The Congress of Archaeological Societies

By Amara Thornton (Co-Investigator, Beyond Notability)

We are continuing to explore the various archives held in the Society of Antiquaries that may be relevant to understanding the range of women’s activities in archaeology, history and heritage. Recently, we examined the papers of the Congress of Archaeological Societies (CAS), which are part of this group. This historic organisation was before a few weeks ago unknown to me, but it has already proven to be significant.

Image of the front cover of the Minute Book of the Congress of Archaeological Societies, 1894-1918. Copyright of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
Congress of Archaeological Societies Minute Book 1894-1918 (CAS/001). Reproduced with permission of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Established in 1888, the Congress of Archaeological Societies brought local archaeology and history societies throughout the UK “in union” with the Society of Antiquaries. As the Report of the Derbyshire Archaeological and Natural History Society put it in 1892, following the Congress’s Third Annual Meeting: “Members will be glad to know that this Congress seems to supply a long-felt want in bringing the various county societies into closer communication one with another, and in promoting systematic research.” 

The Congress issued summary pamphlets on the work of its various Sub-Committees who spearheaded the “systematic research” being supported or undertaken by the Congress. This included, between 1891 and 1914, annual Indexes of Archaeological Papers published in a significant number of local antiquarian, archaeological and historical societies and field clubs across the UK (England, Scotland, Wales, and all of Ireland). These yearly Indexes were complemented in 1907 by Laurence Gomme and Alice (Merck) Gomme‘s Index of Archaeological Papers 1665-1890.  Looking at these Indexes more closely gives us an important overview of the names and numbers of women publishing papers in local, regional and national journals relating to archaeology, history, ethnology, anthropology and folklore. 

Many FSAs were deeply involved in the Congress as members of the Standing Committee, cementing the close relationship between the two.  Among the early schemes that the Society either supported or organised were a Photographic Survey of EnglandTranscription and Publication of Parish Registers, and a framework for recording Church Inscriptions. In 1901 the CAS formally established its Earthworks Committee, which also issued annual reports giving an overview of sites discovered, at risk, and under active exploration, as well as an earthwork-specific bibliography of papers published that year. Women’s names can be found there too.

One or more representatives of the Societies subscribing to the Congress sent delegates to its Annual Meetings. These events were held at the rooms of the Society of Antiquaries at Burlington House, and comprised of verbal reports on the work of the Congress Sub-Committees and the progress of the various schemes the Congress was engaged in, as well as discussions among the delegates. Events after the meetings occasionally included visits to archaeological exhibitions held in the Society.

The Society of Antiquaries library has bound copies of the printed Congress reports as well as the Congress’s archive; these sources are complementary and should be read together.  The printed meeting reports include lists of the Congress’s affiliated Societies, with the name and address of an individual to contact. By 1908, the first women’s names appear. Amy (Leslie) Johnston, the Viking Club (later Society)‘s Honorary Secretary and co-editor with her architect husband Alfred Wintle Johnton of Old-Lore Miscellany, and Agnes Sophia Griffith (later Johns) for the Oxford Architectural and Historical Society (Griffith’s brother was Egyptologist Francis Llewellyn Griffith).  Amy Johnston was a delegate for the Viking Club at the Congress of Archaeological Society’s Annual Meeting in July 1911, where she spoke on the issue of restoration of churches.

In 1917, another milestone was gained for women at the Congress of Archaeological Societies: the election of Nina Layard to the Congress’s Council. Layard’s publications had been included in the Congress’s Indexes of Archaeological Papers since 1899, and as the First World War drew to a close, at the meeting of the Congress in November 1917 she was proposed by William Dale and Dr David Cranage, both of whom were Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries, for election to the Council. Just a few years later, in 1921, she was proposed by the Council of the Society of Antiquaries for election to the Fellowship.

At the Congress’s meeting in November 1919, Layard discussed her ongoing work at Mundford, Norfolk, where flint tools had been uncovered in the course of ploughing in 1918. Layard’s subsequent excavation of the site intended to discover the original position of the tools. The Congress’s report highlighted that Layard had already presented a paper on her findings at the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia.

There are many facets of the Congress’s work where women might be found. At present, we are going through the Congress’s Indexes of Archaeological Papers in order to gather data on the women included in these Indexes and the local archaeological and historical societies with which they were associated. Nina Layard is an important example of where the Society of Antiquaries and the Congress of Archaeological Societies intersect in terms of women’s participation. But she will not be the only one. 

References/Further Reading

CAS Committee and Council Minute Books, Society of Antiquaries archive CAS/001.

CAS Annual & Special Reports 1888-1920, Society of Antiquaries Library.

Congress of Archaeological Societies in Union with the Society of Antiquaries, 1903. Scheme for Recording Ancient Defensive Earthworks and Fortified Enclosures. London: Harrison & Sons.

O’Neil, B. H. St J. 1946. The Congress of Archaeological Societies. Antiquaries Journal 26 (1-2): 61-66.

Saga-Book Archive, Viking Society for Northern Research.

Townsend, J A B, 1986-9. A Memoir of Alfred Johnson by his Nephew. Saga-Book 22, 457-62.