Archaeology had a profound impact on Victorian culture. As it emerges as a professional scientific practice in itself, it is also implicated in many of the century’s important debates.

From the dramatic excavations at Pompeii in the late eighteenth century, through the arrivals of impressive objects like those found in Mesopotamia by Austen Henry Layard, to the troubling discoveries of human remains alongside extinct animals, archaeological digging produced objects and ideas that disturbed, excited and entertained the Victorians. The excavated cities held a special fascination, not least through the suggestive effect of the presence of the fragments of once-powerful lost civilizations in London’s museums and galleries. At the same time, London’s own buried history made its way to the surface.

As engineers dug foundations for new buildings or constructed tunnels for the underground railway, the new sewer system or gas pipes to light the street, they uncovered the cities of former times, paradoxically drawing attention to the antiquity, even the pre-history, of London. Just as the modern fabric of London is built on its own ruins, so archaeology proved a powerful force in negotiating the new conditions of capitalist modernity.

In the writings of archaeologists themselves, and in fiction, poetry and other popular texts of the period, archaeological objects, processes and sites become a means of engagement with the present and the unprecedented changes taking place. That nineteenth-century engagement continues to influence us now, more than a hundred years later.

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