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Vetusta Monumenta: An Introduction
Introduction to the digital edition of Vetusta Monumenta
By Noah Heringman
"Illustration was the technique par excellence of the antiquary."
- Alain Schnapp, The Discovery of the Past
Vetusta Monumenta [Ancient Monuments], published in seven volumes between 1747 and 1906, was the first of four major publication series launched by the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) in the eighteenth century. The first four plates were published individually in 1718, the year the society was formally re-established at the Mitre Tavern. By commissioning these engravings, the SAL defined its research agenda in terms of preservation, visual documentation, and collecting. This agenda, and the publication of images as a means of pursuing it, remained consistent throughout the eighteenth century, even though membership grew steadily—and steadily richer—from the original socially diverse group of eighteen members to 300 in 1770 and 800 by 1820 (Pearce 2007, 147).
In 1751, the SAL received its royal charter, which gave it a status equal to the Royal Society; and charged its Fellows with the “encouragement, advancement and furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries.” In keeping with this broad mission, the objects selected for inclusion in Vetusta Monumenta form a large and varied set, ranging from artifacts such as a Romano-British marble bust and medieval monastic seals to architectural monuments including Fountains Abbey. The objects depicted range in age from roughly the 3rd to the 17th century CE. Since some charters, maps, and other documents were also engraved for the series, the distinction between “history” and “antiquities” can be deployed to class the engravings loosely as historical (documents) and antiquarian (artifacts and monuments), but this distinction is more a product of twentieth-century historiography than of the antiquaries' own motives.
The first secretary, William Stukeley, recorded at the first meeting that the society was formed “with a design at their own charge to collect and print and keep exact Registers . . . of all Antient Monuments that come into their hands” (quoted in Evans 1956, 58). John Talman, the first director, was later credited with the original idea of publishing a series of prints (Evans 1956, 62n7). Fellows of the society received copies of each engraving as a benefit of membership and additional copies went to book and print-sellers, but not always enough to make up the deficit between the cost of the prints and revenue from membership dues.
Selecting subjects for the engravings was a major responsibility of the Fellows, and later specifically the Council, of the SAL. Neither the engraver nor the director had editorial control of these decisions, and some entries in the Society’s Minute Books record the lively discussion that sometimes accompanied the selection process. Although some critics protested that the objects were miscellaneous and often trivial, Vetusta Monumenta effectively promoted the history of everyday life. “By producing representations of everyday objects,” as Bernard Nurse has observed, “the Society extended the idea of what would be acceptable for publication” (2007, 143).
Vetusta Monumenta tells a story that is both deeply illuminating for the history of preservation and uniquely relevant for readers and scholars in a digital age. By looking at the kinds of objects chosen for these engravings, we gain insight into the debate over what counts as evidence and what counts as history. By tracing the series from the early individual plates to the formation of a lavish scholarly book publication, we witness the transformation of eclectic private scholarship into a public discourse of antiquities engaged with the literary marketplace. The highly finished, visually captivating quality of many of these prints is matched by their historical significance as records of the state of many monuments that have deteriorated since the eighteenth century; in more than a few cases, these prints provide the sole record of artifacts and monuments that do not themselves survive. A digital scholarly edition of the images and accompanying text materially furthers this goal of preservation and makes the work accessible to a much wider audience. The images owe their strong aesthetic appeal as well as their accuracy to the laborious technique of copper engraving, which also made the original volumes prohibitively expensive for most readers. Now the volumes are extremely rare and even the existing digital version is neither open access nor of high quality. The present edition makes Vetusta Monumenta genuinely accessible, not just by reproducing the content but by providing scholarly commentary, interactive images, search tools, and other benefits of a modern digital edition.
By 1747, seventy engravings had been published, enough to form a substantial volume. The same year, John Ward (1679-1758) became director of the SAL. Ward had begun writing long explanatory captions for some of the plates beginning in 1743, and these soon evolved into printed companion essays in either Latin or English, which appeared occasionally from 1744. The second volume, with 55 more plates, appeared in 1789. It was greatly expanded by these letterpress “explanations of the plates,” which had begun to appear not just occasionally but with every plate or plate set (and consistently in English) from 1763 with Plate 2.20, the first plate engraved for the series by James Basire. Not coincidentally, the Society launched its second serial publication, the learned journal Archaeologia, at about the same time (1770), and the early volumes concluded some archived papers that had been written on objects depicted earlier in the series, but had remained unpublished, such as Samuel Gale's essay on the Horn of Ulf (Plate 1.2). Volume III, the last volume included here, was published in 1796 with 44 plates and about 200 pages of letterpress.
During its first forty years of publication, the most important figure involved with Vetusta Monumenta was the engraver George Vertue (1684-1756), who was also a founding member of the SAL. Vertue engraved all but one of the first 88 plates and also made several of the original drawings. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the central figure was Richard Gough (1735-1809), who became director of the SAL in 1771. After Vertue, there were no engravers in the Society, which was by now more expensive to join and more genteel in its composition. Gough’s predecessor John Taylor hired the engraver James Basire Sr, whose workshop created all the engravings for Vetusta Monumenta from 1763 as well as hundreds of engravings for Archaeologia, the society’s Cathedral Series (1795-1810), and individual publications by members. The last of Vertue’s plates (Plate 2.17) was published the year of his death; after a brief interregnum, the engraving work passed to Basire, who had the work in hand until his death in 1802; it was then taken on by his son, James Basire Jr.
For a brief period, the Society turned its attention to a new series of larger historical prints and no new engravings were published for Vetusta Monumenta between 1770 and 1780 (Nurse 2007, 144). Gough, however, ensured the continuation of the series with seven new plates in 1780 and twenty more by 1789, all with extensive letterpress explications. Though the objects depicted varied widely, the standard form of the prints in each of the two phases (under Vertue and Gough, respectively) helped to establish a recognizable connoisseurial and scholarly idiom. Imperial folio size paper (21 ½ x 14 ½ inches) was used throughout along with a relatively uniform style of engraving and captioning, later giving way to added letterpress. When the first series was bound into a volume, a Latinized subtitle was added, pointing toward conservation (“preserving the memory of [British] things”) as the unified research agenda; this language is reminiscent of Stukeley's insistence on visual documentation in the preface to his Itinerarium Curiosum (Stukeley 1724; Nurse 2007, 143).
The gradually increasing emphasis on text and interpretation in Vetusta Monumenta reflects the shift of primary editorial responsibility from Vertue, an artist and engraver, to Gough, a scholar whose agenda for the society as a whole centered on research and publication. The decision not to include commentary with most of the plates published before 1763, however, does not imply any defect of scholarship on the part of Vertue or the society’s earlier directors and other officers. Rather, the later expansion of Vetusta Monumenta reflects an increasingly strict division of labor characteristic of the later eighteenth century. In the early decades, not only the engravings, but also some of the original drawings, were produced by members of the SAL including Stukeley and Talman. Later in the century, by contrast, both Basire and draftsmen such as John Carter and Jacob Schnebbelie were hired on a contract basis and regarded as more or less menial. They were considered “practical antiquaries” (Gough 1799, 2.i.7) as distinct from those who wrote the scholarly text now seen as central to the discipline. Horace Walpole’s assessment of Vertue captures the earlier integral relationship between engraving and art historical scholarship, along with the emphasis on preservation, embodied in the earlier decades of Vetusta Monumenta: “The many valuable monuments relating to our history, and the persons of our monarchs and great men, which he saved from oblivion, are lasting evidences of his merit” (Walpole 1796, 1.i).
As Nurse has observed, several of the plates in Volume I were engraved from rediscovered drawings of monuments that had already been destroyed, and Sam Smiles notes that the series was produced “at a time of social and economic change, with many sites vulnerable to ‘improvement’ or demolition” (Smiles 2007, 123). A remark from one of Gough’s independent scholarly books, Sepulchral Monuments, signals a generalized anxiety about the loss of monuments that is also indicative for Vetusta Monumenta. “In a few years more we shall have no foundation left for such a work,” Gough declares, and proceeds to list several monuments that are “crumbling away without having been drawn” (Gough 1799, 1.3-4).
Modern scholarship has attended to some individual plates from Vetusta Monumenta, but there has been no systematic account of the publication series as a whole. In recent years, discussion of these plates has revolved around the question of preservation. Maria Grazia Lolla, Rosemary Sweet, and Martin Myrone have all commented specifically on two plates depicting Waltham Cross, one of the “Eleanor Crosses” erected by Edward I in memory of his queen between 1291 and 1294 (Plate 1.7 and Plate 3.12). The society paid for wooden posts to protect the cross from traffic, but this was a trifling effort compared to the expense and care lavished on the print series and other scholarly activities intended to serve preservation. The antiquaries themselves noticed this paradox: “Vetusta Monumenta flourished and the monuments of medieval England fell into decay,” as Joan Evans reflected in her history of this phase of the institution (1956, 192).
Although Vetusta Monumenta has made real contributions to preservation, the engravings collected here also served purposes that were clearly not subservient to the ostensible intention of preserving monuments, including social prestige and aestheticizing representation. These contradictions have led some scholars, such as Lolla and Myrone, to caution against taking the antiquaries’ preservationist claims at face value and instead to emphasize the ideological character of antiquarian prints as representations. A contrasting modern view, represented by Smiles and Matthew M. Reeve, insists on their continuing evidentiary function as visual documentation. More popular illustrated collections of antiquities, by such figures as Samuel and Nathaniel Buck and later John Britton (himself a Fellow of the Society), competed with and ultimately displaced Vetusta Monumenta among general readers by the late eighteenth century.
Vetusta Monumenta provides a uniquely rich record for scholars in the humanities today, who are increasingly interested in the study of objects and material culture. These engravings provide an intimate record of the kinds of objects collectively judged to be important, not by a single author or thinker, but by a large body of scholars and amateurs over the course of eight decades (and beyond, although the nineteenth-century volumes are outside the scope of the present edition). The energies of these wildly diverse objects, ranging from a Roman heating system to a lavish royal portrait to an early Tudor table of weights and measures, exceed the aesthetic framework in which they are placed. In some cases, the engravings become entangled with the afterlives of the objects themselves; the engraving of the Westminster portrait of Richard II (Plate 1.4), for instance, preserves a record of the raised gesso ground confirmed as an original feature of the painting by modern scholars after it was scraped off the original by Victorian restorers. Humanists from many disciplines, whether embracing or resisting influential methodologies such as actor-network theory (Latour 2005), thing theory (Brown 2004), or object-oriented ontology (Harman 2002), may find in Vetusta Monumenta a cluster of objects both highly mediated and uniquely redolent of the intimacy in which their humans lived with them.
While many of the plates present objects in a state of ruin, it would be unhistorical to divorce ruin as a merely picturesque state from ruin as a material condition that demanded archaeological knowledge. Readers of this edition, who also have the Internet at their disposal to compare these beautiful engravings with modern photographs and research, can decide for themselves. While every effort was made not to damage the books in the course of scanning their pages for this edition, some inevitable wear and tear led us to contemplate a similar paradox. Preservation is one legitimate motive for producing a state-of-the-art digital analogue for these images that represent the state of the art in mechanical reproduction for their time. More important, we hope this edition will stimulate the same curiosity, wonder, and skepticism that we have experienced, especially for readers who do not have access to the original volumes. Vetusta Monumenta (I-III) offers a rich repository of antiquarian images and scholarship from a time when the scope and status of antiquity became open and often fiercely contested questions.
Brown, Bill, ed. 2004. Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Evans, Joan. 1956. A History of the Society of Antiquaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
George II of England. 1751. Society of Antiquaries of London Royal Charter.
Gough, Richard. 1786-96 . Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain. 2 volumes in 5. London: J. Nichols.
Harman, Graham. 2002. Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Peru, IL: Open Court.
Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lolla, Maria Grazia. 1999. “Ceci n’est pas un monument: Vetusta Monumenta and Antiquarian Aesthetics.” In Producing the Past: Aspects of Antiquarian Culture and Practice, 1700-1850, edited by Martin Myrone and Lucy Peltz, 5-34. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Myrone, Martin. 2007. “Society of Antiquaries and the Graphic Arts: George Vertue and His Legacy.” In Visions of Antiquity: The Society of Antiquaries of London, 1707-2007, edited by Susan Pearce, 98-121. London: Society of Antiquaries.
Nurse, Bernard. 2007. “Bringing Truth to Light.” In Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707-2007, edited by David Gaimster, Sarah McCarthy, and Bernard Nurse, 143-45. London: Royal Academy of Arts.
Pearce, Susan. 2007. “Antiquaries and the Interpretation of Ancient Objects, 1770-1820.” In Visions of Antiquity: The Society of Antiquaries of London, 1707-2007, edited by Susan Pearce, 147-74. London: Society of Antiquaries.
Reeve, Matthew. 2007. “Jacob Schnebbelie, Draughtsman to the Society of Antiquaries (1760-92), and the Politics of Preservation in Late Eighteenth-Century England.” Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society 51: 69-86.
------. 2008. Thirteenth-century Wall Painting of Salisbury Cathedral: Art, Liturgy, and Reform. Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer.
Smiles, Sam. 2007. “The Art of Recording.” In Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707-2007, edited by David Gaimster, Sarah McCarthy, and Bernard Nurse, 123-25. London: Royal Academy of Arts.
------. 2003. “Data, Documentation and Display in Eighteenth-Century Investigations of Exeter Cathedral.” In Tracing Architecture: The Aesthetics of Antiquarianism, edited by Dana Arnold and Stephen Bending, 80-99. Oxford: Blackwell.
------. 2000. Eye Witness: Artists and Visual Documentation in Britain, 1770-1830. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Stukeley, William. 1724. Itinerarium Curiosum. Or, An Account of the Antiquitys and Remarkable Curiositys in Nature or Art, Observ’d in Travels thro’ Great Brittan. London.
Sweet, Rosemary. 2004. Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain. London: Hambledon and London.
Walpole, Horace. 1796. Anecdotes of Painting in England . . . Collected by the late Mr. George Vertue. 4th ed. London: R. Dodsley.
Evans, Joan. 1956. A History of the Society of Antiquaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gaimster, David, Sarah McCarthy, and Bernard Nurse, eds. 2007. Making History: Antiquaries in Britain 1707-2007. London: Royal Academy of Arts.
Gough, Richard. 1770. “Introduction.” Archaeologia 1: i-xxxix.
Miller, Peter N. 2017. History and Its Objects: Antiquarianism and Material Culture Since 1500. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Myrone, Martin, and Lucy Peltz, eds. 1999. Producing the Past: Aspects of Antiquarian Culture and Practice, 1700-1850. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Pearce, Susan, ed. 2007. Visions of Antiquity: The Society of Antiquaries of London, 1707-2007. London: SAL.
Schnapp, Alain. 1997. The Discovery of the Past: the Origins of Archaeology. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Society of Antiquaries of London. 1754. Queries Proposed to Gentlemen in the Several Parts of Great Britain, in Hope of Obtaining from Their Answers a Better Knowledge of Its Antiquities and Natural History. London.
------. 1747-1906. Vetusta Monumenta. 7 vols. London: Society of Antiquaries.
Sweet, Rosemary. 2004. Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain. London: Hambledon and London.1
Plate 1.57: Roman Hypocaust Found at Lincoln
Scholarly Commentary with DZI View for Vetusta Monumenta, Plate 1.57. Commentary by Noah Heringman and Heather Heckman-McKenna.
Plate: Engraving by George Vertue (1684-1756) after his own drawing of a Roman hypocaust at Lincoln, including some of the equipment used in excavating the monument. The earliest recorded plan by Thomas Sympson (1702-1749) was included in his letter to Browne Willis (1682-1760) of 16 February 1740, communicated by James West (1703-1772) at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of London on 6 March (SAL Minutes III.281-82). On 13 March Vertue offered to bring a drawing of the hypocaust discovered at Bath in 1727, and he received a copy of Sympson’s letter to facilitate the comparison (III.283); on 20 March he brought the Bath drawing, and at the same meeting Cromwell Mortimer exhibited the Royal Society’s wooden model of the hypocaust discovered at Wroxeter in 1701 (Lyster 1707). Vertue traveled to Lincoln to prepare for this engraving and returned on 8 May with another letter from Sympson and three drawings of his own (SAL Minutes III.298), at least one of which survives and has been reproduced in color (Nurse 2007, 127). The print incorporates material from Sympson’s original letter and plan, as well as all three Vertue drawings, two of which are shown pinned to the wall in this engraved “view of the hypocaust opened,” as the third drawing is termed in the minutes (III.300).
Object: Roman hypocaust (underfloor heating system often associated with a bath) found beneath the subdeanery near the west side of Lincoln Cathedral and first identified by Thomas Sympson on 10 February 1740. The structure was discovered thirteen feet underground, and belongs to the only remaining private Roman town house in Lincoln (Wood 2004, 73).
Lower Left: HYPOCAVSTVM ROMANVM LINCOLNIAE, / prope occidentalem Ecclesiae Cathedralis partem sub terra tredecim pedibus anno MDCCXL detectum.
A. Introitus e saxo fabricatus, ubi fornacator ad ignem curandum stetit.
B. Fornax e lateribus arcuatim constructus, igne multum detritus.
C. Alveus unum et viginti pedes cum quatuor pollicibus longus, octo pedes et quatuor pollices latus; duosque pedes ac quatuor pollices altus; quatuor columnarum lateritiarum ordinibus suffultus.
D.E. Bini tubuli, duodecim pollices lati, alti vero quatuordecim, ad fumum exhauriendum positi.
F. Pavimentum tessellatum.
G. Foramen, ubi operae fodiendo in tubulum E incidentes hypocaustum retegebant.
H. Foramen alterum, ad accuratiorem hypocausti explorationem apertum.
Labels on the Pillars:
Left: 11 pollices / 26 pollices; 18 pollices / 8 pollices
Center: pavimentum tessellatum. Caementum 6 pollices altum, 23 pollices / 23 pollices
Right: 19 pollices / 11 pollices / 8 pollices.
Bottom: Sumptibus Societat Antiquariӕ Londini 1740.
Lower Left: Roman Hypocaust at Lincoln, uncovered in the year 1740 near the west side of the Cathedral Church 13 feet under the ground.
A. Entrance, built of stone, where the fornacator [bath-heather] stood to manage the fire.
B. The fornax [furnace], built of brick, and arched over with the same, all impaired with fire.
C. The alveus [hollow floor], 21 feet 4 inches long, 8 feet 4 inches wide, and 2 feet 4 inches high, supported by 4 rows of columns made of brick.
DE. Two pipes, 12 inches wide, and 14 inches high, for carrying of[f] the smoke.
F. Tessellated Pavement.
G. An opening, where workers incidentally uncovered the hypocaust by digging to
H. Another shaft, which was opened to explore the hypocaust accurately.
The English text in items A-D appears in SAL Minutes III.281-2.
Plan of hollow floor
Section of hollow floor
Scale in feet
Labels on the Pillars:
Left: 11 inches/26 inches; 18 inches/8 inches
Center: Mosaic floor. Cement 6 inches deep. 23 inches. 23 inches.
Right: 19 inches. 11 inches. 8 inches.
Commentary by Noah Heringman and Heather Heckman-McKenna: In addition to marking a new departure for Vetusta Monumenta and for the engraver, George Vertue, Plate 1.57 stands as a landmark in the history of archaeological illustration. This print is one of the first images anywhere to show a monument in situ during the process of excavation, anticipating the stratigraphic approach of archaeology in the nineteenth century. Seven of the twenty plates published in Vetusta Monumenta between 1737 and 1743 feature monuments from Roman Britain, and this hypocaust—an underfloor heating system commonly used in all parts of the Roman empire—is the largest of the monuments depicted during this period of intense interest in Roman-British antiquities (see also Plates 1.47, 1.48, 1.50-1.52, and 1.65). For the first time, Vertue himself traveled from London to another part of the country to document an archaeological find and make his own drawings in preparation for the engraving (which is signed, accordingly, “G. Vertue del & sculp”); the journey to Lincoln would have been roughly four days by coach. The accidental discovery of the site in 1740 was quickly made known to the Royal Society and to the nearby Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, which shared several members in common with the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL). When the SAL discussed the matter at their meetings that spring and resolved to send Vertue to document the find, there was already a growing consensus that the Lincoln hypocaust presented a significant new opportunity for understanding daily life in Roman Britain.
Vertue’s scaled and vividly three-dimensional rendering of the site imaginatively completes the excavation carried out on a much smaller scale by Thomas Sympson, Clerk of the Fabric and Master of the Works at Lincoln Cathedral and an active student of antiquities in the region. The hypocaust and the room above it were discovered by workmen digging a cellar on private ground adjacent to the cathedral, who struck upon the corner of a vault in February 1740. The property owner, a Mr. Chanter, informed Sympson immediately and paid for subsequent excavation by him when Sympson realized that this was “an extraordinary antiquity just brought to light” (SAL Minutes III.280). Vertue’s print, completed the same year, captures something of this excitement. An assistant described only as a “youth” crawled in via the shaft labeled G on the print to count and measure the forty-four piers supporting the subflooring and “returned like a Chimney sweeper,” the soot on his body confirming Sympson’s educated guess that a heating system had been uncovered (Sympson 1741, 858). Sympson completed his survey by sinking a second shaft, labeled H on the print, needed to clear the rubble from the furnace (label B on the print). The room above the hypocaust, probably a hot bath (caldarium), actually remained filled with soil, and Vertue only extrapolates the appearance of the tiled floor (label F on the print) from a small corner accidentally exposed by the workmen at the bottom of the first shaft (Sympson 1741, 857).
The hypocaust at Lincoln was not the first to be discovered in Britain, but it was the first such excavation to be supervised by a “practical antiquary,” as antiquaries with experience in fieldwork were sometimes called. Sympson’s survey therefore added much to what was known about Roman hypocausts in Britain, and Vertue made use of Sympson’s verbal and visual record as well as his own observations to create a holistic vision that integrates the present-day ruin and the labor of excavation with the original appearance of the hypocaust as it could now be imagined. Giacomo Savani situates this discovery within the wider history of British research on Roman baths and bathing, noting that archaeology and modern urban planning converged at Bath, originally a Roman site that was extensively redeveloped in the eighteenth century (Savani 2019, 15-18).
In a virtuoso display of the “art of recording,” Vertue faithfully documents the Lincoln discovery—and the tools used to make it—but creates a wholly imaginary perspective for the viewer (Smiles 2007, 123). The imagined viewer—perhaps as tall as the entire excavation, or even a subterranean giant whose head is roughly level with the surface of the ground—seems to stand adjacent to the exposed structure. A less fanciful interpretation might position the viewer on a gentle slope some distance away from this imaginary pit, but the key point is that this sectional view is richly three-dimensional, making it by far the earliest “of three-dimensional graphics in British archaeology” (Briggs 2011, 14). Pinned against the wall of the pit, and transforming it into an architect’s studio, is a more conventional scaled two-dimensional representation of the hypocaust in plan and section views. The surface of the ground is also subdivided into two representational registers, with the equipment in the right foreground providing a realistic (if unpeopled) depiction of the excavation work while the model columns and tiles at left and center provide yet another imaginary vantage point for the main structural components of the hypocaust.
Sympson’s published account helps to make the Lincoln hypocaust one of the best-documented monuments in the series prior to 1744, when explanatory essays began to appear alongside the prints in Vetusta Monumenta. Sympson addressed his letters on the find to two of the more active fellows of the SAL, Browne Willis and James West, who also happened to be (like Sympson himself) members of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society: a regional antiquarian society based near Lincoln (Nichols 1812-1815, 6.114, 6.119-20). Extracts from this correspondence were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, accompanied by a more rudimentary engraving based on Sympson’s own drawings as refined by Cromwell Mortimer, another antiquary. The article includes an account of the excavation, detailed measurements, and some intriguing reflections on the age of the monument. Sympson briefly reviews existing literature on hypocausts in Britain, also published in the Philosophical Transactions, and addresses Willis explicitly as a member of the Royal Society: “It is of curiosity enough to deserve being mentioned to the Royal Society, I leave it to your care” (SAL Minutes III.282). West’s decision to have the letter read at a meeting of the SAL may hint at the gradual drift of this subject matter from the purview of the Royal Society to that of the SAL.
The minutes of the SAL for the 1730s record numerous discussions of Roman finds. Responding to the discovery of the Lincoln hypocaust in March 1740, Vertue exhibited a drawing by Bernard Lens of a part of a Roman hypocaust discovered in Bath in 1727 (SAL Minutes III.286) (This discovery had been overshadowed by the bronze head of Minerva Sulis discovered at the same time and engraved for Vetusta Monumenta in 1730 as Plate 1.34.) A letter by William Stukeley (1687-1765) on the newly discovered Roman gate at Lincoln was read in 1731 (I.275). Roman pavements discovered in 1736 and 1737 were published as Plates 1.48 and 1.50-52, respectively. Two dissertations on this subject—one of them by West—were read at meetings in spring 1739, not long before the mosaic pavement over the hypocaust was first noticed by the workmen digging at Lincoln (SAL Minutes III.206, 218). The sequence of affiliated plates begins with a plan of the Roman roads in Yorkshire (Plate 1.47) and ends with another archaeological find, a sculptured gladiator found in Chester and published in 1743 (Plate 1.65). These Roman subjects are interspersed with the more typical medieval monuments, including architecture, coins, and seals. Vertue’s print of the Lincoln hypocaust is unique, however, in its combination of archaeological and architectural approaches.
The title of this plate is somewhat under-descriptive of the subject. First of all, the term hypocaust itself is ambiguous. According to a definitive work of modern scholarship on Roman baths, there remains “some uncertainty about the meaning of the term hypocaustus” (Nielsen 1990, 1.161). Ancient authors use this term (and related ones) in conflicting ways, so it is hardly surprising that there was debate and uncertainty among eighteenth-century antiquaries (Savani 2019, 24-26, 43). Inge Nielsen’s conclusion that “hypocaust” may be used “as a generic term for the heating system as such” (1990, 1.161) does not depart radically from Sympson’s conclusion in 1740, though she accentuates the distinction between this term and the closely related form hypocausis, which refers exclusively to the furnace and not the whole system. The Oxford Classical Dictionary points out that “hypocausts were also used for domestic heating in colder lands,” of which Britannia was certainly one (De Laine 2005); the 1887 Encyclopedia Britannica notes that “in the remains of Roman villas found in Britain the hypocaust is an invariable feature” (“hypocaust, n.”). The most recent archaeological survey confirms that this site in Lincoln was a Roman villa or townhouse that included a private bath (Wood 2004, 2.73). Sympson insisted, correctly, that the heating system consisted of two parts, the furnace (praefornium, called fornax in the print) and the hollow floor supported by piers adjacent to it, but he choose the term alveus (cavity) to designate the latter (1741, 859). Although the term appears in this sense on the print, its customary use is to describe the hot water pools found bordering the main level of the bath (caldarium) itself, as they probably were in this instance. To confuse matters further, the antiquarian literature on hypocausts assumes that any room above a hypocaust system would have been not a hot water bath but rather a sudatorium or “sweating-room”—which in fact would have been a smaller room located directly above the stove or furnace (Nielsen 1990, 1.159-60).
Leaving aside these and other problems of terminology that reflect the historiography in this field, it should also be noted that Sympson found a second room with painted plaster walls and additional ducts or tubuli, not to mention early medieval stone coffins several feet above the hypocaust. The print does not reflect this larger context, but its primary focus on the underfloor heating system seems justified by the completeness of this find, preserved in a high degree of perfection under the main floor of the ruined townhouse. It seems likely that Vertue’s and Sympson’s meticulous attention to this find helped to inspire the increasing care taken with similar excavations, which bore fruit in 1751 at Benwell (Lewis 2007, 109) and then at Bath, where an entire bathing complex was uncovered in 1755 (Lucas 1756, 222-30 and Plate II).
Sympson’s account details the composition of the hypocaust and comments on the craftsmanship employed in building it, an emphasis that Vertue extends to the modern craft of excavation in his design. The majority of the extracts presented from Sympson’s letters refer to his drawings that originally accompanied them, combined into one plate in the Philosophical Transactions (Sympson 1741, Table VIII, figs. 1-5). Three of the figures detail features of the “low Pillars, made of Brick,” which are arrayed at the top in Vertue’s print (856). Sympson’s key to the letters designating these and other features is essentially an extended prose version of the key included at the bottom of Vertue’s print, and accordingly provides more information than Vertue’s tabular key. The article includes the dimensions of the furnace itself, which Sympson dug the second shaft to ascertain, and describes the foundation beneath the pillars (pilae), not labeled in Vertue’s print, as “a strong Cement composed of Lime, Sand, Brick-dust, &c. which the Masons of that Country call Terrace-mortar” (856). Sympson’s narrative gives him room not only to distinguish the round pillars around the perimeter from the square ones inside (as we also see in the Vertue print) and to detail the size and quantity of bricks used, but also to declare that all the pillars “are jointed with mortar, and that very clumsily” (857; fig. 4C). The hypocaust is mentioned in an account of the Roman gate at Lincoln by another master mason, James Essex, who compares this “rude but substantial” monument with the hypocaust and argues that the builders’ “little skill in masonry”—together with the uniform elevation of the ground at both sites—constitutes evidence for the monument’s Roman age (Essex 1776, 82-83).
Sympson situates his investigations in the context of earlier eighteenth-century accounts of hypocausts in the Philosophical Transactions. The venue was likely chosen by West, who was treasurer of the Royal Society, and who had (as yet) no options for publishing an article under the aegis of the SAL. The development of these venues later in the century may owe something to a growing sense of competition between the two societies as the SAL began to strive for its own royal charter, finally obtained in 1751 (Evans 1956, 100-01). Sympson’s empiricism is certainly in keeping with the philosophy of the early Royal Society. His professional bias as a builder coincides with the inductive method in his attention to the lateral course of the tubuli (label DE in Vertue’s print), apparently leading to a second room, and in his scrutiny of the rubble that he cleared from the furnace, which included “wood coal” (Sympson 1741, 859). This is the evidence on which Sympson bases his contribution to the research summarized in the same journal by John Harwood a generation before. Harwood and his correspondent William Baxter failed to note the impracticality of building a fire in the hollow floor among the pillars, and Sympson establishes his division of the hypocaust system into two parts (fornax and alveus) accordingly.1 Harwood himself synthesizes earlier research by Baxter and John Lyster, who had built a model of the hypocaust discovered at Wroxeter in 1701 (860); this model was borrowed from the Royal Society during discussions of the Lincoln hypocaust, creating an interplay between two- and three-dimensional representation that culminates in the highly realistic depiction by Vertue (SAL Minutes III.285).
The striking absence of any human figures in Vertue’s composition reflects this history of scientific publication, while the realistic details of the excavation mark his innovative response to this tradition. The use of human figures to indicate scale and suggest mastery in eighteenth-century scientific and technological illustration is well known through examples such as the plates in the Encyclopédie (Ford 2008). The presence of human figures is the most notable difference between this and a comparable image of excavation, the frontispiece to Sir William Hamilton’s Collection of Engravings from Ancient Vases (1791), a plate dedicated to the SAL. In the later plate, the figures indicate not only the scale of the operation but also the strong class distinction between the supervising connoisseurs and the workmen digging with their tools. By foregrounding their tools, Vertue’s composition provides a strong hint of the workmen who carried out the excavation. Their absence may suggest an erasure of the fact that antiquities in the eighteenth century were mainly “unearthed by unsupervised laborers”—a source of both social and methodological anxiety for gentleman antiquaries (Lewis 2007, 110). At the same time, this composition leaves room for sympathy with the explicitly professional perspective that Sympson offers when he situates himself and the modern workmen on the same temporal plane as the Roman builders, translating their cement into the English vernacular, “terrace-mortar.” The care lavished on the pickaxes, shovels, and crowbar (also evident in Vertue’s preparatory drawing) evokes the interdependence of labor and antiquarian research and the walls of the excavation bear the marks of these tools. The windlass with the buckets suggests an equal-opportunity vehicle for antiquaries, laborers, and rubble.
By showing the site as abandoned, Vertue also positions the excavators and the builders on the same temporal plane. In this way, this plate evokes the complex reception history surrounding Roman ruins in the eighteenth century, which must be situated against a backdrop of habitual and controversial comparisons between ancients and moderns. Charles Lucas, the physician who supervised the excavation at Bath in 1755, lamented the depth of modern ignorance about Roman bathing (thus not very discreetly elevating the importance of the treatise on medicinal bathing in which his archaeological account appeared): “There can hardly be a greater reproach to our nation, than to find a rude, irregular gothic building founded upon the ruins of very magnificent Roman baths and sudatories; which have been celebrated by the Roman historians, while the noble structures were not only effaced, but their uses become utterly unknown among us” (1756, 222). Savani further details the disagreements and “misconceptions” that characterized the eighteenth-century reception of Roman bathing in particular (2019, 29).
Bernard Nurse, who rediscovered Vertue’s preparatory drawing for this plate, remarks that Roman remains “were seen as a tangible link between the growing British Empire and that of the Romans” (2007, 127). To partisans of the ancients in Lincolnshire, the discovery of this hypocaust was a point of pride, as indicated in a letter of 1740 by William Warburton: “to shew you we are not quite barbarians in Lincolnshire, I must tell you, that the other day was discovered at Lincoln, 15 feet under ground, a fine Roman Hypocaust” (Nichols 1817-1858, 2.120). The particular frequency of Roman remains in Lincolnshire was noted early on by Stukeley (SAL Minutes I.65), and the monuments surveyed by Wood include walls, gates, mosaic pavements, fountains, altars, and an aqueduct, as well as a second hypocaust. Although Wood includes two photographs of it, the Vetusta Monumenta hypocaust remains “very difficult to access” today (2004, 2.73), making Vertue’s engraving still a valuable resource for study.
The Vetusta Monumenta hypocaust stands as a “model example of an underfloor heating system commonly used in Roman buildings in Britain” (Wood 2004, 2.74), an assessment quoted by Nurse in his catalogue entry on Vertue’s drawing, and which might be extended to Vertue’s depiction itself. Briggs makes a strong priority claim on Vertue’s behalf, arguing that this print “precedes all known three-dimensional images of Neapolitan ruins,” including the famous ruins of Herculaneum, rediscovered two years earlier (2011, 14). On one level this claim restages the competition between British and Roman antiquities that informed the early work of the SAL. Sympson’s skepticism about the workmanship of the hypocaust, and especially Essex’s related claim that brickwork was known in Britain before the Romans, present an analogous kind of priority claim. With its uncanny depth of both perspective and excavation, Vertue’s print foregrounds the great equalizer, geology, beautifully captured in Sympson’s affective response to the original discovery: “So deep is old Lindum buried in its Ruins!” (1741, 858).
: Nonetheless, the journal’s editor constructs a title for Sympson’s article that conflates the terms “hypocaustum” and “sweating-room,” based on the erroneous assumption that there was a heat source directly under the main floor, which Sympson sets out to correct here. The title continues a mistaken association put in place by the earlier titles, also referring to “a Roman Sudatory or Hypocaustum” (Lyster 1707), which is then conveyed to the title of Plate 1.57 as it enters the records of the SAL, which still referred to it as “A Roman Sudatory found at Lincoln” in its Catalogue of Prints in the Vetusta Monumenta (1812).
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