Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.
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Archaeology is full of strong personalities: two of them are the Selkirks themselves, which is one of the reasons why CA has enjoyed such sustained success. Their humanity shines through in its pages from the first issue to the most recent, making for the rich and engaging range of sites and stories, people, and sometimes simply gossip explored in the magazine. The broader history of archaeology is scattered with equally distinctive personalities across the ages, and the last 50 years have proven no exception. In this latest column excavating the CA archive, I focus on an occasional feature of CA over the years: formal interviews with some of the key figures in archaeology.
Profession and personality
It was not until CA 20 (May 1970) that the first interview was published in the magazine. It was with Martin Biddle, at that time directing the excavations under way on Saxon and medieval Winchester. Biddle’s is the type of background that was once common in British archaeology, but has now virtually disappeared: public school education, a Cambridge (or Oxford) scholarship in Classics, National Service in the army, and then postgraduate research back at Oxford/Cambridge intertwined by (nowadays unimaginably wide-ranging) fieldwork commitments. While the archaeology that Biddle discusses is fascinating (and almost the whole of CA 20 is devoted to detailed discussion of different sites in Winchester), as interesting is the broader tale of how he and a small team, on virtually no budget, set about their work excavating the city and incrementally built up the Winchester Research Unit. We also learn in the interview that Biddle is a convinced European and that he reads ‘blood-and-blunder novels’ for relaxation!
A feature of CA’s celebrations of its own milestones has been sets of interviews. CA 100 (June 1986), 200 (December 2005), and 300 (March 2015) all follow this pattern, and Martin Biddle makes it into all three celebratory editions – a real piece of long-term social history of the discipline, and a distinction that makes him the most interviewed archaeologist in the magazine’s history. Sixteen years after his original interview, Biddle discusses in CA 100 the pressing issue of the day, namely the place of professionalism in archaeology, especially the role of paid versus unpaid workers, as the sector expanded and became more of a ‘profession’. He also considers the question of the underlying philosophy of archaeology in Britain in this period, the crucial issue of why we dig, as pertinent now as it was back then.
By CA 200, another 19 years later, Biddle was still concerned by many of the same issues that he raised in CA 100, admitting as much in the interview and summing this up as ‘the interface between evaluation and mitigation’. In CA 300, this time a decade on, Biddle returned to reassess his work at Winchester half a century earlier. By this point the practice of archaeology, in particular of urban archaeology in advance of redevelopment, had been totally transformed both in management structures and practical approaches, although the debate about the role of the ‘amateur’ (and how this might be defined) remains, as any present-day reader of CA knows.
Several stand-alone interviews across the years in CA, undertaken as a part of the yearly life of the magazine rather than to mark special occasions, especially bear revisiting. These introduce readers to perhaps lesser-known, but by no means less important, practitioners. Among these are the fascinating interview of the wife-and-husband team of Catherine Hills and Henry Hurst in CA 122 (November 1990).
Hills at that time was a well-known archaeologist thanks to her work on the vast Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery at Spong Hill, Norfolk, and was also in the public eye as the presenter of a series of archaeological TV shows including Down to Earth and The Blood of the British. (Did any CA readers appear in these? Do write in with your memories if so.) Hurst, meanwhile, had worked both in the UK and abroad. At Carthage, he led the British contribution to an international research project on the harbour sites at the time of the Roman siege during the 3rd Punic war (149-146 BC). The couple had subsequently met while working together at Cambridge, CA wryly noting that: ‘there were complaints about the lack of co-ordination between Roman and Saxon teaching, and steps were taken to rectify that. The problem was tackled so thoroughly that in 1986, when Henry was 39 and Catherine was 38, they got married.’
The more recent history of commercial archaeology is explored in several CA interviews. Andrew Selkirk interviewed Taryn Nixon as Head of MOLAS (now MOLA) in CA 162 (April/May 1999), two years after she’d taken on that post. Nixon has only just stepped down from that role in late 2016, after nearly 20 years at the helm of the organisation. It has been a period of unprecedented change to archaeology and wider society alike, through the heady days of the expansion, and later reduction, of developer-funded fieldwork under PPG16 (the formal government policy that began in 1990, requiring developers to fund archaeology) and its subsequent replacements PPS5 and the NPPF.
A similar ‘commercial’ analysis of British archaeology comes in the interview of Gill Hey to celebrate the 40th birthday of Oxford Archaeology in CA 284 (November 2013). Hey had recently become the CEO of Oxford Archaeology, which – like MOLAS – had been born in the 1970s out of the same rush to excavate sites in advance of development. It was what might be termed the ‘second wave’ of fieldwork and archaeological organisations after those led by Biddle and his contemporaries a decade earlier in Winchester.
An equally important aspect of the history of British archaeology is dealt with in the interview in CA 209 (May/June 2007) with Ros Niblett. In a professional lifespan that mirrors that of Biddle, Niblett was one of the quiet champions of archaeology in her home patch of Hertfordshire for over 50 years, and also more broadly on Romano-British sites across the UK. Niblett was also one of the last practising archaeologists still working in the 21st century to have come into professional contact with Mortimer Wheeler. She had begun her digging career with Sheppard Frere at St Albans in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before moving on to study at Cardiff University. CA’s interview continues, ‘at that point Mortimer Wheeler intervened. The great man had historic links with both Colchester and Cardiff, and when Colchester needed an archaeologist he wrote to Cardiff for a recommendation. Leslie Alcock suggested Ros Niblett… The total archaeology budget for Britain’s greatest Iron Age oppidum and first Roman town was £3,000-£5,000 – including the salary of the only paid archaeologist!’
By 1980, Niblett was hard at work making sense of generations of fieldwork in and around St Albans, and she remained professionally involved with the city for the rest of her working life, including serving as Keeper of Field Archaeology and later – until her retirement in 2006 – District Archaeologist. As the interview concludes, ‘All of her excavations are published, and her general thinking on Verulamium and its environs is summed up in three books, Roman Hertfordshire (1995), Verulamium: the Roman city of St Albans (2001), and, with Isobel Thompson, Alban’s Buried Towns (2005)’. Mortimer and especially Tessa Wheeler would surely have approved of such diligence.
Discover old issues
Read the articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual issues in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. The articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 4 January. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI323’.