O G S Crawford was one of the greatest figures of 20th century Archaeology, but why did he fall in love with Marxism and spend the rest of his life in disillusionment? Here we review a major new biography which reveals the hidden story of his life.
O G S Crawford was one of the great figures in 20th century archaeology. He spent his career as archaeology officer for the Ordinance Survey, being responsible for the splendid Ordinance Survey maps of Roman Britain; but his greatest achievement was as the founding editor of Antiquity, the journal that he founded in 1927 and soon became the essential reading matter for all archaeologists – a predecessor in a way to Current Archaeology, though a journal rather than a magazine. He left an account of his own life in his autobiography Said and Done. However he also left behind a collection of papers marked “Not to be opened till the year 2000”. Well the year 2000 is now past and Kitty Hauser of the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford has now written a splendid new biography “Bloody Old Britain: OGS Crawford and the archaeology of modern life” which is published by Granta books (price £16.99).
OGS Crawford — his Christian names were Osbert Guy Stanford, but it appears that everybody called him “Ogs” — was an enigmatic character. He came from an unhappy middle-class background: his mother died at birth, his father remained in India as a judge, and he was brought up by religious aunts. He was educated at Marlborough and Oxford, but threw over religion and replaced it with science, much influenced by H G Wells. Perhaps inevitably, he drifted towards Marxism: a visit to Russia in 1932 converted him, and he became completely besotted, writing a book A Tour in Bolshevy, which, perhaps fortunately, Victor Gollancz rejected.
Equally in 1938 he visited Nazi Germany and came back with glowing reports on German archaeology and how wonderful it was to have such generous state support for archaeology, even though he was vaguely aware that this state support came at a cost – the cost being the support for Nazi ideology of which he did not approve at all.
But as the 1930s wore on, he became increasingly disillusioned with Britain, and he wrote a book “Bloody Old Britain” which was a cry of pain as his world collapsed around him. He described it as ‘an attempt to apply archaeological methods to the study of contemporary society’ a rant at the evils of capitalism, and full of the horrors of travelling round Britain as he did and staying in cheap British hotels in the 1930s. Ogs was always a good photographer, but in addition to his archaeological photos, he also began making what he called the anthropology of modern Britain – photos of advertising hoardings, Christian excesses – and the houses where Marx and Engels had lived. Eventually in 1943 he offered the book to Methuens who turned it down – pointing out that although it might have been publishable in 1938, by 1943 the atmosphere was very different, and nobody would buy a book like this. He remained committed to Marxism throughout the war – of which he heartily disapproved. It was only in 1947, and the Lysenko affair when Stalin backed a fraudulent biologist and murdered all those who disagreed with him – that Crawford, like others, began to realise that his hero was really rather an unpleasant man.
Kitty Hawser has produced a brilliant biography, dealing not only with the man but also the age. Yet one cannot help but being left with a feeling of sadness. Why is it that so many people worship false gods and then suffer dreadful disillusion when their gods are proved false? Why did he so hate ‘capitalism’ when he was himself such a splendid example of entrepreneurial achievement? Crawford, despite all his huge achievements, still found time to worship Marx - he went round London photographing the places where Marx stayed and his hidden photographic collection also includes many fascinating examples of the graffiti of the 1930s and 1940s. Perhaps if he had married and had a family, his life would have been happier. Perhaps. I am told that he was not interested in women or family. He remained a bachelor and spent all his life as a lodger in an unprepossessing house at Nursling outside Southampton, cycling into work every morning. He was not gregarious and rarely attended conferences or meetings, but through his voluminous correspondence he kept in touch with everything and everybody, and he put Antiquity very much at the centre of archaeology. His public achievements were enormous: it is sad that his hidden private life was corroded by bitterness.