Two weeks ago I embarked on my first trip to Europe, specifically to Great Britain. This journey had two aspects. First, it is the closest I’ve had to a vacation in at least four years. But honestly, I don’t really do vacation. The primary reason for the trip was to assist several projects I’m working on, including a volume I’m currently writing on why archaeology has the “spooky” image it has in the public imagination.
The following images are not in precise chronological order, though the general narrative does roughly follow the order of places I visited. I spent four days in London at the beginning and another two at the end, and these materials are something of a chronological jumble for thematic purposes. These images are a fraction (specifically, about 7%) of the images I took. Many of these were for research I am not discussing in depth here, or for teaching purposes. The images and text here are instead a rough tour not so much of where I went as why I went, what I learned, and why that might be of interest.
This travelogue is broken into seven sections, the first Rule Britannia! beginning below. The other sections are
Archaeology of Empire
Mysteries of London
Time in Bath
A Green and Magical Land
The Legend of Loch Ness
Most of my time in London was in the Bloomsbury area around the British Museum, the British Library, and the University College London. The gateway to this area is the St. Pancras rail and underground station at King’s Cross, a striking building due to the refurbished hotel and center above it.
Walking around this area, I was constantly confronted with surprises from history, including the house Dickens lived in for a significant part of his life, or the home of the Pre-Raphaelite artistic movement. As we’ll see, some more esoteric landmarks surround the British Museum as well.
The Westminster area is studded with memorials to heroes of the British Empire such as Churchill and Nelson.
The narrative presented by the National Trust at Westminster Abbey is that this is the heart of the nation, and in visiting, I understand their reasoning. I was emotionally struck not just by the beauty of the structure, but by its enshrinement of British history. I had not significantly researched the place before visiting, so I was surprised to find it as the shrine to Newton, Darwin, Tennyson, Chaucer, and other cultural and intellectual greats as well as the resting place of royalty, generals, and politicians. Photography is not permitted when visiting the abbey (which is a working church, of course), but I did want to note a couple of images on the outside of the building.
This is the shrine of the martyrs of the 20th century. I particularly noticed
monuments to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Oscar Romero, the icon of El Salvador. I would also note that in the square below Westminster, alongside the statues to British heroes such as Churchill, there are monuments to Gandhi and Lincoln.
The importance of the past, including the deep past, to more recent British identity is pervasive, as the monument to Boudicca, which honored both an ancient Iceni queen who resisted the Romans and the powerful Queens Elizabeth I and especially Victoria, demonstrates.
A British primacy in the planet’s prehistory is also on display at the Natural History Museum.
There are several monuments to Richard Owen, though his at-times tyrannical and spiteful nature is also significantly discussed.
Other heroes of the museum such as Alfred Wallace are honored, but …
Darwin is the king of the museum, his statue getting pride of place in the center of the main stairwell. Between the honors to Darwin at Westminster and his importance here, I could not help but think of my visit in December to the Creation Museum just over the border in Kentucky, and how very different this place is.
One of the exhibits in the Museum’s Treasure Chamber are some of Darwin’s pigeons, with his handwritten notations, from his research.
It also seems no accident that a number of gargoyles in the main hall are actually monkeys, that icon of public attitudes about evolution.
The geological hall is astounding in its scale and completeness
Another Treasure of the museum is the first meteorite sample collected from an actually sighted meteor fall, leading to the realization that meteors were not supernatural or mundane earth-bound objects, but extraterrestrial visitors.
But perhaps the greatest legacy on display at the museum is the first recognized evidence for dinosaurs and other great reptiles of the Mesozoic. These fragments were the first fossils analyzed with an understanding that they may be extinct giant reptiles, in essence the beginning of human understanding of dinosaurs and of truly deep time.
There are a number of Mary Anning’s discoveries here.
Another Treasure is the original Archaeopteryx fossil, one of the greatest of all paleontological discoveries.
In the main dinosaur hall, some imagery aimed at children invokes aliens and the Loch Ness Monster in suggesting more imaginative explanations for the extinction of dinosaurs.
Of course, one reason for the popularity of dinosaurs is that they meet the expectations for dragons, creatures so important in the iconography and imagination of Britain. This relief in the Victoria and Albert Museum is only one of many images of dragons and dragon slayers I encountered during my travels.
Thinking of England, dragons, and the past dredges up Beowulf (is it fitting I watched the Hobbit films on the plane ride back?), which is often linked to the Sutton Hoo discoveries. Little did I realize the Sutton Hoo artifacts would not be at the site, but in the British Museum.
So many other icons of British prehistory were likewise on display in the Museum, including the Bronze Age gold cape, and the late Iron Age Battersea Shield
Though perhaps one of my favorite pieces from British archaeology is the berserker from the Lewis Chessmen