Sir Daniel Wilson

(1816—1892) anthropologist and university administrator

Quick Reference

(1816–92) [Bi]

Scottish artist and antiquary who was the first English speaker to apply the Danish approach to prehistoric archaeology outside Scandinavia. Born in Edinburgh, he attended Edinburgh High School before being apprenticed to a steel engraver. Between 1837 and 1842 he worked in London as an engraver and popular writer, but returned to Edinburgh to run an artist's supplies and print shop. Although Wilson developed an interest in history and matters antiquarian from a relatively early age, it was not until he was invited to help turn the collections of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland into a modern national museum that he turned from antiquarianism to archaeology. In reorganizing the collection he adopted the Danish model of ordering the artefacts according to the Three Age System. Wilson's arrangement presented an evolutionary approach to viewing the artefacts, and this also came across in the catalogue that he wrote to go with the exhibition. Later, in 1851, he published an extended version of the catalogue as Archaeology and prehistoric annals of Scotland (London: Macmillan). This was the first comprehensive treatment of early Scotland based on material culture and the first time that the term ‘prehistoric’ was used in English. Although Wilson received an honorary LLD from the University of St Andrews, he was unable to get an academic position in Scotland. In 1853, with help from friends in Edinburgh, he was appointed to the Chair of History and English Literature in University College, Toronto, Canada. Wilson enjoyed teaching in Canada and continued his interest in archaeology, but all the while expanded his interest in anthropology and ethnography. Throughout his life he was a talented landscape painter.


B. G. Trigger, 1992, Daniel Wilson and the Scottish Enlightenment. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 122, 55–75

Subjects: Archaeology.

Reference entries