A Politician's Perspective of Archaeology. (Special Section)

By Dalyell, Tam | Antiquity, December 2002 | Go to article overview

A Politician's Perspective of Archaeology. (Special Section)


Dalyell, Tam, Antiquity


Typical Politician's Question! `Does archaeology have a relevance in this modern world?' To which I respond with an emphatic `Yes'. Human beings have a yearning to find out about our past. If it was not so, how could it be that for 50 years, ever-evolving television programmes on archaeology have commanded ever huger and ever more eager audiences? But there is a second consideration, among many arguments for archaeology, which I must mention. As an MP concerned with industry and economics, I have the strong anecdotal impression that employers have come to regard archaeology graduates as among their most desirable employees. Why? Because the study of archaeology creates a `Can-do' attitude of mind, on top of a discipline that demands reasoning and deduction. It sticks in my mind that visiting one of my old lecturers, who had become Master of St John's, the late Sir Harry Hinsley, to ask. for his advice about intelligence matters pertaining to the Falklands War, he observed: `Of course, Glyn (Daniel)'s archaeology students are far more use than my (history) students'. Half-jesting and wholly in earnest, he had a point. University archaeology, and the inevitable field-work that goes with it, is excellent value for money. Of significant, albeit unquantifiable, value to the country is the goodwill engendered in cultural and international relations by British archaeological teams digging abroad--provided they are not Carter/ Schliemann-like trophy hunters. Their chief concern must be the context in which artefacts are found, and their treasure the addition to scholarship that any finds produce. Sensitive archaeologists can be exceedingly effective diplomats!

The editor of ANTIQUITY asked me for 3000 words on `What archaeology means to you'. I can but respond with reflections and experiences that will seem to many readers to be overly personal and reliant on the good fortune of the opportunities for travel that come to a politician, and of a wife who was a Member of the Historic Buildings Council, the Ancient Monuments Board, the Royal Fine Art Commission, and is currently Chairman of the Royal Commission on the Historical and Ancient Monuments of Scotland.

In my 70th year, I realize that a layman's appraisal of a great archaeological site is partly determined by the age and stage in life that it was visited and by the circumstances in which the visit took place. In January 1964, on our honeymoon, I tumbled to something else--that leaders of countries have an instant soft spot for a foreign politician who has taken an interest in the ancient history of their country. On my last night in Cairo, albeit I had made the request to see him, I was summoned at midnight to rise from my hotel bed, and driven to President Nasser's private residence. It was clear that a major reason for bothering to see a 29-year-old, newly-elected British MP, only seven years after the Suez conflict, lay in his observation that any couple who made Abu Simbel the ultimate destination of their honeymoon must have a respect for Egypt. I have found that interest in their ancient past is a passport to the present rulers of many lands.

My interest, I suppose, was kindled by the visit to our house in Scotland (supposedly built on a Pictish site) by a friend of my parents, a bushy-faced, hairy man in a huge sombrero hat, who, in his Australian twang, was the most enthralling story-teller a seven-year-old could imagine: Professor Gordon Childe.

It was my mother who suggested to the second archaeologist of my childhood that he should dig at a strange mound in the Bathgate Hills in West Lothian which, according to her family tradition, was a Pictish hill beacon-fort. The career of the then young Stuart Piggott took off, when he excavated Cairn Papple, now judged by Historic Scotland to be the most important Bronze Age site on the Scottish mainland. My dad, too, had a passionate concern with the supreme importance of learning what could be learned about our ancestors before the destruction of a site, and of perceiving that which ought to be preserved. …

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