Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Vetusta Monumenta and Britain's Classical Past

By Sarah Scott

William Camden’s Britannia (1586) was a hugely influential volume which inspired interest in Britain’s past. It was first translated from Latin into English in 1610 and received considerable recognition in Britain and further afield (Herendeen 2004; Richardson 2004, 113). Although it covered Britain’s past from the earliest times to the Norman period, the main focus was the Roman period. Camden’s work transformed topographical and historical study through fieldwork and through the scrutiny of a wide range of evidence, including original documents, linguistic evidence and artifacts, which were seen as important sources of information about past societies (Herendeen 2004). Camden’s aim was “to restore Britain to its Antiquities and Antiquities to Britain,” although he focused primarily on England and Wales (Camden [1695] 1971, Preface); as shown by Richardson, his writing made a “decisive contribution to the ‘discovery of England’ and to the emergence of a real sense of ‘Englishness’ through the study of local historical foundations and achievements” (Richardson 2004, 115). Camden was a source of inspiration for antiquaries and an essential point of reference for John Aubrey (1626-1679), who often quoted Camden in his Monumenta Britannica.1

Antiquarian interest in Roman Britain was stimulated by a new edition of Britannia, published in 1695, and translated and edited by the antiquarian scholar Edmund Gibson (1669–1748). Aubrey had been persuaded by Edward Lhwyd to allow material from his Monumenta to be included in Gibson’s edition; Aubrey's efforts to raise subscriptions for his own volume were unsuccessful (Fox 2008). Gibson’s version was so popular that the second edition appeared in 1722, and further revisions by Richard Gough (1735-1809) were published in 1789 and 1806 (Ayres 1997, 102–04; Sweet 2001, 160, 185). The importance of this volume as a source of reference is evident in the letter from James Vertue to his brother concerning the mosaics at Wellow: “The field where they were found is called the Hayes. Camden in his map calls it Wells-hundred” (SAL Minutes III.57).

William Stukeley (1687-1765) and Roger Gale (1672-1744) took full advantage of this developing enthusiasm for the archaeology of the Roman period in Britain. They were members of the influential Gentlemen’s Society of Spalding, whose membership included eminent figures such as Isaac Newton and Alexander Pope (Ayres 1997, 89). They used these social and intellectual connections to galvanize support for field work and publications. Ayres suggests that their “enlistment of the oligarchy in the cause of Romano-British archaeology” was one of the most influential factors underpinning its growth in this period (1997, 90). Through their support for such activities the aristocracy could demonstrate their patriotism, as well as their direct connection to Britain’s Roman past (Ayres 1997, 91). Stukeley capitalized on this enthusiasm by offering antiquaries membership in The Roman Knights, a society which was devoted solely to the study of the Roman era in Britain. While the society was short lived, its meetings afforded important opportunities to discuss discoveries and to plan projects and publications; Stukeley’s Itinerarium curiosum (1725) and Alexander Gordon’s Itinerarium septentrionale (1726) were published with the support of the Knights. Stukeley’s aspirations are clear in the preface to his volume: “The whole is to invite Gentlemen and others in this country, to make researches of this nature, and to acquaint the world with them” (1725, Preface). Illustrations were believed to be essential to the success of the project: “It is evident how proper engravings are to preserve the memory of things, and how much better an idea they convey to the mind than written descriptions” (Stukeley 1725, Preface).

John Horsley’s Britannia Romana (1732) further fueled enthusiasm (Ayres 1997, 103; Sweet 2004, 162; Hingley 2008, 155). A member of the Royal Society, Horsley believed that it was essential to record all kinds of evidence and details from the past, such as the sizes and shapes of stones and the scale of letters and figures. He criticized earlier works, such as Camden’s Britannia, for their inaccuracy (Horsley 1732; Levine 1991, 393). Horsley asserted the national significance of Romano-British remains, and in the dedication to Sir Richard Ellys, he stressed the contemporary relevance of his project:

In the following account of the remains of Roman grandeur in our island, you will find some traces of that elegance of life, which you, sir, so happily enjoy. That you may long continue to shine in it; that God may long preserve you to do farther important services to religion, and to your country; and that in a degenerate and corrupt age you may long adorn, and protect the cause and interests of piety, liberty and virtue. (1732, Preface)

Antiquaries sought to rival their continental counterparts in the recording of Roman antiquities, asserting the similarities between Britain’s expanding empire and that of ancient Rome (Sweet 2004, 160; Scott 2014). At this time, Britain was largely seen as a military outpost of the Roman empire, and considerable attention was devoted to the recording of military sites and antiquities. The art of Roman Britain was often perceived in a negative light; for example, James Essex questioned Agricola’s description of temples and other fine structures: “If we accept a few altars, &c. which are so wretchedly executed, that they would at this time disgrace the hand of a common mason … it may indeed be doubted, whether those arts ever arrived to any degree of perfection in Britain while the Romans were masters of it” (1774, 87-8).

However, the discovery of increasing numbers of artifacts of non-military origin, such as mosaics, began to show that Britain had been an established part of the Roman world, with markers of civilization on a par with those found elsewhere in Europe (Ayres 1997, 84-105; Scott 2014, 303). The most impressive discoveries attracted the attention of collectors and connoisseurs. For example, Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726), the librarian of Robert Harley, the earl of Oxford, attempted to acquire a number of Roman altars from the collection of the antiquary John Warburton (1682-1759) for the new library at Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire (Hutchinson 1776-8, 1.60; Sweet 2004, 163).

A bronze statuette of cupid was discovered in the Lewses, Cirencester (Glos.) in 1732, and was identified as Cupid by Thomas Hearne. It was displayed at the SAL in the 1760s and was engraved by James Basire (1739-1802) and published in Archaeologia in 1785 (Henig 1993, no. 180). The Ribchester helmet was acquired by the eminent collector Charles Townley in 1799, and an inlaid bronze statuette of an emperor, possibly Nero, from Coddenham (Suffolk), was in the collection of the earl of Ashburnham of Barking Hall (Suffolk); both were also engraved by Basire and appeared in the fourth volume of Vetusta Monumenta (1815) (Henig 1995, 181).

Discoveries of mosaics aroused a great deal of interest. The fourth earl of Cardigan transported a section of a mosaic discovered at Cotterstock (Plate 1.48) in about 1737 to his house at Deene Park, where it was inserted into the floor of a summerhouse (Gale 1739; Upex 2001, 62-3; Hingley 2008, 172). A tapestry of the Orpheus mosaic at Littlecote (Wiltshire)—the pavement had been discovered in the grounds of Littlecote House in 1727—hung in Littlecote House until 1985 (Hoare 1822, 118-20; Henig 1995, 178). Hearne’s “Discourse Concerning the Stunsfield Tessellated Pavement” (1712) inspired the recreation of the mosaic as a nine-foot carpet (Brome to Rawlins, 22 December 1735, Bodl. MS. Ballard 19, fols. 61-62, cited in Levine 1978, 355). The mosaic has been shown to have exerted a considerable influence on contemporary tastes (Freshwater, Draper, Henig and Hinds 2000). John Pointer’s influential treatise on the Stunsfield [Stonesfield] pavement, published in 1713, included information on mosaics from ancient sources, such as Vitruvius, and descriptions of mosaics found in Britain and may have sparked James West’s (1703-1772) interest in the mosaics at Wellow; the volume was in his library. In 1739, the SAL was inspired to compile a comprehensive list of mosaics discovered in Britain (Evans 1956, 95).

Discoveries and rediscoveries of villas and mosaics provided an excellent opportunity to assert Britain’s place at the heart of a shared classical heritage, challenging the notions that Britain had been a military outpost and cultural backwater in the Roman period and that its climate and national character were incompatible with artistic achievement (Scott 2014). The inscription accompanying Plate 1.52 encapsulates the pride felt on the discovery of such remains, and the importance placed on their recording:

These remains of the magnificence and art of the Romans in Britain—namely, three most elegant tessellated pavements, which, after they were found at Wellow near Bath in the county of Somerset in the month of June 1737, James West, Knight of the Inner Temple, had caused to be most accurately drawn—have been engraved on copper at its own expense by the Society of Antiquaries of London in the year 1738.

The discoveries certainly excited a great deal of local interest: “So many people came to see these tesselated [sic] pavements that those who own the ground got for shewing [sic] it about 50 pounds” (SAL Minutes III.56).

It is therefore unsurprising that the mosaics at Wellow continued to attract antiquarian interest, with further investigations and excavations taking place in 1787, 1807, and 1822. The rather crude investigation in 1787, carried out by an “Antiquarian Novice,” was inspired by a mention of the mosaic in Gough’s second volume of British Antiquities:

I went last week with a pick-ax and spade, and about two feet under ground I met with the brick floor, which I cleared about four feet square … I picked up a piece of the tesselated [sic) pavement, of nine square stones, of blue, red and white, and other pieces of four stones and two stones, all which were so strongly cemented together that it was with difficulty I separated them from the mortar (“Some Particulars” 1787, 961).

Twenty years later, the excavations of Colonel Leigh demonstrated a growing concern with accurate recording and preservation, which was increasingly seen as essential for the posterity of the nation (Lindley 2012; Smiles 2007; Nurse 2007; Ballantyne 2002; Sweet 2001):

A most beautiful specimen of Roman elegance has lately been discovered at Wellow, Somersetshire, and by the interference of Col. Leigh, of Combhay, together with the lord of the manor, Col. Gore Langton, will be prevented from suffering the injury and dilapidation which the relicks [sic] of antiquity so frequently experience. (“Country News, Sept. 24” 1807, 969)

The publications of the SAL, especially Vetusta Monumenta, together with pioneering excavations and publications, such as those of Samuel Lysons at Bignor (Sussex) in 1817) and Woodchester (Glos.) in 1797, were influential. Lysons was part of a social and intellectual circle which included Sir Joseph Banks and other influential members of the SAL and the Royal Society; they worked collaboratively to an international agenda celebrating Britain’s cultural and scientific leadership in Europe (Scott 2013; 2014). They asserted the value of preserving, recording, and explaining all forms of evidence with “scrupulous fidelity” for the widest possible audience (Lysons 1813, 1).

The achievements of antiquaries and the SAL in this period have underpinned an exemplary tradition of mosaic scholarship in Britain, culminating most recently in the beautifully illustrated four-volume corpus of Romano-British mosaics by Stephen Cosh and David Neal. Scholarship in many areas of Romano-British archaeology similarly builds on the early research of the SAL, indicating a strong continuity between the eighteenth-century publication series of the SAL, including Vetusta Monumenta, and modern archaeology.


[1]: For example, see Aubrey’s entries for Silchester, Hampshire and Kenchester, Herefordshire ([1665-93] 1980-82, 438).

Works Cited:

Aubrey, John. (1665-93) 1980-82. Monumenta Britannica or a Miscellanye of British Antiquities. Edited by John Fowles. Sherborne: Dorset Publishing Company.

Ayres, Philip James. 1997. Classical Culture and the Idea of Rome in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Camden, William. (1695) 1971. Camden’s Britannia 1695: A Facsimile of the 1695 Edition Published by Edmund Gibson. London: Times Newspapers.

Cosh, Stephen R. and David Neal. 2005. Roman Mosaics of Britain, Volume II: South-West Britain. London: The Society of Antiquaries of London.

Essex, James. 1774. “Remarks on the Antiquity and the Different Modes of Brick and Stone Buildings in England.” Archaeologia 6: 73-109.

Fox, A. 2004. “Aubrey, John (1626-1697), Antiquary and Biographer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freshwater, T. Draper, M.J. Henig, and S. Hinds. 2000. “From Stone to Textile: The Bacchus Mosaic at Stonesfield Oxon., and the Stonesfield Embroidery.” Journal of the British Archaeological Association 153: 1-29.

Gale, R. 1739. “Roger Gale to Dr Stukeley, Concerning Roman Pavements.” In The Family Memoirs of the Rev. William Stukeley, M.D., edited by W. C. Lukis, 3.41-42. Durham: Surtees Society.

Gordon, Alexander. 1726. Itinerarium septriontale. London

Hearne, Thomas. 1712. “A Discourse Concerning the Stunsfield Tessellated Pavement.” In J. Leland, The Itinerary of John Leland the Antiquary, vol. 8, vii-xxxv. Oxford.

Henig, Martin. 1995. The Art of Roman Britain. London: B.T. Batsford.

Herendeen, W. 2004. “Camden, William (1551–1623), Historian and Herald.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Hoare, Sir Richard Colt. 1822. The Modern History of South Wiltshire. London: Nichols and Nichols.

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Hutchinson, William. 1776-78. A View of Northumberland with an Excursion to the Abbey of Mailross in Scotland. 2 vols. Newcastle: T. Saint.

Levine, Joseph M. 1978. “The Stonesfield Pavement: Archaeology in Augustan England.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 11, no. 3: 340-61.

------. 1991. The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Lysons, S. 1813. Reliquiae Britannico-Romanae: Containing Figures of Roman Antiquities Discovered in Various Parts of England. Vol I. London: T. Bensley.

------. 1817. “Account of the Remains of a Roman Villa, Discovered at Bignor, in Sussex, in the Years 1811, 1812, 1813, 1814, and 1815.” Archaeologia 18: 203–21.

Pointer, John. 1713. An Account of a Roman Pavement Lately Found at Stunsfield in Oxford-Shire, Prov’d to be 1400 Years Old. Oxford: Leonard Lichfield.

Richardson, R. 2004. “William Camden and the Re-Discovery of England.” Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society 78: 108–23.

Scott, Sarah. 2013. “Samuel Lysons and His Circle: Art, Science and the Remains of Roman Britain.” Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 23: 1-22.

------. 2014. “Britain in the Classical World: Samuel Lysons and the Art of Roman Britain 1780-1820.” Classical Receptions Journal 6, no. 2: 294-337.

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Sweet, Rosemary. 2004. Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain. London: Hambledon and London.

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Upex, Stephen G. 2001. “The Roman Villa at Cotterstock, Northamptonshire.” Britannia 32: 57-92.