The Ground Beneath Our Feet

15th Jul 2015

Well, the 25th national Festival of Archaeology is just getting underway, so it got me thinking about a side of Scott's antiquarian pursuits that perhaps doesn't get as much coverage as it should: his interest in what we know today as archaeology and the early evolution of this discipline.

The area around Abbotsford is extraordinarily rich in archaeology, with over sixty scheduled monuments/sites recorded within a 10km radius of the house. This tangible evidence of the past did not escape Scott's attention. In fact, it may well have drawn him to the landscape of Cartly Hole Farm in the first place as he recalled childhood memories of visiting the Turn-again stone with his father, a 'rude stone' marking the spot where the retreating followers of Buccleuch killed the persuing Kerr of Cessford in 1526. As the Abbotsford estate started to take shape and the years went by, Scott was proud to own the land that, amongst other things, encompassed the site of the Battle of Melrose, ''the last great battle of the Borders;'' a section of the old Roman road running from the camp on the Eildon hills to the ford of the Tweed after which Scott named his new home, and two Iron-age hill forts at Castlesteads and Huntlyburn. He also acquired Rhymer's Glen, a site powerfully associated with folklore traditions of the area.

Section of the 1838 estate map showing the Castlesteads site

Scott was a child of the Enlightenment and this movement spurred on a desire to understand and document the past in a more comprehensive manner. National and imperial agendas were rife as institutions and societies sought to amass impressive collections of exotic artefacts and curiosities to compete with one another. Excavations in the Middle East, Egypt and the heartlands of Roman Europe yielded up treasures that, for the most part, ended up very far from home. Remember that the silver urn given to Scott by Lord Byron in 1815 contained ‘bones found in certain ancient sepulchres within the land walls of Athens.' During Scott's lifetime, the importance of object association and stratigraphy (the study of layered deposits beneath the ground that reflect periods of human activity), was just beginning to capture the proto-archaeologist's imagination. Having said that, it was not until shortly after Scott's death that antiquarians started to understand that finds could be ordered chronologically by using this technique.

The Egyptian Expedition under the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte, painted by Léon Cogniet. This painting shows a key element of the expedition 1798-1801: the very first overseas archaeological excavation conducted by scientific experts of the day.

In Scott's library, you will find early works such as 'Archaeologica Britannica,' published in 1707. There are also a fair few accounts of funerary monuments and sepulchral remains in churches and graveyards across Britain, a dissertation on the Roman tombs of Great Britain, and several of Sir Robert Sibbald's works on the antiquarian sites of Scotland (Sibbald was once Geographer Royal of Scotland). This was a time when 'archaeology' and 'antiquarian' were terms that could just as easily refer to philological study, and certainly there are many more books in Scott's library that explore the languages of past peoples, particularly those of the Britons. Etymologically, archaeology didn't acquire it's association with scientific study until the mid-1820s. Until that point, it had simply denoted the study of the ancient world.

Sir Robert Sibbald (1641–1722), Physician, Antiquary and Geographer

At Abbotsford there isn't a great deal of archaeological material on display. The wonderful Tors Chamfrein discussed in my last post is probably our key piece, on show in the Ante Room alongside a brass pot and hexagonal cup reputedly found in the ruins of Graham's Dyke near Kirkintilloch, the site of a Roman Fort situated on the Antonine Wall, on the 14th April 1822.

In our collections stores we have a handful of pottery sherds, an ossuary urn, fragments of timber from Birdoswald Camp on Hadrian's Wall, and two Roman oil lamps. However, if you look outside it is a very different story. The niches of the South Court yield up some archaeological joys and were actually designed specifically to display this material. Five sculpted stone altars to the gods Jupiter, Apollo, Mars, Mercury and Venus set in these niches actually come from the Roman fort of Voreda at Old Penrith.

Altar to Mars, God of War, in the Abbotsford South Court

Chancellor Richard Ferguson, the President of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian Society (founded in the Victorian period), understood how much Voreda had captured Scott's imagination, claiming that the writer “ had made it a practice never to go south without stopping at it and meditating upon it.” Indeed Sir Walter’s journal entry of April 4 1828 mentions that “in our stage to Penrith I introduced Anne to the ancient Petreia, called Old Penrith.” Now, whether you agree with the circumstances in which Walter acquired such treasures or not, it is somewhat of a relief that the altars have been displayed together as a group - albeit interspersed with roundels from the Mercat Cross! Another inscribed stone in the South Court was carved by a detachment of a legion active 'between the walls'. At first this inscription was thought to come from Voreda, but, much like the brass pots, it may in fact hail from the Antonine Wall area. If the tiny figure outside of the border is interpreted as a depiction of Capricorn, it provides valuable information on the movements of the Twenty-second 'Primigenia' Legion, who used it as one of their symbols.

I thought I'd finish with a wonderful excerpt from the American author Washington's Irving's account of visiting the Abbotsford estate.

'In the course of our morning's walk, we stopped at a small house belonging to one of the labourers on the estate. The object of Scott's visit was to inspect a relic which had been digged up at the Roman camp; and which, if I recollect right, he pronounced to have been a tongs...As he stood regarding the relic, turning it round and round, and making comments upon it, half grave, half comic, with the cottage group all around him...I seemed to see before me that prince of antiquarians and humorists, holding forth to his unlearned and unbelieving neighbours.'

I hope you've enjoyed reading about a few of our true antiquities today.

Thanks for joining us!

Kirsty Archer-Thompson

Heritage and Engagement Manager

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