The British Archaeological Association was founded in 1843 by Charles Roach Smith, Thomas Wright and Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, to encourage the recording, preservation, and publication of archaeological discoveries, and to lobby for government assistance for the collection of British antiquities. All three men were Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries of London but felt the older body was too aristocratic, too London-focused and lacked the campaigning vigour required. The naming of the new body was symbolic: ‘British’ referred to the campaign for a museum of British Antiquities, Archaeological differentiated their field from older antiquarian methods and Association had reformist, even revolutionary, overtones. Smith became its first secretary and arranged the first six annual congresses. Although he remained one of the secretaries until 1851, he had effectively resigned the post in 1849.
One of the aims of the Association was to promote dialogue between self-identified experts and local archaeologists, to be achieved through the organization of an annual congress, along the model of the French Congrès Archéologique or the annual meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The first meeting was held in Canterbury in 1844. The site, with its magnificent cathedral, had obvious appeal and was close to the seat of the Association’s first President, Lord Albert Conyngham (1805-1860). The Canterbury Congress occasioned the dispute which led to a split and the formation of the Archaeological Institute. The public reason for the feud was the publication by Thomas Wright of The Archaeological Album, or, Museum of National Antiquities (1845), a commercial publication from which Wright drew profit. This infuriated Oxford publisher John Henry Parker, who was to have been the publisher of the official proceedings. Behind the scenes, however, the dispute had other dimensions, both social (all the founders of the BAA were ‘tradesmen’, the seceding members of the AI considered themselves to be socially superior) and religious (the Oxford Chronicle of 16 August 1845 suggested that the dispute had acquired Tractarian/anti-Tractarian overtones). The AI has continued to flourish – the distinction between the two societies today relates more to their areas of interest and they now enjoy cordial relations, with members of each society entitled to attend the meetings of the other.
The nineteenth-century passion for archaeology meant that both the BAA and the AI (later the RAI) flourished, although the earlier society retained the reputation for enthusiasm rather than elegance. By 1905, however, the BAA had reached a low ebb. The congress, held in Bath, made no money, the journal was delayed and many members were in arrears. The custom had emerged of electing as President a dignitary from the locality in which the next Congress was to take place. In 1905, the mayor of Reading was elected, to preside over a Congress in the same town. However by the time the Congress took place, local landowner and former High Sheriff of Berkshire, Charles Edward Keyser, had become President. Keyser remained President until his death in 1929.
During the middle years of the twentieth century, the BAA became particularly associated with Anglo-Saxon archaeology, a field which was flourishing with many exciting excavations including the Sutton-Hoo ship burial, discovered by Rupert Bruce-Mitford in 1939 and the Anglo-Saxon city and cathedral of Winchester, dug by a team led by Martin and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle between 1961 and 1971. The same years saw a reform of the Association to make it more ‘professional’ – this was led by (Sir) David Wilson from the Department of British and Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum, with the support of MP Sir Eric Fletcher and the honorary editor of the Journal (1951-74), Irene Scouloudi. As well as the British Museum link, the BAA developed close ties with the Courtauld Institute during this period, in particular via the medievalists George Zarnecki and Peter Kidson. Their students were encouraged to join the Association, giving it a new strength in the areas of medieval sculpture and architecture, which has continued to the present day.
The annual conference was revived in 1975 with the encouragement of the then Secretary, Richard Gem. The first of the new series was held at Worcester with the specific aim of stimulating new research into the medieval art and architecture of a significant centre. Since then, the Association has held an annual conference at a centre of established importance in the medieval period, usually in the British Isles with occasional excursions to mainland Europe, collating the results of recent research on major cathedrals, minsters and abbeys and including visits to places of relevant interest. The conference proceedings are published as the British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions.
The last 20 years have seen a significant expansion in the Association’s activities. The substantial legacy left to the Association by Maud Lilian Ochs endowed a scholarship fund, and the BAA now awards scholarships to a total of £7,000 annually to postgraduate students in the later stages of writing up their research. A series of study days, again primarily aimed at students (for whom places are free), was launched in 2008, while in 2010 John Osborn gave the Association the funds that enabled it to embark on a series of International Romanesque conferences. These are organised thematically and are held biennially in April.