Massingham and Archaeology

I’m currently reading a lot about the way in which archaeology was used in popular writing between 1918 and 1945. Whilst not surprisingly, the most high profile aspect of archaeology in the inter-war period was exploration in Egypt and the Near East, there was also a great interest in the British archaeology. The prehistoric monuments of Wessex loom large in much topographical writing at this time, such as the various series put out by publishers like Batsford. This was partly linked to a rise of rural tourism, as access to motorcars and the increased popularity of hiking and rambling meant that increasing numbers of people were exploring the countryside in a way not possible before. The cover art of many of the Ordnance Survey maps of the 1920s and 1930 reflect this increased interest in exploring the British landscape. Archaeology was also used by a number of writers of this vintage as a source of evidence for explaining and understanding the many problems seen as facing society, particularly the rise of industrialism and the changing face of rural life. Crucially much of this output was also focused on prescribing changes to society allowing it to meet these perceived challenges.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am particularly interested in the work of John Massingham, one of the leading ruralist writers of the mid-20th century. He regularly used archaeology in his works, both as a source for metaphor and analogy, and also to shape his agenda for a revived agrarian society that was opposed to the mechanisation and depersonalisation of social relationships which he so hated in industrial society. One of his early books, Downland Man (Published I think in 1925), is almost entirely archaeological in content. In this odd volume, primarily focused on the prehistoric monuments of Wessex, he puts forward an entirely new chronology for prehistoric society, and crucially argues that a golden age of peace and prosperity was destroyed by the introduction of metalworking. He also promotes the notion, which was outmoded even at the time, of diffusionism; essentially that all the key changes in society were diffused out from a single point of origin, usually Egypt. Taking this diffusionist point of view he regularly attacked social Darwinism throughout this book (and much of his other writing), which he saw as a model for social progress predicated on conflict.

Massingham is particularly interesting, as unlike a lot of the ruralist and agrarian writers of this period, he actually had some archaeological training. After spending some time as a journalist (his father was the radical journalist Henry Massingham) he joined the staff of Grafton Elliot Smith, who was based at UCL and held hyper-diffusionist views (and indeed wrote the forward to Downland Man). It is clear from reading his books that Massingham was up to date with contemporary archaeological writing, such as the works of Vere Gordon Childe, and by the 1940s was in correspondence with W.G Hoskins, one of the key figures in English landscape archaeology after WWII. I’m hoping to do some more serious work on the archaeological dimension of Massingham’s work, which will form a paper in a session I’m trying to put together for TAG on Englishness and Archaeology. Pleasingly, I’ve found out that Massingham’s archives, including his archaeological notes, are held in the Museum of English Rural Life, in Reading, which was one of my favourite museum’s as a child.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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