William Cunnington

William Cunnington

William Cunnington FSA (1754 – 31 December 1810) was a self-educated merchant who developed an interest in the rich archaeological landscape around the Wiltshire village of Heytesbury where he lived and worked.[1] In contrast to the vast majority of antiquarians of the time, Cunnington realised that to fully understand the barrows which fascinated him they should be excavated and recorded carefully and methodically. Beginning his work around 1798 the initial investigations were self-funded, but increasingly they attracted the interest of a succession of wealthy patrons culminating in Sir Richard Colt Hoare (1758-1838) of Stourhead. Hoare’s huge financial investment in Cunnington’s work from 1804, and the consequent increase in the number of excavations undertaken, enabled the latter to excavate several hundred barrows across south Wiltshire. By modern standards Cunnington’s excavation methodology – predominantly involving a shaft trench dug from the crown of a barrow to ground level in search of ‘novelties’ – was very poor, but he was the first archaeologist to undertake such an extensive campaign of work and was a true pioneer. Indeed it is fair to say that it was not until the work of Thomas Bateman (1821–61) in Derbyshire in the 1840s, that large scale excavations saw a significant step forward in methodology.

Stephen and John Parker, also of Heytesbury, worked on nearly all of Cunnington’s excavations up to 1810 [2] and were held in some esteem as reliable, careful and experienced excavators. John Parker is more frequently discussed in correspondence between Cunnington and Hoare and it is clear that he was often despatched on travels across the Wiltshire Downs in search of new sites. John, born in 1780, is portrayed with some warmth by Cunnington and he comes across as hard-working and enthusiastic, being deeply disappointed by the failure of excavations to produce interesting material. Recent research by Paul Everill has revealed the first reference to the use of a trowel on an archaeological site in a letter from Cunnington to Hoare in 1808,which describes John Parker using one in the excavation of Bush Barrow [3]

Along with Richard Colt Hoare, Cunnington was the subject of an exhibition at the Wiltshire Heritage Museum in 2003. The museum holds the archives made by Cunnington along with the watercolour drawings made by Philip Crocker and the objects that he excavated..


  1. ^ Cunnington,R 1975. From Antiquary to Archaeologist: a biography of William Cunnington, 1754-1810. Shire Publications, ISBN 0-85263-265-7
  2. ^ Everill, P. 2010. The Parkers of Heytesbury: Archaeological pioneers. Antiquaries Journal 90: 441-53
  3. ^ Everill, P. 2009. Invisible Pioneers. British Archaeology 108: 40-43