Retrospective

By Rahtz, Philip | Antiquity, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Retrospective


Rahtz, Philip, Antiquity


A career in archaeology

Little in my childhood or school (in Bristol, in the west of England) predisposed me to a life in archaeology. My family assiduously looked at churches, castles, stone circles and earthworks. My schoolmaster father was well-informed on a number of subjects, but not archaeology. I was conspicuously weak at school (because I was bored), although I read widely; and left at the age of 16. I drifted into accountancy. Then I was in the Royal Air Force (1941- 6). I was stationed only a few miles from Stonehenge; and met Ernest Greenfield, who promptly got me keenly interested in archaeology and gave me intensive tours of the numerous prehistoric sites in the Stonehenge area--barrows and other earthworks. Ernest had had a long history of being an amateur archaeologist in Kent; he gave me as background material a copy of Richard Atkinson's Field Archaeology (Atkinson 1946), which instilled in me a keen desire to do an excavation myself.

Even before demobilisation after the end of the war (I was able to get home for leaves and weekends), I had begun a dig of my own near Bristol. It seems incredible now, over half a century later, that there was no legal obstruction to this--all one had to do was ask the farmer in whose land any chosen site was (I thought my mound was a Bronze Age barrow, but it turned out to be a medieval windmill mound). There was not much archaeology being done in Britain in 1946, so I joined a small number of amateur archaeologists. I had no training, qualification or experience (I had never seen an excavation). All I had were some rudimentary tools, also a prismatic compass, a measuring tape and camera; and of course my copy of Atkinson; and my wife and a few friends to help with the digging. I coped as well as could be expected, and the dig was done in 1946-48 (a trench across the mound); but (equally important and unusual for the time) I wrote it up and published it (Rahtz & Rahtz 1958). By 1949 I was known by the few local professional archaeologists. There was also a visit from Brian St J O'Neil, the then head of archaeology in the Ministry of Works, the government body which organised whatever digging was done before, during and after the war: mostly work on sites threatened by wartime operations or coastal erosion. He came to see if I should be stopped! But luckily I came across as a promising new recruit into the small number of archaeologists around in Britain at the time (the professionals were themselves mostly without formal training).

The windmill mound had introduced me to the difficulties of excavation (also the hard labour), recording and publication. This was followed by digging another mound nearby, with other earthworks around it. This was again not a barrow, but was Pagans Hill, a Roman temple and its ancillary well and buildings, which were extensively excavated in 1949-53. Thus quite accidentally I was plunged into both Roman and medieval archaeology, and by 1953 I was experienced in both field and study. The temple was duly published (Rahtz 1951; Rahtz & Harris 1957).

To make a living after the war, I was trained as a schoolmaster and taught in two schools. I also set up as a photographer in my Bristol home--this experience brought useful income to support an expanding family and was very useful in excavation. School teaching was highly uncongenial, and luckily archaeology saved me. Not far from my Roman temple, a new reservoir (Chew Valley) was soon to be made, planned before the war. In the 485ha (1200 acres) to be flooded, there was in 1953 only one known site, a suspected Roman road. O'Neil asked me to dig a trench across it--and I'd be paid[ Ernest Greenfield came to visit and through fieldwork we then located other sites, by inspecting the upcast from mole-holes, and observing the ground surface as it was cleared by huge machines. Within a few months, we were both fully employed and I had resigned from teaching. For two years, winter and summer, all weathers, we dug sites of every period--Neolithic to post-medieval. …

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