Professor Tony Legge

Article excerpt

Authority on the archaeology of animal bones

Tony Legge was an outstanding archaeologist who worked especially in zooarchaeology, the study of animal bones from archaeological excavations. He made major contributions to our understanding of prehistoric people's relationships to animals, including the beginnings of herding. His passion for the subject and deep scepticism of colleagues who only knew about animals from books enthused his students, including many adult learners, as he himself had been.

On leaving school in 1957 he joined the Pig Physiology Unit at the Institute of Animal Physiology at Babraham, outside Cambridge, returning to the job after National Service. The year he left school he spent a week digging at a Neolithic site in the fens being excavated by Cambridge's Disney Professor of Archaeology, Grahame Clark. Here he fell in with Eric Higgs, Clark's charismatic research assistant, who had joined Clark's department after a career as a Shropshire sheep farmer.

In 1965 Legge saw the documentary film Springs of St George about Higgs' pioneering excavations of Palaeolithic caves in Epirus in Greece; he resigned from his job, was accepted to read archaeology at Churchill College, and spent the summer with Higgs in Greece, the first of seven seasons he spent working for Higgs, in Greece and then Israel, revelling in the famously spartan living conditions of a Higgs excavation. It was in Higgs' "bone room" in Cambridge that he learned his zooarchaeology, and after graduating in 1969 it was as a zooarchaeologist that he joined a project directed by Higgs on the beginnings of farming and early history of domestication.

In 1974 he became tutor in archaeology in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of London (now Birkbeck College), until his retirement. He set up his own bone room in Russell Square, where he imbued generations of students with his commitment to studying the archaeology of animals as a powerful way in to the lives of the people who had hunted or herded them. He was promoted to Professor of Environmental Archaeology and after retirement was appointed Senior Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University.

One of the assumed signatures of animal herding was a preponderance of young animals in a bone sample, a characteristic of many samples of sheep and goat bones at early Near East sites. Legge's graduate work, typically uncomfortable for current orthodoxy, was to show that collections of gazelle bones at pre- Neolithic sites in Israel had the same preponderance of young bones, implying that hunter-gatherers might have tried herding gazelle before sheep and goats.

He developed techniques now common in zooarchaeology to tease out details of Neolithic herding practices in England; he suggested what has now been confirmed by biomolecular techniques, that these farmers had learned to milk cattle as well as raise them for meat. …