The Flying Dutchman Reaches Port

By Megaw, Vincent | Antiquity, June 2012 | Go to article overview

The Flying Dutchman Reaches Port

Megaw, Vincent, Antiquity

Christopher Hawkes, foundation Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford, was once asked whether he knew a young archaeologist called Vincent Megaw. He responded: "Megaw? Megaw? There's a whole tribe of Megaws!" This was a slight exaggeration. I was born in Stanmore, Middlesex, in 1934 to a Dutch Jewish mother, Therese, a talented pianist and mezzo-soprano whose parents were taken to Auschwitz in 1942 and an Ulster Protestant father, Eric, a pioneer of ultra short-wave propagation who died at the age of 48 (Figure 1). One uncle, A.H.S. (Peter) Megaw was a distinguished Byzantinist and great singer of contemporary Greek songs. He was the last Director of Antiquities of the former Colony of Cyprus and then Director of the British School ar Athens. His younger brother, Basil, read Archaeology at Peterhouse where he met (and subsequently married) Eleanor Hardy--family mythology has it that they got engaged while studying Early Bronze Age decorated axes (Megaw & Hardy 1938). Eleanor carne from a wealthy Isle of Man family and it was in Man that they spent their earlier years. Basil was Director and Librarian of the Manx Museum, and during the war he exploited the presence of interned enemy aliens as skilled excavators. Prominent was Gerhard Bersu, First Director of the R/3mischGermanische Kommission until his enforced retirement by the Nazis in 1935. Another briefly interned scholar was Paul Jacobsthal, whose life's work (1944) was to be a continuing influence on mine (on Jacobsthal in Germany, see now Crawford & Ulmschneider 2011).

It was thanks to the war that my archaeological and museological education began in earnest. In 1940 I was evacuated to my grandparents' Belfast home, which contained a veritable family cabinet of curiosities--a Neolithic ground stone axe from the Tievebulliagh quarries, Bronze Age sherds, a mummified ibis and the dress sword which had belonged to an ancestor who in 1898 had been with Kitchener at the battle of Omdurman. These objects, and much else besides, had been assembled by my uncles when they were still at school. Armed with the Everyday Life Series (Quennell & Quennell 1921, 1922) and the British Museum Early Iron Age Guide (Smith 1925) given to me by my grandmother and under the guidance of an honorary uncle, T.G.E Patterson, who was Curator of Armagh County Museum from 1930 to 1970 (Evans 1975), I ordered and re-ordered the artefacts, laboriously typing labels on my grandfather's precious Remington. I was after all only 8 or 9 years old.

Later I enrolled, aged 16, as a member of the London Institute of Archaeology at five shillings per annum. This was a money spinner invented by Mortimer Wheeler, the Institute's first director and allowed visits to read in its library in its temporary home in St John's Lodge, a splendid Nash building in Regent's Park now belonging to the Sultan of Brunel. There one had to run the gauntlet of Kathleen Kenyon's massive dogs, and later the peril of being driven home by Vere Gordon Childe, one of the world's great bad drivers. In truth, though, I was not particularly happy in austerity London. Having failed dismally (and deservedly) in an attempt to read classics and follow my uncles to Peterhouse, I didn't immediately jump at my headmaster's recommendation to apply for a trainee managerial position at Harrods. And so my uncle Basil suggested I go to see Beatrice de Cardi. At that time the indestructible Bea, now 98 and once described as part-Indiana Jones, part-Miss Marple, was Secretary of the Council for British Archaeology--indeed, in many ways she was the CBA. Making my way up to the Kensington garret where the CBA office then was, Bea asked me about my current interests--too many, too vague--and recommended studying archaeology at Edinburgh where her friends Stuart Piggott and Richard Atkinson were and where she thought I might find both the city and the university congenial.


She was of course absolutely right. …

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