A View from the Old School

By Rahtz, Philip | Antiquity, September 2001 | Go to article overview

A View from the Old School


Rahtz, Philip, Antiquity


The archaeological profession is indebted to Geoff Wainwright (GW) for his masterly essay on the political history of British archaeology since the war. He has often been seen as representing whatever state agency supported archaeology. GW has taken us in a long tour of the 50 years I have been in archaeology, through the changes of name -- Office of Works, Ministry of Works, Ministry of Public Building and Works, Department of the Environment and English Heritage. These agencies of the State were looked to as the major source for funding for field archaeology; we who were involved were grateful for such support, even if the money was sometimes slow to come (hence the 1950s joke about `the Spectre (or expectorate) of Ancient Emoluments'). The odd thing is that archaeology-as-excavation was not the business of these State bodies, which was properly to conserve and display `Ancient Monuments'.

It was Bryan O'Neil, then Chief Inspector, who changed this in the post-war years. He diverted resources to rescue excavation (and a few to `safe' sites) using both inspectors and free-lancers such as myself, the latter being paid two guineas a day and whatever subsistence they could wangle. One of the `villains' in GW's piece, Richard Atkinson, was caught embarrassingly living in a caravan, while drawing hotel subsistence, on a professorial rate, and while in receipt of a salary from his university.

GW has been in a unique position to trace the complex changes in State support, as an `insider'; I believe that this is the first time the story has been set out in detail, and must be a fundamental text for all students of the history of archaeology of Britain, with an invaluable bibliography.

GW emphasizes the scale of work that was done in the 1960s, in major projects, by the inspectors, and other senior archaeologists such as Cunliffe, Alcock, Biddle, Barker and Coles. He entered the fray in 1963, with a dedicated team who `toured the country on a semi-permanent basis, bringing prosperity to pubs and local economies wherever they settled'. Indeed, one could observe their lives in `apres-dig' evenings pouring beer over each other. One's subscription to the December ANTIQUITY was worth it just for the jolly photographs of GW and his merry persons in 1968 and 1973, the former with two guitars, two ukuleles and even a Welsh harp! (Who are all these people? -- there are familiar faces -- where are they now?) In 1965 they were the first to use JCBs to strip soil off chalk on a large scale, culminating in the great henge digs (at Durrington Walls) also with 40 workmen and a fleet of JCBs. This brought down the wrath of the Wessex establishment, led by Richard Atkinson, who tried to get GW sacked; in spite of his own earlier questionable tunnelling operation at Silbury Hill.

Although I was on various committees during these decades, both local and national, there is much in this piece that was news to me; there was, it seems, a sub-text that was not apparent to `outsiders'.

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