Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

This is an edited outline of the paper given by Katherine Cooper on 27 February 2009 at the Pitt Rivers Museum. This is ongoing research and not fully published, but anyone interested could contact Katherine at: kmc34@cam.ac.uk

Abstract: This paper presents research undertaken as part of a PhD on the transmission and interpretation of lake dwelling materials between Switzerland (and one site in particular) and the UK between 1850-1900. I am particularly interested in knowledge transfer through images and objects and how lake dwelling objects and images were created, displayed, moved and interpreted and so reconsider archaeological collections and associated imagery and biographies as the site for the construction of various conceptions of prehistory. This paper focuses on the relationship that some of the 19th century formulations of prehistoric of lake dwellings had with earlier ethnographic images and conventions, and how this borrowing happened. Hopefully some of what I cover can also lead us to think about how these visual and material aspects of early archaeology, as well their more popular off-shoots in the 19th century influence archaeology today, perhaps particularly in Alpine Europe.

Hopelessly entwined? Alpine lake dwellings and the relationship of anthropology to 19th century archaeological reconstruction (1850-1900).

The purpose of this paper is to consider the encounter with a specific body of late prehistoric material from wetland settlements, otherwise known as lake dwellings, which were discovered in alpine Europe in the mid 19th century. By considering the various ways in which artefacts from the Swiss lake dwelling sites were a nexus of complex, multi-levelled relationships between people, places and objects I hope to complicate and deepen an understanding of the context in which the archaeological material was engaged with and interpreted and also to think about the place of objects in creating channels of knowledge for new conceptions of prehistory in the late 19th century. This paper is a part of my PhD thesis on the transmission and interpretation of prehistoric lake dwelling artefacts between Switzerland and the UK between 1850-1900. In today’s paper I want to highlight the place that ethnographically inspired images had in the creation of a vision of lake sites that in turn influenced archaeological practice into the early 20th century.

Lake dwellings in archaeological terms are prehistoric settlement sites, situated on the littoral zone of the many lakes of Switzerland, southern Germany and northern Italy. Similar waterlogged sites have been explored in Britain as well as the Netherlands, Poland and Slovenia and Scandinavia and most date from the late Neolithic into the late Bronze Age though some central European sites are Iron Age. The uncovering of these exceptionally well-preserved sites in Switzerland threw up of vast quantities of organic objects, including textiles, wooden structures, wooden and bone artefacts, leather, charred food and plant remains as well as large numbers of stone, metal and ceramic objects. They were first noticed by local fishermen and collectors, but it was in the winter of 1853-54 that they were brought to the attention the Swiss natural scientist and antiquarian Ferdinand Keller (1800-1881) who instigated an embryonic but extensive plan of archaeological investigations and recorded the progress of his work in the reports of Zurich’s Society of Antiquaries. The interest expressed in these sites was due not only to their age but to the spectacular state in which the details of everyday prehistoric life were preserved. Resulting imagery and display of lake dwellings materials in the latter half of the 19th century took this new conception of human prehistory well beyond the small confines of antiquarian circles to a much wider audiences in the form of book and magazine illustrations, paintings, models, museum displays, dioramas and novels.

Imagery and objects from travel and colonial contexts embodied and represented entirely different worlds and were sources to which those interested in fleshing out Europe’s prehistory turned. In terms of recreating another, quite different world, images such as these played an important role in stimulating the visual imagination of distant and unknown places. That lake dwellings were seen as ‘other worldly’ is no better described than by antiquarian Eduard Desor in 1865: ‘once [the spatial relations of the artefacts and piles were] traced, it became a rousing signal that has led us to the discovery of a whole unknown world’ (Desor in Vogt 1998, 254). This was also the age of nation building and historical and archaeological material was often as not ‘appropriated for political ends; the lake dwelling sites being no exception in the context Swiss nationalism and later German National Socialism. Discussions as to the age of humankind were also prominent and by this time, ‘the natural history of man’ as Stocking puts it ‘was now thought of in terms of development in time and not movement in space’….the ‘regularity of the cultural evolutionary ladder [becoming] superimposed on the irregular outlines of the ethnological tree’ (Stocking 1985, 76). Each of these discourses influenced the interpretation of lake sites and incorporated such sites into their discussion.

The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries found many attempting to “bring history to life” through painting, etchings, models, dioramas and panoramas as well as through increasingly focused collecting. This time also saw new or increasingly developed techniques of recording such as lithography, as well as other representational forms like panoramas, dioramas and models. Practices such as free-hand sketching, although it continued to be used in archaeological observations, was considered less accurate and therefore less authentic.

Lake dwellings were becoming one of the ways through which prehistory could be accessed and such a view was fuelled by the microscopic conditions of preservation, particularly of the wooden structures, canoes, textiles and leather. John Lubbock’s response is indicative of the responses that the spectacular conditions of preservation elicited from people: “most [objects] are embedded in the mud… but others lie on the bottom; so that when, for the first time, I saw them through the transparent water, a momentary feeling of doubt as to their age rose in my mind. So fresh are they and at first sign so unaltered, they look as if the were only things of yesterday (Lubbock 1913, 187). I want to suggest that it was this apparent ‘contradiction’ between the accepted age of these artefacts and their pristine appearance that tapped into, but contravened, previous expectations of prehistoric materials. Their immaculate preservation could be therefore interpreted within an historical aesthetic.

The conservation and presentation of lake dwelling artefacts for the purposes of archaeological research at the same time instigated a chain of encounters that shaped the form and content of these artefacts and consequentially the interactions and ideas that these objects went on to mediate. Objects were personalised and used to create specific connections between individuals from the very start. In this way they became catalysts for the development of personal relationships on which collective and professional networks in the nineteenth century were founded. The framing, packaging and initialling of these materials—originally done for preservation and collecting purposes—became indivisible from the prehistoric material itself and so contained materially the trajectory of the various encounters they had passed through. These objects could be personalised, preserved, displayed and given as gifts to specific personages and contexts, hence becoming repositories and manifestations of these relationships.

To think about the contexts in which lake dwelling objects moved around and were transformed in the process I want to take as a case study a collection from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. The collection in question here consists of Neolithic charred bread, an ear of barley, seeds of flax, strawberry seeds, crab-apples (split, dried and charred), charred grain, woven flax, matted flax and flax thread. These framed, bottled and annotated organic artefacts were given to eminent British geologist Sir Charles Lyell from the Swiss natural scientist and antiquarian Adolf von Morlot (1820-1867) in 1864 and became part of Lyell’s many personal collections of geological and archaeological items. This collection is an example of a more general practice of collecting and selling lake dwellings objects in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many lake dwelling artefacts were in fact sold on the antiquities market and so their sometime status as commodities is clear. Framed textiles from lake dwellings could be sold as commodities or used as diplomatic presents due to their monetary value as indicated in Ferdinand Keller’s correspondence with Jakob Messikommer in 1861:

This afternoon…I have…kept the smallest fragments of the textiles because such things can either be used as gifts or as gratis supplement to a purchase.

The organic collection in question here are described as an ‘addenda’ in the letter that accompanied a larger transmission of prehistoric worked bone from the Swiss natural scientist Dr Uhlmann to Sir Charles Lyell. This collection of bone was from the Swiss lake site of Moosseedorf and Adolf Morlot, on behalf of Uhlmann, orchestrated its transmission. In his letter to Lyell dated to April 1864 Morlot writes:

He [Uhlmann] wishes the [bone] series to be presented in my name as well as in his, (although the merit is all his own), perhaps, because he paid no attention to all those marks until my return from Denmark, when I called his attention to them, explaining Steenstrup’s researches.

The biographical trajectory of this collection encompasses the social relationship between Adolf von Morlot and Charles Lyell, and the other collectors who were involved in their subsequent transmission to the Cambridge museums and immediately adds a social layer, both theorectically but also physically to these objects. The framing and packaging of these materials—initially done for preservation and collecting purposes—have become indivisible from the prehistoric material itself. In this and other lake dwelling collections at the CUMAA, the initials or names of collectors and antiquarians or site names have been written onto wooden, bone and stone objects, either directly in ink, or onto stick-on labels. Morlot had prepared the glass frames and tubes himself (something that was sometimes left to locals in the employ of antiquarians) and, as noted previously, had especially distinguished the objects from the larger transmission of objects that Dr Uhlmann had arranged. Morlot’s greeting written on the back of the frames reads:

Robenhausen 1862 - matted flax. Stone age
Prepared for Sir Charles Lyell by his devoted pupil
A. Morlot
Lausanne, 16th April 1864

By sending carefully prepared ‘scientific’ samples, Morlot was reaffirming his position in the academic hierarchy (referring to himself as pupil) as well as his affection for the mentorship he received.

Lake dwelling material were the source of broader attempts to envision the prehistoric past, often for very different reasons, by artists, archaeologists and anthropologists. By the 1870s visual images of lake dwellings had spread far and wide, but the source and largest concentration of them was in Switzerland herself. Artefacts, literally fished from the lake sites, found their way into private collections in people's houses and museums within Switzerland and well beyond. Imaginative descriptions of lake villages began to appear in prehistoric novels and much later in the century in children’s literature influenced by the images and travel descriptions of houses built on lakes in other parts of the world.

Lake Dwelling research at the time of its inception was therefore strongly influenced by the preconceptions that Europeans had about “primitive peoples” due to imagery and reports from travel and colonial encounters as well as their appreciation of the antiquity of humankind. Prehistory and anthropology shared many of each other’s concerns as well as their objects of observation and was thereby inexorably linked, prehistory providing the chronological depth and anthropology access to the “living scenarios” that prehistory lacked.

Thinking about engagements with the archaeological material along some of these lines provides a method for considering the material and cultural mediators of such encounters: as specific events of engagement embedded in larger cultural processes and matrixes. This paper has attempted to begin a process of complicating any simple historical description of the research trajectory of these sites by insisting on a multi-levelled and multi-media approach to the history of their material engagement and considering specific material pathways through which older conceptions of “primitive man” interacted with the archaeological finds within a particular social and aesthetic contexts. Such a framework I hope can aid an exploration of the complex relationships between the processes of material engagement, social networks and the influence of other disciplines such as anthropology or genre painting in how concepts of prehistory were formed. Lake dwelling artifacts and the various representations that were created alongside them were the products of these encounters, yet they also mediated the encounter with prehistory. It was these contexts, both social and cultural and the material methods of preservation and display that influenced how the lake dwelling sites were perceived and interpreted. It would therefore seem that central to any consideration of how archaeological material is interpreted are the contexts of its mobility and exchange, its preservation or display and the culturally informed modes of perceiving such objects. Thinking about the context of encountering archaeological materials, allows us to unravel these material sites of engagement. And, I suggest that this could further inform us strongly about the method through which knowledge of the prehistoric past was constructed.

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