New book unearths the Lukis legacy

Without Frederick Corbin Lukis our knowledge of Guernsey's distant past would be negligible and the dolmens would have been filled in or broken up. Now he is to be celebrated with an exhibition, a conference and a book by States Archaeologist Heather Sebire, which sheds new light on the man widely regarded as a pioneer. Chris Morvan found out more.

Without Frederick Corbin Lukis our knowledge of Guernsey's distant past would be negligible and the dolmens would have been filled in or broken up.

Now he is to be celebrated with an exhibition, a conference and a book by States Archaeologist Heather Sebire, which sheds new light on the man widely regarded as a pioneer. Chris Morvan found out more. HE work of the archaeologist enables us to piece together our history when it has been lost in the mists of time and, often, buried under the ground beneath our feet.

Ironically, though, the very people who do this - and their work - can themselves fade from memory all too quickly.

As an example of how facts and deeds recede into history, to many of us, Frederick Lukis's family home, Lukis House in the Grange, was synonymous with the school dentists in the 1960s and, more recently, Board of Health departments including the Community Nursing Service.

But this distinguished building was built by the great man's father, John, who made his fortune in the slightly murky world of wine imports and privateering (in which British royal approval was given for holding up and essentially robbing the ships of certain countries as they passed near the Channel Islands.)

The house passed to Frederick and from him to his son Francis du Bois Lukis, the sixth of nine children born to Frederick's wife, Elizabeth. Francis eventually left the house to the island, with its collection of his father's work, which moved to St Barnabas at the top of Cornet Street before the current museum was built in Candie Gardens in 1978.

FC Lukis was born in 1788 and it is likely that he attended Elizabeth College, although this was before complete records were kept by the school.

His interest in natural history and the ancient world started at an early age, possibly through the influence of his much-older cousin, the botanist Joshua Gosselin.

With his family's wealth apparently sufficient to spare him the necessity of pursuing a career, he threw himself into his duties with the Guernsey Militia, rising to the rank of colonel and was appointed aide-de-camp to the Lt-Governor. He also took an interest in the Guernsey Mechanics Institute, an organisation formed to promote the education of not just mechanics, but working people in general.

In 1813 he became a constable of St Peter Port and his name appears on documents from 1822 in his capacity as churchwarden at the Town Church. With his obvious zest for life and ability to get things done, he was instrumental in the restoration of that church at a time when it had fallen into disrepair.

His only apparent excursion into paid work was with the Atlas Assurance Company, on the back of whose notepaper he tended to make his own notes.

But apart from these diversions, Lukis was able to devote his time to looking into the ancient history of Guernsey and also carried out similar work in Jersey, the UK and France.

Until Lukis began to investigate them, our dolmens were regarded as druids' altars rather than burial sites and to many at the time they must have looked like nice pieces of granite that might come in handy for building houses. In a way that may have improved, but is sadly still relevant today, development was carried out without due regard for what had been there thousands of years earlier.

Lukis first visited the Dehus dolmen, in that enchanted, off-the-beaten-track area north of the road between Bordeaux and L'Ancresse, in 1809 with his Uncle Joshua, who sketched the structure and made notes.

Heather Sebire's book tells of the time, two years later, when soldiers building a small fort on L'Ancresse Common, discovered what would be revealed as a passage grave - La Varde.

Lukis and Gosselin walked to the site from St Peter Port to find soldiers blithely digging through pottery and bones. After examining what could be seen, the two apparently went home each with a skull under his arm.

It was La Varde that really sparked Lukis's interest, but it was to be some time before his major work began in earnest.

In 1837 he wrote: 'I am determined to begin the excavation of the prehistoric remains of the Channel Islands,' and he started by returning to La Varde, followed by Le Tombeau du Grand Sarrazin (in the same area as Dehus/Paradis, but long since destroyed and now either lying at the bottom of a quarry or serving as boundary stones somewhere).

The work also took in La Roche qui Sonne, which for many years has been in the playground of the Vale Infants' School and has now been fenced off by the Education Department, waiting for what is known in the museum world as 'interpretation' to explain what it is and its significance.

Then there was Le Trepied at Le Catioroc, Perelle, and La Mare es Mauves (on the golf course near Pembroke), as well as Le Dehus, where Lukis found skeletons lying in such a way as to suggest that they had been buried in a kneeling position.

The following year he undertook some excavation on Lihou, uncovering the ruins of the old priory, and sent his son John, with a friend, to examine important sites in Alderney.

In 1839 he visited Herm with his family and earmarked six or seven spots of interest. According to the historian James Marr in his book Guernsey People, Herm was to prove problematic because of the quarrying industry and builders' interest in all things granite at the time. Marr writes of unthinking quarrymen leaving tools all over important sites and says, 'they trampled clumsily over skulls just unearthed and in their fecklessness mutilated some of the burial chambers... They had orders to break up surface rocks whenever they found them, suitable for dressing as square blocks.'

'Lukis's work and collection are internationally regarded,' said Mrs Sebire, who heads the team that continues the great man's work in the 21st century. 'And fortunately we have hundreds of wonderful letters and documents that give a fascinating insight into his thought processes as he tried to understand it all. We also have notebooks and diaries that detail life in Victorian Guernsey.'

As the book progresses, it is this aspect that comes to the fore, with a look at 19th-century trade and commerce along with other developments in the island - and it was a time of change and prosperity for Guernsey that can put into perspective what has been happening here over the last 20 years.

While Lukis's methods may not seem particularly remarkable today, at the time they were very advanced.

Having first marked it on a map, he made plans for each chosen site and made drawings at various stages of the excavation.

As an extra precaution, he sieved the contents of excavated graves to make sure no smaller artefacts had been missed.Broadening his horizons, Lukis excavated sites in Jersey, including Mont Ube and Le Couperon, near Rozel Bay, and in 1842 began work in the UK on Bronze Age mounds, known as barrows, in Norfolk.

Family holidays spent in Brittany seem to have involved excavations too (although with his passion for the subject, Lukis probably didn't make a distinction between work and leisure). Much of this went on in the Carnac area, while the tomb at Gavr'Innis, near Vannes in the Morbihan region, was the subject of much discussion at the time.

Without Frederick Corbin Lukis our knowledge of Guernsey's distant past would be negligible and the dolmens would have been filled in or broken up.

But it wasn't just archaeology that fascinated him.

As Mrs Sebire's book explains, he was also very interested in ferns, fish and shells, credited in the book Outline of the Flora of the Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney by its author C. C. Babbington as his 'excellent friend' and also acknowledged for his studies in conchology, which found their way into several publications including the 1836 volumes History of British Fishes, in which serious weight is attached to Lukis's drawings and information about the behaviour of seahorses.

u The book Frederick Corbin Lukis and his family will be available from Guernsey Museum and bookshops.

The conference, from 2-4 June, with a keynote address by Professor Timothy Champion, offers the chance not just to learn of the life and work of Lukis himself, but to absorb some of the fascinating aspects of ancient Guernsey that fired his imagination and deserve to reach a wider contemporary audience. Tickets cost £50 including a wine reception and dinner on the Saturday evening, or £15 per day, £25 for two days without the dinner. Application forms are available at the Guernsey Museum and public libraries.

The exhibition, Pursuits and Joys, runs from 2 June to the end of the year. It begins with a preview evening on 1 June and is to be opened by descendant Adrian Lukis, an actor who has appeared in a TV production of Pride & Prejudice and makes regular appearances in the drama series Judge John Deed.

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