Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.02.21

Stephen L. Dyson, In Pursuit of Ancient Pasts: A History of Classical Archaeology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.   New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2006.  Pp. xv, 316.  ISBN 0-300-11097-9.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by David Gill, University of Wales Swansea (
Word count: 1682 words

Table of Contents

Ancient Pasts takes the discipline of classical archaeology back to its roots, and along the way this reviewer passed some of his own: the Roman walls of Silchester set in the Hampshire countryside and Hadrian's Wall, armed with John Collingwood Bruce's Handbook (not Guide, p. 128).1 D. presents a readable and reliable "personal history" which builds on his earlier Ancient Marbles to American Shores: Classical Archaeology in the United States (1998) (reviewed at BMCR 1999.05.13) and Eugénie Sellers Strong: Portrait of an Archaeologist (2004). There are seven main chapters that take the reader from Johann Winckelmann (1717-68) in "The Protohistory of Classical Archaeology" to the UNESCO Carthage excavations of the 1970s.

The study of the discipline from a British perspective has been greatly enhanced in recent years by The Dictionary of British Classicists (2004) and the definitive Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) (also available to subscribers online). D. makes good use of the former but the latter appeared too late to feature here (though D. contributed the revised entry on Strong). Perhaps more could have been made with the endowment of the Disney chair of archaeology in Cambridge (to lecture "on the subject of Classical Mediaeval and other Antiquities the Fine Arts and all matters and things connected therewith") by John Disney (1779-1857), owner of the Grand Tour collection of classical sculptures formed by Thomas Hollis (1720-74), a benefactor of Harvard. Disney insisted on making the first appointment, the Reverend John Howard Marsden (1803-91) who held the post simultaneously with his role as rector of a parish in East Anglia (where he was active, like Disney, in the Essex Archaeological Society). It would be misleading to suggest that "the Disney professors played little role in the development of classical archaeology at Cambridge" (p. 125). This would be to overlook the contributions of Churchill Babington (1821-89), who prepared editions of classical texts found on papyri in Egypt, Percy Gardner (1846-1937), later Lincoln and Merton professor in Oxford, and Sir William Ridgeway (1858-1926), who encouraged a generation of Aegean prehistorians.2 Holders of the Cambridge Laurence (not Lawrence, p. 125) chair in classical archaeology included Alan J.B. Wace (1879-1957), excavator of Mycenae.

As in Ancient Marbles, D. continues to explore the contribution of women to the discipline.3 He cites John P. Droop's well-known views on women on excavations from his Cambridge handbook, Archaeological Excavation (1915). D. does not however draw attention to the fact that Droop was able to observe women participating in the British School's excavation at Phylakopi on Melos; almost certainly his comments were influenced by the Cambridge educated Dorothy Lamb who taught briefly at Bryn Mawr College (1912-13).4 Developments in classical archaeology should be seen against the wider background of archaeology. Jocelyn Toynbee's tenure of the Laurence chair of classical archaeology (1951-62) followed, for example, Margaret A. Murray (1863-1963), assistant professor in Egyptology at University College London (1924-35), and Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968), Disney professor in archaeology (1939-52). D. also returns to the theme of refugee scholars; there is tragedy in the treatment of the epigrapher Mario Segre who was offered protection by the Swedish Institute in Rome (pp. 211-12). D. deals with the Nazi dimension of classical archaeology in Germany, and the fascists in Italy, with great sensitivity and diplomacy.

The impact of two world wars is noted. Promising careers were cut short (p. 172). The death on the Somme of Guy Dickins (1881-1916), Oxford university lecturer in classical archaeology and editor of the first volume of the Catalogue of the Acropolis Museum (1912), was lamented in a letter to The Times (July 26, 1916). Leonard Cheesman, one of Haverfield's students, had been a key figure in Anatolian archaeology in the years up to the outbreak of war; he was killed at Gallipoli during a mass attack led by Kemal Atatürk. Yet it is also striking how few students of the British School at Athens (BSA) were killed in the First World War in spite of the large number of active participants. One of the reasons was the recruitment of students who spoke Greek or Turkish into intelligence work.5 J.D. Beazley's London-based role in naval intelligence involved the decoding of German signals in part through the identification of anonymous wireless operators, a skill which perhaps had an impact on his later scholarship (pp. 164-66). One of the obvious impacts of the First World War was the greater involvement of women in fieldwork.

One aspect that could have been explored further is the contribution of classical archaeology to other disciplines of archaeology. It is clear that the BSA was conceived as a training ground for archaeology in general. More than 10 per cent of the students admitted to the BSA before the First World War were involved in Egyptology. Ernest Gardner (1862-1939), the second director of the School, had excavated at Naukratis (1885-86) before being admitted as the first student at the school. David Hogarth (1862-1927) worked with Flinders Petrie at Koptos, excavated at Deir el-Bahari, Naukratis and Asyut, and planned a major project at Alexandria. John G. Milne (1867-1951) worked with Petrie and helped to prepare part of the catalogue of the Cairo Museum. (Thomas) Eric Peet (1882-1934), professor of Egyptology in Liverpool and reader in Egyptology at Oxford, started his career working on prehistory in Italy (with Thomas Ashby) before turning to Greece, and then excavations at Abydos. John W. Crowfoot (1873-1959) first excavated at Phylakopi and later became director of the British School of Archaeology at Jerusalem (1927-35). One of the key figures in the development of an archaeological service in India was John H. Marshall who gained his skills as a member of the British projects in eastern Crete.6

D. explores the rise of Roman provincial archaeology especially in France, Germany, and Britain. In Britain he is right to stress the role of Francis Haverfield (1860-1919). BSA students who had learned their craft in the Mediterranean turned their hand to Romano-British archaeology on their return home. Robert Carr Bosanquet (1871-1935) excavated at Housesteads, one of the forts on Hadrian's Wall, in 1898 for the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. After his appointment to a chair in Liverpool he pioneered the excavation of Roman sites in Wales and, as one of the first commissioners for the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and Monmouthshire, helped to encourage the young Mortimer Wheeler (1890-1976). Other former students of the BSA (such as John H. Hopkinson and Leonard Cheesman) worked on a range of Roman sites in north-west England including Manchester, Melandra Castle, and Ribchester. On a more recent note, William F. Grimes (1905-88), known for his work on Roman London including the Mithraeum (p. 239), started his career working on prehistoric sites in Wales.

D. discusses the rise of the interest in epigraphy through the compilation of the Corpus inscriptionum graecarum (p. 31) and the Corpus inscriptionum latinarum (p. 41). Anatolia was seen as a major source of "new" inscriptions and (Sir) William Ramsay (1851-1939), the first holder of the Lincoln and Merton chair in classical archaeology at Oxford (1885-86), organized the Asia Minor Exploration Fund to gather material.7 Numerous BSA students, many of them Oxford men, were involved in the Fund's surveys across the Ottoman Empire mapping roads, and recording inscriptions and other antiquities. D. reviews developments in the Ottoman Empire and then in the Turkish Republic under Atatürk (pp. 146-47). Greek excavations at Klazomenai on the Gulf of Izmir immediately after the First World War are mentioned (p. 186).8 British involvement, notably by Winifred Lamb (1894-1963) during the 1930s, is overlooked;9 this activity led to the creation of the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara after the Second World War.

There are helpful observations on the role of museums in the development of classical archaeology (Chapter 5: The Emergence of the Great Museums in Europe and America). The British Museum had been a recipient of material from expeditions to the Mediterranean (pp. 137-38): the Parthenon marbles, the Bassai frieze, the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos.10 German excavations at Miletos and Pergamon brought back a share of the finds to Berlin (p. 116). One key feature of these architectural sculptures and fragments, whatever the moral arguments for their return to their countries of origin, is that the find-spots are known, the buildings recorded. D. reflects on the implications for classical archaeology if the demand for "Ancient Art" continues; he indicates that perhaps some 80 per cent of antiquities on the market in 1990 "had been excavated and exported illegally" (p. 225). The reliance on dealers such as Robert Hecht to supply "Museum Quality" objects has at last caught up with museums in North America; during 2006 at least three (Boston, The Museum of Fine Arts; Malibu, The J. Paul Getty Museum; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) have agreed to return objects to Italy. Among the objects is the Euphronios krater (p. 226); D. suggests that its acquisition forced "professional archaeologists to respond to [the] abuses" of the antiquities trade. D.'s enlightened views on the intellectual consequences of the looting of archaeological sites and the loss of knowledge if, say, an Athenian pot is plucked from an Etruscan grave (p. 227) is in marked contrast to senior British classical archaeologists who seem to be taking the side of the antiquities market.11

D. concludes his excellent study on a rather bleak note. His vision of the fields of Britain being filled at weekends with amateur metal-detectorists "seeking Roman coins and a range of other metal objects" (p. 253) perhaps needs to be tempered by the impact of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Monuments which have been visible for 2500 years are being damaged by the growing effects of pollution, and archaeological tourism brings its own form of destruction. This reviewer can only hope that his prediction "at some point, probably in the not too distant future, the last Greek farmstead, the last Roman urban neighbourhood, and the last Romano-Celtic shrine will have been excavated or destroyed" (p. 254) can be delayed by responsible planning by both field and museum-based classical archaeologists.


1.   The 14th edition revised and rewritten by David Breeze, complete with "durable weatherproof cover", was published in 2006 by The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. Although ordained, Collingwood Bruce was a school proprietor.
2.   See Christopher Stray (ed.), The Owl of Minerva: the Cambridge Praelections of 1906. Reassessments of Richard Jebb, James Adam, Walter Headlam, Henry Jackson, William Ridgeway, and Arthur Verrall. Cambridge: PCPS Supplementary Volume no. 28, 2005 (reviewed at BMCR 2006.04.36).
3.   See Getzel Cohen and Martha S. Joukowsky, eds., Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists. Ann Arbor, 2004. [Table of Contents].
4.   A short biography of Dorothy Lamb appears in Breaking Ground: Women in Old World Archaeology (available at online [accessed on January 12, 2007]).
5.   For one of the careers: David W.J. Gill, 2006. "Harry Pirie-Gordon: Historical Research, Journalism and Intelligence Gathering in the Eastern Mediterranean (1908-18)," Intelligence and National Security 21 (2006), 1045-59.
6.   David W.J. Gill, 2000. "Collecting for Cambridge: John Hubert Marshall on Crete," BSA 95 (2000), 517-26.
7.   David W.J. Gill, "The British School at Athens and Archaeological Research in the Late Ottoman Empire," in David Shankland (ed.), Archaeology, Anthropology and Heritage in the Balkans and Anatolia: the Life and Times of F.W. Hasluck, 1878-1920, vol. 1, pp. 223-55. Istanbul, 2004.
8.   M.-C. Tzannes, "The Excavations of G. Oikonomos at the Archaic Cemetery of Monastirakia in Klazomenai, 1921-22," in A. Moustaka, E. Skarlatidou, M.-C. Tzannes, and Y. Ersoy (eds.), Klazomenai, Teos and Abdera: metropoleis and colony. Proceedings of the International Symposium held at the Archaeological Museum of Abdera, Abdera, 20-21 October 2001, Thessaloniki, 2004, pp. 97-120.
9.   David W.J. Gill, 2000. "'A Rich and Promising Site': Winifred Lamb (1894-1963), Kusura and Anatolian archaeology," Anatolian Studies 50 (2000), 1-10.
10.   David M. Wilson, The British Museum: a History, London, 2002. For the cleaning of the Parthenon marbles: Ian Jenkins, Cleaning and Controversy: the Parthenon Sculptures 1811-1939, The British Museum Occasional Paper, vol. 146, London, 2001.
11.   E. Robson, L. Treadwell, and L. Gosden (eds.), Who Owns Objects? The Ethics and Politics of Collecting Cultural Artifacts, Oxford, 2006. See the view about "a famous Greek vase in New York" (surely the Euphronios krater) where the (misleading) point was made, "the interest of which is 98 per cent in its sheer existence (we know who made it, when and where) with only a 2 per cent loss in knowledge of what Etruscan grave it came from" (p. 39). For events in 2006: David W.J. Gill and Christopher Chippindale, "From Boston to Rome: Reflections on Returning Antiquities," International Journal of Cultural Property 13 (2006), 311-31.

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