Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Cornish antiquities

A recent short holiday in west Cornwall offered plenty of opportunities to indulge an interest - even if it is only a passing interest as in my case - in antiquarian matters. Prehistoric field systems, quoits, cairns, man-made mounds, humps and bumps; there's an abundance of these things here, and many of them were visited, and no doubt measured, drawn and noted by the eighteenth-century Cornish antiquary and clergyman William Borlase (1696-1772). His name featured several times in our guidebooks, and it rang bells with me and with good reason: I drafted the entry for Borlase in the Historical Manuscripts Commission's Papers of British Antiquaries and Historians, the twelfth in the much-lamented HMC's guides to sources for British history. In many ways Borlase could probably stand as the very type of an eighteenth-century antiquary: a clergyman living in a remote part of the country with time on his hands, intensely curious about the past (it seems to have either been that and/or natural history with these sorts) and possibly starved of intellectual companionship.

As with so many eighteenth-century antiquaries Borlase's papers are now dispersed (and many more were no doubt lost), but rereading the HMC's guide I flatter myself that I did a tolerable job in summarising his literary remains in six short paragraphs. Aside from the simple - and impressive - fact of the mere survival of the papers, there is, of course, the question of how useful such material actually might be in a wider sense. Some might dismiss scholars such as Borlase as lacking modern rigour and hopelessly mistaken in their conclusions, but I think that the case for the usefulness of their papers can be made; sites may have changed and artefacts been lost that Borlase preserved in descriptive notes, sketches and measurements. And when it comes to very remote antiquity about which we really know very little perhaps the speculations of an eighteenth-century clergymen have as much validity as the modern archaeologist.   

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