Was Michael Faraday (1791-1867), the greatest scientist of his age, also a pioneering archaeological scientist? New evidence suggests that he was, even if his contribution has long since been forgotten.
Michael Faraday in the 1830s (from Wikimedia Commons)
Over the past few days I’ve been trying to piece together some clues to a (minor) historical mystery: was the famous and brilliant nineteenth-century scientist Michael Faraday one of the first people to use scientific methods to analyse archaeological materials? If so, this raises some interesting questions, and may contradict some of what we think we know about early ‘antiquarian’ archaeology.
Most of my work on the history of archaeology has focused on the histories of public archaeology and of Egyptian mummy studies. A few weeks ago in the footnotes to Thomas Pettigrew’s History of Egyptian Mummies published in 1834 I found a reference to “Dr. Faraday, the highly-talented professor of chemistry at the Royal Institution” and a note from Faraday describing his study of some crystals found inside a mummy:
“The small needle-like crystals are very curious … It burns with a bright flame, and evidently abounds in carbon and hydrogen. It is not soluble in water, and has the odour, when heated, of a fatty matter; but then alkali acts very feebly upon it … The substance may probably be a result of slow action upon organic (perchance animal) matter”
Faraday and the Egyptian mummy scholar Pettigrew had known each other since childhood, and their collaboration might just have been Faraday doing a favour for an old friend. Still it intrigued me. I checked, and none of the huge pile of Faraday biographies published over the years mention him having an interest in archaeology.
I consulted with Faraday expert Professor Frank James, who pointed me to a set of letters that Faraday had exchanged in the early 1830s with John Gage of Hengrave Hall, an antiquarian who worked mostly on the history of Suffolk, as well as conducting excavations of mounds and monuments.
Gage published several article in the Society of Antiquaries journal Archaeologia in the 1830s, including several reports of excavations in Essex and Suffolk. Having hunted these articles down, for the past few days I’ve been reading through them to try and understand Faraday’s contributions. Gage describes excavating monuments including a Roman tomb, and sending the finds off to be analysed. He sent the bones to William Clift, conservator at the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, and the rest he sent to Faraday.
Faraday’s report is included in one of the Archaeologia articles. It contains descriptions of the artefacts including glass bottles, a coin, and some fatty and resinous lumps. His report says that he boiled, burned, distilled, sniffed, crystallised, dissolved and weighed them: as comprehensive a set of analyses as mid-nineteenth century science could offer. Not quite what modern archaeological scientists get up to (I gather), but not too far off either. Enough to say that Michael Faraday can definitely be called an archaeological scientist – and a very early one at that.
The history of archaeology, we are taught, is one of emerging from darkness towards enlightenment: amateurish antiquarians gave way to stratigraphers and scientists, and today we’re all enlightened post-post-processualists. Or something. Of course nothing’s that simple – we all stand on the shoulders of giants, even if it’s more fashionable to give those who came before us a good kicking.
The fact that Michael Faraday (and others such as Clift) provided specialist reports for archaeological publications in the 1830s doesn’t necessarily mean that he sparked the development of modern archaeological science: in fact his contribution appears to have been forgotten. But it’s reminded me that the history of archaeology contains all sorts of curiosities and oddities that make it fun and worthwhile.
Gabe Moshenska, UCL Institute of Archaeology.