15 February 2013

Rare Paintings of Prehistoric Life Revealed

Fourteen rare Victorian paintings depicting early prehistoric life are now on display in a new exhibition at Wellington Arch about the birth of archaeology in Britain. Never before displayed in public together, the paintings were commissioned in 1869 by Sir John Lubbock - the archaeologist and MP who campaigned for the protection and preservation of Britain's ancient monuments.

In this scene, a prehistoric family are shown making spears. The tent was probably inspired by modern hunters' camps and a description by Robert Fitzroy, captain of the HMS Beagle, of 'toldos', portable shelters made by Patagonians from poles and sewn animal skins. Image courtesy of the Lubbock family.

In this scene, a prehistoric family are shown making spears. The tent was probably inspired by modern hunters' camps and a description by Robert Fitzroy, captain of the HMS Beagle, of 'toldos', portable shelters made by Patagonians from poles and sewn animal skins. Image courtesy of the Lubbock family.

Painted by the once renowned but today all but forgotten animal illustrator Ernst Griset, the watercolours are among the earliest artistic attempts to reconstruct the prehistoric past. Although perhaps naïve by today's standards, the paintings were at the time ground-breaking for their scholarship and attention to detail. They were informed by recent archaeological finds of stone tools and fossils from around Europe as well as reports of contemporary 'savages', including some seen by Charles Darwin.

The paintings depict our ancient ancestors hunting bison and even a mammoth with huge curving tusks as well as using stone-age tools to fashion a canoe and - in a domestic scene - gathered around a fire. "In the 19th century, new archaeological discoveries revealed more and more about prehistoric people," said English Heritage's Cathy Power. "These fascinating paintings show the Victorians using the new information that archaeology was unearthing and attempting to accurately depict the lives of their ancient ancestors."

This spectacular scene shows a mammoth battling 14 men. The huge curving tusks and long hair make clear this is an extinct species, well documented in Europe by fossil finds.

This spectacular scene shows a mammoth battling 14 men. The huge curving tusks and long hair make clear this is an extinct species, well documented in Europe by fossil finds.
© Bromley Museum Services

The Birth of Archaeology

On loan from both the Bromley Museum and the Lubbock family, the paintings are included in a new exhibition - The General, The Scientist & The Banker: The Birth of Archaeology and the Battle for the Past - focussing on the Victorian pioneers who strove to save Britain's great prehistoric sites from destruction. In 1859 two extraordinary events changed the way people considered human existence: a flint axe was found in a French quarry on the same level as bones of extinct animals, and scientist Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Both Darwin's big idea and the discovery of the axe broke the Biblical version of history.

Opening with the book and the axe, the English Heritage exhibition tells the story of what happened next, as archaeological pioneers fought to bring recognition and legal protection for Britain's ancient monuments. Rare artefacts, drawings and manuscripts bring to life a tale of Victorian prejudice and vision as well as illustrate the achievements of three men: scientist Charles Darwin, archaeologist General Pitt-Rivers and banker Sir John Lubbock. Together they revealed how the landscape is rich with ancient history, as they fought to bring recognition and legal protection for Britain's ancient monuments. 

The General, the Scientist & the Banker: The Birth of Archaeology and the Battle for the Past is the first in a series of five exhibitions at the Quadriga Gallery in London's Wellington Arch. Marking the centenary of the landmark 1913 Ancient Monuments Act, the series traces the movement to protect England's heritage, from its early days in the 19th century to the challenges of today.

The Devil's Den in Wiltshire in about 1865. The Neolithic burial chamber was one of the monuments included on the list (or 'schedule') in the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882. The intention of that Act was that all the monuments, with the consent of their owners, would be brought into state guardianship.

The Devil's Den in Wiltshire in about 1865. The Neolithic burial chamber was one of the monuments included on the list (or 'schedule') in the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882. The intention of that Act was that all the monuments, with the consent of their owners, would be brought into state guardianship.

The General, The Scientist & The Banker: The Birth of Archaeology and the Battle for the Past is at The Quadriga Gallery, Wellington Arch until 21 April, Wednesdays to Sundays and on Bank Holidays, 10am-5pm.

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