This paper considers Collingwood’s claim (1921, 52) that research on Hadrian’s Wall since the 1890s had emerged from a ‘tentative’, ‘amateurish’ and ‘pre-scientific’ study of the subject into a ‘science’. It addresses the nature of Collingwood’s scientific study of the Wall and its origins in the earlier works of John Horsley and Francis Haverfield, focusing upon a genealogical perspective. It argues that, rather than constituting a break with past scholarship on the Wall, Haverfield and Collingwood built on methods of study that originated during the later sixteenth century. The main contribution that was made by Collingwood and Haverfield was, effectively, to narrow-down research to a primary focus of attention on the chronology, sequence and function of the Wall. David Breeze (2003) has suggested that the attitude to certainty that pervades this research has damaged the subject and this paper re-evaluates this argument, drawing upon Collingwood’s contribution. It is suggested that the science of Wall studies distanced the Wall from its own living history, serving to reduce its broader social, political and cultural significance in the wider community (Hingley 2010; Witcher et al 2010).
Breeze, D. J. (2003). ‘John Collingwood Bruce and the Study of Hadrian’s Wall.’ Britannia 34: 1-18.
Collingwood, R. G. (1921). ‘Hadrian’s Wall: A History of the Problem.’ Journal of Roman Studies 11: 37-66.
Hingley, R. (2010). ‘“The Most Ancient Boundary between England and Scotland”: genealogies of the Roman Walls.’ Classical Reception Journal 2: 24-43.
Witcher, R., D. P. Tolia-Kelly and R. Hingley (2010). ‘Archaeologies of Landscape: Excavating the Materalities of Hadrian’s Wall.’ Journal of Material Culture 15(1): 105-128.
R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) had two intertwined careers as a philosopher and an archaeologist. Interest in Collingwood as a philosopher has grown steadily, and there have been many studies of his work and life, including a recently published biography. They are generally sympathetic to his philosophy, but responses to Collingwood’s achievements as an archaeologist have been mixed. His works of synthesis are sometimes regarded as too fixed in their views, giving no space to alternative narratives, and some of his archaeological reports have been thought to force the evidence to fit his preconceptions. Yet many of Collingwood’s ideas remain important, particularly his attempts to define the limits of historical thought and the place of archaeology within it. He never distilled his thoughts in a summary directed at archaeologists, though parts of his Autobiography (1939) went some way towards this, and some of his most important philosophical books were assembled by others after his early death from lecture notes and incomplete drafts. Although his philosophical writings are models of clarity, their presentation is far from straightforward, and subsequent analyses of his work are essential to understanding the development of his thought. His archaeological work is much easier to appreciate, being published in his life time, even if occasionally in obscure journals such as The Vasculum. It deserves the same close attention from archaeologists as from those studying his philosophy of history. Over the last forty years some philosophers have come to recognise that study of his archaeological work is essential to understanding his wider thought. Although Collingwood’s main historical interest was in Roman Britain, his fieldwork was confined to northern England, and the meeting of TRAC in the region which engaged so much of his attention is an opportunity to consider whether he could be described as an early theoretical archaeologist and whether his ideas are still important.
This paper argues that although the lines that Collingwood drew between archaeology, history and philosophy are different to the lines that most would draw today – and although it would be inaccurate to term Collingwood an archaeological theorist – nonetheless, the seeds of archaeological theory are to be found in his work and in the work of certain of his contemporaries and predecessors.
Collingwood regarded archaeology as the ‘methodology of history’ and as a body of knowledge parallel to text-based ‘authorities’, but he never published a Philosophy of Archaeology to match his essays on history, art and the natural sciences. The most extensive statement of his views on the subject appears in his Autobiography (1939), and much can also be learnt from his general accounts of Roman Britain. Equally useful in understanding his views on the nature and value of archaeology are his site reports and analyses of excavated material. The many summers that he spent excavating in northern England underlined his belief that theory was useless without demonstrations of its practical application. This paper will assess Collingwood’s approach to the planning and execution of his fieldwork, and how it reflects, and is reflected in, his wider body of thought.