Subha is is a final year PhD candidate at King's College London. In a slight departure from the usual questions in this series, this interview highlights the role of biography in the history of archaeology, through the case study of late 19th/early 20th century British archaeologist Nina Frances Layard. Interview with Dr Amara Thornton, IoA History of Archaeology Network Coordinator.
AT: Tell us a bit about Nina Layard.
SRW: Nina Frances Layard was born in 1853 in Essex. Her interests in archaeology was publicised when she moved to Ipswich in 1889. Here, Layard was responsible for unearthing instrumental archaeological discoveries that would gain her reputation as one of the leading archaeologists during her time.
Layard’s discoveries at Foxhall Road between 1902-1905 where she unearthed a Palaeolithic brickearth is one of her most cited legacies in discourses about her archaeological career. Though, Layard’s excavations expanded beyond provincial spaces and gained her recognition in prestigious scientific institutions. Her excavations of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Hadleigh Road in 1906 led to her Fellowship at the Anthropological Institute and later the Linnean Society (1906).
In 1921, Layard was one of the first elected woman Fellows at the Society of Antiquaries. She was also Editor of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology& Natural History journal. As a devout Evangelical Anglican, Layard’s theological beliefs were never separated from her scientific thinking. Her interest in Evolutionary Theory in 1890 led to a wave of debates and a newfound audience due to her challenging of Darwin’s theory of ‘Reversions.’ Here, we see the intellectual rigour of Layard’s ideas in reckoning with the authority of religion in the scientific debates during her time. Layard presented these ideas by speaking at a range of institutions across the country including the British Association and the Victoria Institute.
She was also a regular scientific writer for the Science-Gossip Magazine and was an acquaintance with the editor at the time Dr John Ellor Taylor. Apart from her scientific and archaeological interests, Layard had a unique poetic identity. Citing influences like Robert Browning, Layard adopted complex poetic verses to draw links between her scientific and religious ideologies. As a woman navigating her role as an archaeologist and scientist within institutions which were dominated by men, Layard confronted the discriminations she faced by affirming her authority and presence within masculinised, heteronormative scientific spaces.
Although Layard’s relationship with Mary Frances Outram was not publicised during her time, the portrayal of their relationship and the expressions of their desire is important to integrate in writing about Nina Layard.
For full biographical details see Steven Plunkett: Miss Layard Excavated: a Palaeolithic site at Foxhall Road, Ipswich, 1903-1905 (2004)
AT: What drew you to researching Nina Layard?
SRW: I first encountered Nina Layard’s work during my MA when I was researching the receptions of Austen Henry Layard in the popular press for my MA dissertation. A large part of Austen Henry Layard’s archival records are held at the National Library in Scotland and it was through looking at letters and correspondences there that I learnt about Nina Layard’s archaeological contributions in Ipswich. I came across an interview with Dr Sarah Irving and she describes how she encounters the most exciting finds by accident and I really resonate with this in reflecting about how I came to research Nina Layard.
In the early stages of my research of Nina Layard I looked first at how she was represented in the press. There still isn’t much secondary criticism or engagement with Layard’s work so a lot about her work and life is contained within her archival material and press reports of her. I noticed how common it was to find newspapers describing Nina Layard as the niece of Austen Henry Layard as a way of establishing her relevance.
By the late-nineteenth century, Austen Henry Layard was known nationally for his excavations at Nineveh but Nina Layard’s work wasn’t popularised on the same scale so newspaper editors introduced her by her association to Austen Henry Layard. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the national press and indeed provincial papers were captured by archaeological excavations and expeditions at sites in the Near East and Egypt. In response, this profile of the archaeologist as the heroic, authoritative figure, problematically linked to the imperial legacies of these excavations were featured more prominently in the press and in turn, archaeological work that didn’t engage with these excavations were not represented on the same scale and therefore remained less accessible.
What interests me about Layard is that the press is how Layard self-fashions her identity as an archaeologist - through her relationship with the printing press. From 1898 onwards, she begin writing a regular column for the East Anglian Daily Times and in these columns, Layard wrote about the excavations she led and sometimes published historical insights of Ipswich. In taking up this space in the press, Layard’s writing is in itself a kind of resistance to the colonial, imperial narratives that were publicised in this period. My research begins by looking at the relationship between Layard and the provincial press and how she shapes her legacy through this space.
AT: What in your opinion makes Nina Layard a significant figure?
SRW: Nina Layard’s contributions to areas of prehistoric archaeology, Evolutionary Theory, botany and literature suggests the breadth of Layard’s intellectual pursuits. While she was by no means the first woman to hold multiple interests, Layard pursued her academic interests independently and was persistent in her commitments to articulating and publicising her ideas alongside well-known scientists during her time. Her multifaceted and often intertwining interests makes her work complicated to synthesize independently; instead it’s important to recognise how her literary, activist and religious ideologies are interwoven in her archaeological thinking.
One of the areas where this is particularly prominent is in her poetry where Layard’s Evangelical Anglican background informs the ways in which she reads and reconciles with the past. While Layard cites poets like Robert Browning whose poetic style is echoed in the construction of her poetic verses, situating Layard’s thinking and writing amongst her contemporaries highlights her unique way of drawing together a multiple ideas and concepts to reassess the past calls to an interdisciplinary approach to deconstructing her work.
AT: How have you integrated Layard's literary and archaeological work in writing up your research?
SRW: Although Layard’s poetry has not gained sustained engagement in recent scholarship, her poems received critical acclaim and public recognition during her time. Encouraged by the critic and poet Andrew Lang, Layard’s poems were published in prestigious platforms such as Longman’s and Harper’s magazine. Like the rest of her oeuvre, Layard’s poetry is not defined by a single theme, instead her poetic verses are reflective of the rich depth of her curiosities: ranging from archaeological reckonings to other scientific dwellings including her interest in botany and natural selection as well as her preoccupations with issues concerning religion and romantic desire.
Taking into consideration the broad themes that are imbued in her poetry, my second chapter places Layard’s scientific thinking within the context of the relationship between literature and science. Here, I’m thinking more specifically of Michael Shanks’s theory of the archaeological imagination and how Layard’s poems which explore archaeological and antiquarian themes rely on the literary verse to access narratives of the past.
AT: What, from your experience, is the most meaningful thing you've come across in researching Nina Layard?
SRW: Spending a large part of this PhD in Nina Layard’s archives which is located at the Hold in Ipswich has been tremendously rewarding. Her archival material - from her unpublished writings, photographs, letters of correspondence with leading scientists and curators of the time shows us Layard’s scientific and creative authority she held in all stages of her career from her excavation work to the curatorial representations of her work.
Alongside my research on Nina Layard, I have particularly enjoyed researching and writing about Layard’s partner, Mary Frances Outram who was hugely integral to Layard’s professional success. In regards to Layard’s archaeological pursuits alone, Outram frequently accompanied Layard to excavation sites and utilised her painting and watercolour skills to provide illustrations for Layard’s archaeological sketches. In incorporating a queer reading here, I am interested in how the expression of their queerness in the archaeological site instigates expansive and non-normative ways of thinking about archaeological practices and how this was presented to the public.
AT: In your opinion, what is Layard's legacy and in what ways would you present Layard's life and legacy to the public?
SRW: Layard’s legacy is quite multifaceted. Her contributions to archaeology, poetry and evolutionary theory were challenged traditional beliefs during her time. I think it would be useful to interrogate her rich archival resources and exhibit them in some way. These materials not only give an insight into Layard’s work but also demonstrates the communities she helped and worked with, the political debates she was engaged in and the social issues she cared about. Additionally, I think a biopic on Layard’s life will also be quite extraordinary!
AT: Do you have any favourite books (academic or popular) that you've found particularly useful for your research on Layard?
SRW: Amara Thornton’s Archaeologies in Print (2018) is a crucial book in thinking about how influential publishing was for publicising and accessing women’s archaeological writing.
Clare Stainthorp’s Constance Naden; Scientist, Philosopher, Poet (2019) offers a critical and comprehensive approach to researching an individual who was overlooked in the Victorian period. Stainthorp’s theoretical underpinnings offer critical insights into how to structure research on a single individual and their multiple legacies.
Andrew Hobbs’s article on ‘How local newspapers came to dominate Victorian poetry publishing’ (2014) has been really useful in thinking about how the provincial press was instrumental to shaping local readerships and literary communities in local towns.
Alice Procter’s The Whole Picture: The colonial story of the art in our museums (2020) is also a really important and crucial book to read.
AT: Do you have any advice for researchers embarking on research about an individual related to archaeology?
SRW: Researching Layard’s work demonstrates really clearly that an individual’s contributions to archaeology can be wholly understood if we take into consideration the communities they were part of, who they were in conversation with and how these influences impacted their thinking. To access this information, engaging with archival work and historical records of the individual’s relationship with these networks and institutions allows us to contextualise their contributions to archaeology more truthfully.
Looking into the reception of an individual’s archaeological work also highlights how their discourse travelled and how forms of this archaeological knowledge were reconstructed based on the spaces they occupied. One way of looking into this is whether the individual engaged with spaces beyond the metropolitan, where perhaps access to scientific and archaeological institutions were less prominent. Also important to explore how non-scientific networks were equally as important to formalising an individual's archaeological works
AT: From your perspective, what are the key issues to reflect on in how we research and write about individual women who were notable in the past?
SRW: In regards to Layard, I found it useful to start by looking for current discourse about her work and how/if scholars were writing about Layard and in what context. It's useful to look into the gaps of knowledge that exist and to interrogate why specific histories are omitted from current discourses. This of course then brings us to thinking about the shifts in the political and cultural context over time and how scholars have reconsidered the representation of women in the past. In this regard, a historiographical and biographical approach offers a more nuanced approach into how women navigated archaeological institutions and spaces that were not always accessible to women. I think it's also helpful to look at how women were represented beyond scholarly contexts and how other forms of media are more transparent about women’s lives and contributions to the discipline.
AT: How can people learn more about your research (personal blog, twitter, etc)?
SRW: I am currently writing about Nina Layard’s articles in the East Anglian Daily Times for the Journal of Victorian Culture which I am hoping will be out later this year.