From Digger to Director, Cornwall to Caithness

By Mercer, Roger | Antiquity, December 2006 | Go to article overview
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From Digger to Director, Cornwall to Caithness


Mercer, Roger, Antiquity


Shortly before his death my father confessed to me that we had narrowly missed being killed by a V2. A few months after my birth in 1944, he had been obliged (in order to avoid 'germs on the buses') to wheel my pram from home in Hendon, North London, to Kilburn where my grandparents lived. On his return journey, through what is sometimes called West Hampstead, he was stunned by an enormous explosion and on recovery of his senses was alarmed to find that the pram was missing. He located it within a nearby shop doorway, on its side and a bit scuffed, but with clear signs of the surviving occupant. He decided that--on a 'need to know' basis--the incident was one that we (and he could rely on me) would keep to ourselves. However he had always looked for traces of mental delinquency induced by the blast, and he thought he had found them in my quite inexplicable and early determination to be an archaeologist, a career that in the early 1950's was a by-word for exclusivity, little chance of fulfilment, and no money.

My grandfather was a vehicle mechanic who had settled in London after serving in the First World War. He was immensely lucky to have survived First and Third Ypres with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, although he was left with his body full of 'bits' that as a little boy, I'm afraid, I liked to feel. From his youth he had collected flints on Blackheath near Wonersh, Surrey where he was born, and one of these, an extraordinarily beautiful barbed and tanged arrowhead, fascinated me. From the age of eight I was determined upon two things: to be a test pilot and to be an archaeologist. I was told that the former was impossible due to defective eyesight, and the latter was wildly inadvisable.

A short stay in the summer of 1956 with a great aunt in North Cerney, near Cirencester, Glos., brought me away from NW London into the countryside and to a locality full of archaeology. What brilliance that an eleven year-old boy, whom nobody knew, was immediately accepted as a volunteer on a real dig, designed to trace the course of the Roman Ermine Street through the town. After Corinium I went to work on excavations whenever I could. I excavated with the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society on a number of sites run by Philip Suggett and John Kent along Grims Dyke. I took part in excavations run by Desmond Collins at Moor Park in search of a possible Mesolithic occupation. By 1961 I was working at Fishbourne for Barry Cunliffe and in 1963 worked at the Neolithic causewayed enclosure site directed by Reay Robertson Mackay at Staines (cycling every day along a route from Harrow that would now probably mean certain death). By 1963 I had a complete archaeological 'kit' of camera, prismatic compass, trowel, tapes, foldable entrenching tool, etc. and an expanding library.

My school (Harrow County Grammar) was old-fashioned by modern standards with much emphasis on rugger, which I loathed, and on the Combined Cadet Force, in which having at last--at about the age of fifteen--got the message about organisations and other people, I rose to some height. I found (and still do find) 'the military' fascinating as a caste and as an organisation. This led me on to join the Officers' Training Corps at university and ultimately to a TAVR Commission in the Royal Scots. The military 'can do' attitude has had an enormously important impact on my life, and I learnt so much there--riding, skiing, driving, mapping, double entry book-keeping among many other things. However, I never did learn to shoot straight, and any service to my country was always likely to have been vitiated by that shortcoming.

University

I was interviewed for admission to the University at Cardiff (Richard Atkinson--"Do you read novels, and if so what are your favourites?" RJM--"Yes, P.G. Wodehouse." RJCA--"At last an honest man!") but chose Edinburgh--why, I cannot now recall. Edinburgh was an almighty culture shock in 1963 for someone fostered in the suburbs of London.

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