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The Speculative Period: Early Collectors

Guest Blog By Joel Wodhams, Exhibit Intern Summer 2017

Canada’s 150th birthday is fast approaching, but did you know there is over 150 years of archaeology at the Lawson site? From its humble origins in the mid 1800s to its current day affiliation with the Museum of Ontario Archaeology and the University of Western Ontario, Lawson has captured the imagination of generations.

Archaeology evolves from the underlying human interest in the past. Archaeology is a modern practice, evolving since the 1800’s, but interest in the human past spans back hundreds of years.

At a time sometimes called the “Speculative Period,” early collectors created their own understandings of the past. The famous example in North America of this speculative period is the Moundbuilder myth: that the large burial mounds in the United States must have been built by an ancient civilization totally unrelated to the indigenous population.

Jury Collection on display at the Western Fair, September 1931.

During this Speculative Period, the science behind archaeology for understanding the past did not exist. The use of stratigraphy, measuring time by layers of earth, was not possible because most of the people engaged in excavations thought the Earth was only a few thousand years old. Even proper field work did not exist.

Wealthy collectors collected objects from across the world and placed these collections or ‘curiosities’ into cabinets for display.  At first people were more concerned with what the object looked like  than understanding what it was or where it was from, but the collections piqued the interest of many and they wanted to know more. Who created these objects? What were they used for? Early collectors shared their ideas on their own collections, but it was these initial questions that ushered in a new more scientific era leading into what we understand as early archaeology.

Jury collection as displayed in the 1960’s

Anderson, Jacob M. The Lawson Site: an Early Sixteenth Century Iroquoian Fortress. London: Museum of Ontario Archaeology, 2009.
Beaudoin, Matthew A. State of the Lawson Site: Draft Report. Museum of Ontario Archaeology, 2015. Unpublished.
Boyle, David. “Ontario Earthworks.” Annual Archaeological Report, Ontario (1894): 33-40.
Judd, W. W. Early Naturalists and Historical Societies of London, Ontario. London: Phelps Publishing Co., 1979.
Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn. Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice. 5. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008.
Willey, Gordon R and Jeremey A. Sabloff. A History of American Archaeology. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974.

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