John Hurst: 1927-2005

By Rahtz, Philip | Antiquity, December 2003 | Go to article overview

John Hurst: 1927-2005


Rahtz, Philip, Antiquity


John Hurst, FBA, FSA, a founding father of British medieval archaeology, died on April 29, 2003, aged 75.

John was born on 15 August 1927. His father was a plant geneticist, his mother a botanist. John thus grew up with an academic background, where he would be familiar with the importance of recording and classification. He was educated at Harrow, where he developed a life-long interest in Middle Eastern civilisation, far from his later career in medieval archaeology. His national service was in the Intelligence Corps in Palestine. He later graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, with honours in archaeology. The courses there were exclusively prehistoric, and his first experience of excavation was at the Mesolithic site at Star Cart in Yorkshire with Grahame Clark. His first appointment was as an inspector in the then Ministry of Works (later the Department of the Environment, and since 1984 English Heritage), organising excavations on threatened medieval sites in the post-war reconstruction.

He also began excavating, professionally at Norwich, and at weekends with a team of amateurs at a moated site at Northolt in Middlesex. A famous anecdote illustrates the lack of resources available even to inspectors. At Norwich, John found pieces of medieval shoes, well-preserved in waterlogged soil. Always pragmatic, he put them in water in a chamber pot in the hotel where he was staying, to prevent them drying out. But, the hotel maid threw them away, thinking they were 'something nasty'.

It was in these excavations, and in others where he was responsible, that he began to take an interest in medieval pottery, in close collaboration with Gerald Dunning, then the foremost expert in England. I first met John when he was sent down to Somerset in 1952 to inspect the excavations that Ernest Greenfield and I were directing in the Chew Valley, where a new reservoir was being constructed for Bristol. We had dug a number of prehistoric and Roman sites in the large area to be flooded. He persuaded us to dig the medieval sites as well a moated grange and the earthworks of a shrunken medieval village. He suggested that we should abandon the grid method that Mortimer Wheeler had perfected, and dig the medieval sites in open areas, a method he and Jack Golson had observed on the digs being done by Axel Steensberg in Denmark. Steensberg had developed this technique because the medieval sites he was examining did not display clear stratification; house plans could be found only when large areas could be opened at one time, with no baulks to obscure fine detail. John was very influential in persuading a number of archaeologists to try this method.

He went on to develop Iris own excavation techniques at the now-famous deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy in Yorkshire. He and Maurice Beresford, a historian, started a long-term dig in 1952, which continued for forty seasons. John was in charge of excavations (increasingly with him trying to understand every excavation rather than actually digging), Maurice the organiser. Over the years, peasant houses, the ruined church, a watermill site and other structures were examined.

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