Antiquaries

Before Antiquaries

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Trojan prince Brutus

Trojan prince Brutus, from a Roll ‘Chronicle’ started in the 1450s. Genealogical rolls like this illustrate the desire of nobility to associate themselves with famous figures from the remote past.

© The Society of Antiquaries of London: MS 501

Before the rise of antiquarian study, people in Britain had a limited understanding based on legends, myths, magic and religious beliefs. Nennius, writing in the 800s, claimed that Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, was the founder of the British and therefore of Welsh history – a legend about origins that had a long life.

What is an Antiquary?

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Stonehenge

Stonehenge, from The Most Notable Antiquity of Great Britain Vulgarly called Stone-heng, by Inigo Jones (1573-1652)

The first antiquaries were either official custodians or recorders of antiquities. Concerned by the destruction caused by the Dissolution of the monasteries (in the 1530s) and the Civil War (in the 1640s), they set out to record what they saw and to publish their results. Their work challenged previously held views.

A Remarkable Welsh Antiquary

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Edward Lhuyd (1659-1709)

Edward Lhuyd (1659-1709), from the Book of Benefactors of the Old Ashmolean. © Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Edward Lhuyd (1659-1709) embodied the spirit of inquiry that led to the founding of the Society of Antiquaries. During the 1690s, while Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, he travelled around Britain collecting information on antiquities and languages. His writings are of utmost importance for our understanding of early Wales.

Fellowship

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The Reception of a New Member in the Society of Antiquarians  gan Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827)

‘The Reception of a New Member in the Society of Antiquarians’ by Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827). The setting is Somerset House. 1782 © The Society of Antiquaries of London

The Society of Antiquaries became increasingly fashionable from the 1780s, in response to the growing interest in the past. Many influential artists, architects and sculptors became elected ‘Fellows’.

Early Antiquaries: How did they work?

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Copy of the inscription on the Samson Cross, Llantwit Major

Copy of the inscription on the Samson Cross, Llantwit Major, by Iolo Morganwg (1797) © Cardiff Central Library

Some scholarly antiquaries travelled the country soliciting contributions. Members of the landowning classes were particularly interested in historic property rights, heraldry and genealogy. During the later 1800s, many antiquaries in Wales based their research on language, bardic institutions and music.

The Society of Antiquaries Today

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Burlington House, Piccadilly

Today the Society of Antiquaries forms part of the cultural campus at Burlington House, Piccadilly, its home since 1874. © The Society of Antiquaries of London

The Society of Antiquaries maintains the leading specialist library on British and European archaeology, architecture and ancient monuments. Its distinguished record includes lobbying for the first Ancient Monuments Protection Act (1882), and an active part in the creation of the Council for British Archaeology (1944).