The Waechter-Higgs Collection: a new Web resource for archaeology

by Jennie Hawcroft

In 1977, John Waechter died leaving his lifetime's collection of articles and journals on the subject of Palaeolithic archaeology to Sheffield University's Department of Archaeology. Previous to this, the department had also acquired similar collections from Eric Higgs and Pat Carter, to which the Waechter collection was added. This made a collection of approximately 8,000 offprints, books, pamphlets and journals, which has lain uncatalogued and unused in the department since the late 1970s. Last year, a funding grant was successfully applied for, giving the department resources to catalogue and organise the collection. This work began in October 1995 and is still in progress, with the hope that the collection will eventually be accessible on the World Wide Web, where it should prove to be a valuable and unique reference source.

The Collection

The collection covers a wide range of topics coming broadly under the umbrella of Palaeolithic archaeology, including subject areas such as physical anthropology, climatology, geology, ethnography, genetics, psychology, primatology, zoology and botany. While the collection is envisaged primarily for use by Palaeolithic archaeologists, there are articles covering interests from the Pliocene to the Bronze Age. Most of the collection consists of pamphlets and offprints dating from late nineteenth/early twentieth century, but a considerable part comprises books, tourist guides, unpublished typed manuscripts, book catalogues, newspaper clippings, photographs, letters and drawings spanning over a total of 150 years (circa 1830-1980). Document types range from British Government bills concerning the breakdown of the Empire and the treatment of African nations, to a hand-typed press release relating to Donald Johansen's discovery of Lucy in 1974.

The history and development of the discipline of Palaeolithic archaeology is here in microcosm. Landmark articles from such luminaries as Binford, Leakey, Abb Breuil, Kenyon and Tobias are included, as well as initial site reports from some of the most important sites in the world. One can marvel at the language and attitudes used in the oldest articles and see the gradual change to more politically correct writing in the later ones. A charming example of a piece written when archaeology was perceived to be a simple matter comes from a pamphlet published in 1925. Amongst some unnerving plates featuring hairy, stooped individuals labelled simply 'Pre-Historic Man', we read:

'The Cro-Magnons, a people of splendid physique with great artistic gifts....arrived in Europe exhibiting a high level of physical and mental calibre. There was as much difference between the Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men as there is between ourselves and the primitive peoples of today'. (Boyle 1925, p.17).

Describing the lifestyles of these past peoples was a question of considering the known assemblage of their technology and filling in the gaps with imagination and assumption. There was also no barrier to the use of evocative language in academic publications, unlike in modern academia where flights of fancy are discouraged and the excitement and wonder of the excavator (if any) rarely makes it onto the printed page. For example, about the removal of the skeletons found on her site to a Paris museum, Boyle writes:

'...they have exchanged their cave and the sob of the sea and the wind for a glass casket and the staccato exclamation of tourists. The children lie in Paris, none of the dead are allowed to rest where they were placed with so much care and thought. A vulgar and inquisitive age must stare at and chatter over the skeletons, eyes that never saw their home gaze at their bones'. (Boyle 1925, p.19).

Would this style of writing make archaeology more or less fun these days?

Other articles are less charming and more alarming, particularly some of the British works dealing with studies of African peoples or those articles from the United States supporting eugenics. Although these make painful reading, they form part of the history of academia and this is where the value of the collection lies. In contrast, there are plenty of quirky and fascinating papers to amuse the reader, ranging from reports about clear-shelled hens' eggs, descriptions of advances in computer technology in the 1960s ('our computer fits in one small room!') to accounts of the efforts of the Soviet Union to westernise Siberian reindeer-herders by teaching them ballroom dancing in the 1930s.


The collection is currently housed in the Research School of Archaeology and Archaeological Sciences, University of Sheffield. Visitors will be allowed access to the original papers, which are stored in labelled boxfiles according to subject matter. For wider access, though, the computer database in which the articles are catalogued (Idealist v.3) is to be published on the World Wide Web so that anyone with access to the Internet can browse the files.

The database is very much still a work in progress. With around 8,000 titles in the collection, only 1,100 have been read, checked, catalogued and filed at the time of writing. It is hoped that when the catalogue reaches the 2,000 mark, a web page will be set up containing the records compiled so far. At present, it is assumed that the whole collection will eventually make it, but completion is funding-dependent. After one year's work, resources are available for a further year but it appears that cataloguing will take much longer than initially estimated - the usual problem in archaeology!

For those who search the database on the Internet and who cannot get to Sheffield, the catalogue is intended as a tool to aid identification of suitable articles which can then be ordered from the British Library. We regret that we lack the resources to send out photocopies of the articles to all those who enquire, but hopefully the British Library (who do have the staff and resources to do so) will have copies of everything recorded in the Waechter-Higgs website catalogue.

Further information

If the readers of this journal wish to comment or ask questions about the project, I would be interested to hear from them. Email J. Hawcroft.

This project will be of value to the archaeological community, and this unique collection, after laying dormant for so long, will be put to the use for which it was intended by the researchers who assembled it.


Boyle, Mary E. Barma Grande, the Great Cave and its Inhabitants. Abbo Frres and Cie, 1925. Waechter collection: File no. 1022 BF CA.

Jennie Hawcroft is currently a graduate student at the University of Sheffield. She successfully juggles her studies of Neanderthal ontogeny with her commitment to cataloguing the Waechter-Higgs collection as well as being our valuable Book Review editor!

Jennie Hawcroft 1996


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