Retrospect: The Innovative and Gregarious Viking Scholar and Former Director of the British Museum Contemplates His Travels in the Changing Landscape of Early Medieval Europe

By Wilson, David M. | Antiquity, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Retrospect: The Innovative and Gregarious Viking Scholar and Former Director of the British Museum Contemplates His Travels in the Changing Landscape of Early Medieval Europe


Wilson, David M., Antiquity


I have been asked to look back at my archaeological life--a difficult concept in which one is tempted to string together a series of anecdotes about archaeologists one has known. And I do have personal recollections and anecdotes about many--as far back as the Abbe Breuil, Haakon Shetelig (the excavator of the Oseberg ship), Johannes Brondsted, Sune Lindqvist, Gordon Childe, Leonard Wooley, van Giffen, Nandor Fettich and many more. Such a litany would be tedious, but clearly personal influences have been important, so do not consider mentions of the great and good as mere name-dropping.

I was born in Yorkshire in 1931, the son of a Wesleyan minister, and my childhood was consequently peripatetic. Methodist ministers in those days had to transfer to another church every three years or so, and the whole family was uprooted and moved to another manse in a strange and sometimes distant town. It was many years before my two brothers or I could recognise any place as home. My mother was a blue-stocking, an English graduate who had not been allowed to read architecture because she was a woman.

Having had to resign from a senior teaching post on marriage (as was obligatory at that time), she fought to return to her profession. She won the battle during the period of skills shortage during the War and ultimately became a lecturer in a teachers' training college. I was thus brought up in a happy North Country atmosphere of sexual equality, acerbic comment, books and music.

The War was a defining period of my life. I was almost eight years old when it started and thirteen when it finished. I was nearly evacuated to cousins in Canada, but my parents decided to tough it out and send me away to school (my brothers were still too young). It was a sensible decision as my father was running a slum church in Manchester and was much concerned with those made homeless during the blitz. I got used to travelling by myself in school parties to my prep school in Berkshire, and later to Uppingham, where my school (Kingswood) had been evacuated.

My parents stirred my interest in the medieval period. A couple of wartime bicycling holidays in Yorkshire, visiting abbeys and other monuments, and trips into northern Cheshire to visit churches, stimulated me to use free time at school to visit other sites. Encouraged by the school archaeological society, I even took part in a dig on a beaker burial at Glaston, Rutland. Towards the end of the War my father, clearly in need of a rest, was moved to the Isle of Man. Here, on the stone memorial crosses, I met the Vikings for the first time and was deeply impressed. In 1946 my school came out of exile and returned to Bath--and now I was surrounded by archaeology. Stimulated by one of the classics masters, John Gardner (an FSA), I spent more time than I should looking at monuments and collecting flints and pot-sherds. I also ran an embryonic school museum and was secretary of the archaeological society.

I was taught medieval history by ES. Cook, who had taken a research degree with the great T.F. Tout, and it was his good teaching that got me (despite dyslexia) into Cambridge. I immediately changed from history to archaeology and, supervised by Glyn Daniel and Peter Hunter-Blair, elected to read that extraordinary course, invented by Hector Munro Chadwick and then run by Bruce Dickins, enticingly named Anglo-Saxon and Kindred Studies (a.k.a. Section B of the Archaeological and Anthropological Tripos), followed by a part II in archaeology. The former included a goodly dollop of archaeology, as well as Old English and Old Norse. The Viking Age was taught by Toti de Navarro, who was not really interested in it; but there was some salvation in that the University Field Club had taken on the excavation of an AngloSaxon cemetery at Melbourn. Advised by the highly eccentric but deeply gifted Tom Lethbridge, I was given the responsibility of publishing it--which I did two years after I had graduated. …

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