Celebrating the life of William Cunnington

On Thursday 27 July The Foundations of Archaeology Project organised a walk to celebrate the life of William Cunnington, the Heytesbury wool merchant, early archaeologist and close collaborator of sir Richard Colt-Hoare, illustrious owner of Stourhead.


Cunnington’s humbler origins make his life more difficult to trace than his wealthy land-owning fellow Wiltshire archaeologists such as Colt Hoare and General Pitt Rivers. However, everything fell into place, as it often does, thanks to the support of several key individuals –  two Heytesbury local historians (Anthony Wilson and Penny Copland-Griffiths); an ideal walk leader (Nick Cowen, senior Wiltshire footpaths officer, author and Cunnington enthusiast); a very helpful local farmer, Mr Collins (Manor Farm, Codford) and, finally, the owners of Cunnington’s largely unaltered house.

The walkers made for the higher ground above the Chitterne Brook, from which a number of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments explored by early archaeologists could be seen. The rich finds from some of the barrows have ensured that their names are known to generations of archaeology students, though few have visited the sites themselves. The party then left the beaten track and dropped down through a beautiful dry valley, past some ‘celtic’ fields (prehistoric field systems), which have fortunately escaped modern ploughing, and towards a barrow cemetery sitting, uncharacteristically, on the Ashton Valley floor and investigated by Cunnington and Colt Hoare in mid-winter in 1809. As Nick Cowen explained, Colt Hoare would have stayed at the Angel in Heytesbury and, together with his colleague Cunnington, set out for the barrows together. A good deal earlier than this on the same morning, two much humbler Heytesbury spade and dirt archaeologists, Stephen and John Parker (father and son) would have walked over to Codford and opened the barrows, awaiting the inspection of Cunnington and Colt Hoare.

The Parkers are even more difficult to find out about than Cunnington, but it is known that they became excellent excavators, fully trusted to work on their own. Sadly John Parker died in poverty and obscurity in 1867 aged 87.

Following a picnic in the gardens of Cunnington’s attractive brick-built house, which housed his ‘Moss House’ collection, the afternoon was devoted to a tour of the village of Heytesbury, culminating, appropriately, at Cunnington’s grave and plaque in the church.

So many people wished to take part in this walk that a second one has been organised in September and is already booked up. It is encouraging that Cunnington, who did not have an easy life – his doctor famously said he should ‘ride out or die’, and who made such an important contribution to archaeology, should at last be recognised in his local area rather than only in text books on the development of  the science of archaeology.

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