A precursor to archaeology’s development as a formal discipline in the 1840s, antiquarianism was an aesthetic practice rather than an organized method. Aesthetic judgement, or ‘taste’, since the eighteenth century was understood as the body’s perception of the physical world through the ﬁve senses instead of a rational science.8 An object’s beauty was not inherent in its physical properties (i.e. size, shape, proportion, variety); it existed only in the perceiver’s mind. Subject to individual predilections, aesthetic taste was not universal, but particular and relative. Deﬁning an object’s value by its mnemonic associations, Watson adapted
his antiquarian tastes to the principles of ‘associationism’: material objects stir physical sensations; sensations prompt ideas; and ideas trigger streams of associations.9 Aesthetic judgement was both physical (rooted in the nervous system and ﬁve senses) and mental (transformed into ideas, ampliﬁed by the imagination and inﬂuenced by the emotions). A materialist mode of memory, associations recur with successive experiences of an object. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche later described this antiquarian sensibility: ‘Feeling his way back, having a premonition of things, a scent of almost lost tracks, an instinctively correct reading even of a past which has been written over, a swift understanding of the erased and reused parchments, which have, in fact, been erased and written over many times – these are his gifts and his virtues.’10
Using touch and smell (rather than the higher order senses of sight and hearing) as well as instinct (an intuitive rather than tactile ‘feeling’), antiquarians favoured their more immediate senses, which require proximity to artefacts. Knowing the past meant touching it directly. Antiquarians did not track a narrative of cultural progress, but arrested history in immediate and palpable artefacts.11 Those artefacts, Nietzsche warned, are vulnerable to change if not complete erasure. Thus the very objects that the associationists required to stimulate memory might very well disappear.