Vital Testimony: Archaeological Illustration at the Society of Antiquaries of London

Stephanie Moser (Southampton)

The introduction of artefact drawings as a critical component in antiquarian debate is closely linked to the formation of learned societies, where such images played a central part in designating the study of antiquities as an observational science. Formally established in 1717, the Society of Antiquaries of London played a key role in developing a tradition of artefact illustration that served to verify and authenticate knowledge claims. This was achieved through the commissioning of high quality engravings of objects and monuments under discussion by the Fellows of the Society (later published as the series Vetusta Monumenta), and by the inclusion of detailed illustrations of antiquities presented at meetings in the Society journal Archaeologia, established in 1770. The illustrations produced by the Society effectively functioned as testimonials, serving to inform collective knowledge and facilitate the development of a community specializing in the interpretation of ancient material culture. Designed to provide an accurate visual record of objects brought to the attention of the Society by its Fellows, the images were not simply created as accompaniments to published texts, but rather, were generated as an independent form of evidence that could be consulted by other antiquarians and collectors.

‘Bronze Age Swords and a dress-fastener from Ireland’. Drawing by James Basire for the Society of Antiquaries c.1760-1770. Society of Antiquaries of London Catalogue of Drawings ‘Primeval Antiquities 6.2’
Bronze Age Swords and a dress-fastener from Ireland. Drawing by James Basire for the Society of Antiquaries c.1760-1770. Society of Antiquaries of London Catalogue of Drawings ‘Primeval Antiquities 6.2’.

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