Sunday, 29 December 2013

A Model of Wayland's Smithy Neolithic Chambered Tomb

Image: A scale model of Wayland's Smithy Neolithic Chambered Tomb, made in the 1860s by Alfred Lewis, and acquired by General Pitt-Rivers shortly thereafter. Pitt Rivers Museum Accession Number 1884.140.97

I published this account of an archaeological model from the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum in 2011 in the inaugural issue of the Edgar Wind Society's Journal. You can read more about my work on Pitt-Rivers' collections on the blog Excavating Pitt-RiversCite this paper as: Dan Hicks 2011. A model of Wayland's Smithy. Edgar Wind Journal 1 (unpaginated).

When it was founded in 1884, the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum comprised some 26,000 archaeological and ethnographic objects: a number that over the course of the twentieth century grew to over 300,000. Within the founding collection are a number of artefacts that relate directly to Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers’ own interests in the archaeology of Britain. These include a set of thirteen models of prehistoric monuments, one of which is illustrated here (Accession Number 1884.140.97). Like the other twelve, this model was made by Alfred Lionel Lewis, a chartered accountant and amateur anthropologist, in the late 1860s, acquired by Pitt-Rivers soon afterwards, and displayed at his exhibitions in Bethnal Green and South Kensington before being brought to Oxford.

The model depicts Wayland’s Smithy, a Neolithic chambered tomb, which lies a short distance along the Ridgeway from Uffington White Horse in south-west Oxfordshire. The site consists of a trapezoidal mound with a stone-lined trancepted chamber, and was constructed some 6,500 years ago in the middle of the fourth millennium BC. It was little explored in the 1880s, but was the focus of excavations conducted in the early 1960s by Richard Atkinson and Stuart Piggott, at the invitation of the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments of the Ministry of Public Building and Works, after which the site was restored.

The stones, rendered in cork, are surrounded by undergrowth and small trees, depicted by moss. The model’s focus is the sarsen stones of the chamber and the kerb, while the mound is suggested under the vegetation. The cork and the moss are mounted on a square wooden block covered with painted paper. A hand-written label identifies the site as ‘Wayland’s Cave, 3 miles from Shrivenham Station, Berkshire’: a reminder of the significance of rail travel to stations such as this (opened 1840) in facilitating visits to archaeological monuments in the early Victorian period. Each edge of the block is labelled with a compass point, and the whole model is at a scale of 1 inch to 10 feet. Text written on the base indicates the date on which Lewis visited the site and possibly when he manufactured the object: “16 May 1868 3pm & 10 July 1869”.

Perhaps inspired by Lewis, Pitt Rivers went on in the late 1880s to have more than 100 models of archaeological sites produced for his second museum at Farnham from detailed contoured plans, crafted of out plaster or carved in mahogany. These models, of which more than 50 survive in Salisbury Museum, included sites that he had visited while Inspector of Ancient Monuments, Celtic crosses, and his own excavations, where brass pins indicated the precise locations and levels at which artefacts were found. Some were very complex, for example his hinged model of excavations at Cissbury Ring on the South Downs, which lifted up to show how the remains of Neolithic flint mines lay beneath the ramparts of an Iron Age hillfort.

Archaeological model-making came to form part of museum displays, but Chris Evans has observed that physical models were a medium with which archaeologists were experimenting in the second half of the 19th century, and especially after the Great Exhibition of 1851, in a number of different ways. The purpose of models was not simply to document and understand sites and monuments, but for the scientific demonstration of the results of excavations at professional meetings, at a time before widespread use of archaeological photography, and as a three-dimensional alternative to illustration by woodcut, etching or lithography. It is also possible that the models formed more explicitly a part of the archaeological documentation of the site, for instance being used for reference when a site was excavated for a second season.

Today, the model is of interest to us as part of a moment in the history of archaeology when the visualization of the past took a peculiarly physical, and perhaps more creative, form than it did in subsequent years. The object perhaps crystallizes the emerging tensions between the discipline’s scientific or artistic aspirations in the late Victorian period. At the same time, it provides a unique record of the condition and state of preservation of the site in the 1860s, and how it was understood by Alfred Lionel Lewis, long before its ‘restoration to its appearance in Antiquity’, conducted by the Ministry of Works in 1964 after Atkinson and Piggott had departed.

Further Reading
Caroline Butler 2010. Model Monuments: a set of models of prehistoric stone monuments.
Chris Evans 2004. Modelling Monuments and Excavations. In S. de Chadarevian and N . Hopwood (eds) Models: The Third Dimension of Science Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, pp. 109-137.

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