Adrian Desmond

Published On


Page Range

pp. 417–442


  • English

Print Length

26 pages

22. British Aborigines

  • Adrian Desmond (author)
Saull’s switch from geology to primeval archaeology was not so strange. The upper geological strata and lowest archaeological layers were thought to share a porous border in the 1840s. Nor was the move any less central to his Owenite goal of proving nature’s perfectibility. He saw himself dealing with what he called British “aborigines”, and their rise from “savagery” towards modern mercantile man through changing cultural conditioning. In practice he developed a system, almost unique at this time, of Celtic cultural stages in pre-Roman Britain. Here we deal with his path to this singular position, from his study of ancient hut remains to reclamation and salvage archaeology, as London’s new sewerage works threw up Roman artefacts (which only his and Charles Roach Smith’s museums were prepared to receive). This led to his book Notitia Britanniae (1845), and a lower museum gallery filling up with archaeological remains. Lecturing now often took place at another radical hotbed, the Finsbury Social Institution. Here the old Spencean revolutionary Allen Davenport dedicated his poem “Urania” to Saull. It was also a feminist stronghold, and its leading light Mary Jenneson talked of Saull’s favourite (and levelling) topic, the rise of the British “aborigines”. The Owenite understanding of this concept in an imperial age is unpacked, as is Saull’s political agenda in Notitia.


Adrian Desmond


Adrian Desmond was educated at University College London and Harvard University, where he was Stephen Jay Gould's first history of science PhD student. He has two MSc's, one in history of science, another in vertebrate palaeontology, and a PhD for his work on radical Victorian evolutionists. For twenty years he was an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London. He is the multi-award-winning author of nine books, which include: The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs, Archetypes and Ancestors: Palaeontology in Victorian London 1850-1875, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London, Darwin, Huxley: The Devil’s Disciple, Huxley: Evolution’s High Priest, Darwin’s Sacred Cause (with James Moore)