signing off his letter, Darwin adds:

“I wish someone as energetic as yourself [John Evans] would organise an expedition to the triassic lacustrine beds in S. Africa, where the cliffs are said to be almost composed of bones.”

Evidently, he was already planning the next adventure! [3]


[1] Swann, M. (2001) Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

[2] Sweet, R. (2004) Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain London: Hambledon and London (pp. xiv)

[3] Sherratt, A. (2002) Darwin among the archaeologists: The John Evans nexus and the Borneo Caves Antiquity 76 pp.151-157