Retrospect (but Certainly Not a Necrology!)

By Fagan, Brian | Antiquity, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Retrospect (but Certainly Not a Necrology!)


Fagan, Brian, Antiquity


Thus the sum of things is ever being renewed, and mortals live dependent one upon another ... and in a short space the generations of living creatures are changed and like runners hand on the torch of life.

Lucretus, Re Rerum Natura, II, 75.

There's something alarming about an invitation to engage in retrospect. I immediately thought, not of the previous series of such essays in Antiquity, but of Gordon Childe's memorable "Retrospect," written before his suicide in 1957. Was the editor anticipating my impending demise, or was he expecting a full stop to my career as I retired from teaching? It was not until I embarked on the article that I realised that I had a marvellous chance to look back over four decades of observing a fast-moving discipline and some of the influences that washed over me during those years. I am both flattered and grateful for the chance to gaze backward toward my misspent youth.

I became an archaeologist by chance, partly because I was admitted to Pembroke College, Cambridge, on condition that I didn't read Classics. My father had a passion for Greek and Latin, so I had dutifully studied them in my teenage years with near disastrous results. I would never have survived the rigors of an undergraduate curriculum in classics at the university level. But the experience gave me a passion for Homer and an ability to write a coherent sentence. I realise now that my father knew what he was talking about, for I came to archaeology with an unconscious grounding in history and the humanities. At the urging of my Pembroke tutor, I read archaeology and anthropology. Anthony Camps, who later became Master of the college, was a kind and understanding mentor, who tactfully steered me to what he clearly considered a relatively undemanding curriculum.

Thus it was that I came to learn about prehistory from the legendary Miles Burkitt, then in the twilight of his long teaching career at Cambridge, which had begun in 1921. Nearly four decades later, Burkitt still lived in a world of eoliths and coups-de-poing, in the innocent world of pre-World War I Stone Age archaeology. He had studied under Breuil and Carthailhac, excavated at Castillo rockshelter in northern Spain, and had copied rock paintings by a flickering acetylene lamp. He had the sepia lantern slides to prove it--and they were lantern slides in the old-fashioned sense of the word shown on a massive contraption that gave out a satisfying clunk when the image changed! I was instantly captivated by Burkitt's story telling, by his free-flowing reminiscences, even if his prehistory was decades out of date. He'd spent years teaching archaeology to undergraduates destined to become Colonial officers. Lectures interspersed with remarks like "when you are administering justice under a paw-paw tree" and "never let the sun set on an unmarked implement" are legendary among Burkitt's students to this day. Generations of distinguished archaeologists began their careers in his courses and sat at his feet for one of his famous Granchester teas where he would hold forth in front of the fire surrounded by a magnificent library, stone tools, and valuable antiques. Miles Burkitt believed in the importance of archaeology in a civilised society. He also made the past live in young students' minds, something that many teachers never achieve. His subtle influence on me was enormous.

I went on to specialise in Stone Age archaeology, which brought me into the orbit of three extraordinary scholars--Charles McBurney, Grahame Clark, and Eric Higgs. There were only two of us in Charles McBurney's classes, in which he lectured with passionate detail about Palaeolithic Europe and the Near East as if we were an audience of hundreds. To my regret, we never quite warmed to each other, but he gave me a solid grounding in the Stone Age that was to prove priceless in later years. Grahame Clark was an Olympian presence, who was clearly not at his best teaching undergraduates.

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