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It’s beginning to feel a lot like Autumn

August 24, 2014

Summer appears to be over, at least in this corner of Britain, and we’re heading towards autumn far too quickly for my liking. Don’t get me wrong, I love autumn: the smell of blackberries and bonfires, the colours of the changing leaves, the chill in the morning and evening, the clear skies and sunshine. Because I’ve spent so much of my life in academia I don’t associate this time of year with melancholy, I see autumn as the New Year, it’s a time of beginnings as far as I’m concerned, of exciting opportunities and endless possibilities. I buy stationary and write timetables in coloured ink and make resolutions at this time of the year rather than at the beginning of January. But, at the risk of fulfilling a cultural stereotype here, I’m going to talk about the weather – it’s raining, it’s grey, windy and miserable* it should still be summer and this isn’t my idea of a decent autumn. I’m not impressed!

However, despite the sogginess, there are some exciting autumnal changes coming up. We’re launching Member of the Month in September, Sam Hardy has kindly agreed to be the first to do this and be our test monkey! Look out for his post, it will be fascinating since, as I’ve said before, his blog should be required reading for all archaeologists and politicians. And, do get involved, leave comments for him, for us, suggest other members we should approach for detailed profiles – I know I keep saying it, but this is your forum so tell us what you’d like to see here. On that note the book review went down well so we’ll be doing those as a regular feature, probably covering more recent articles and books though! Again, if there’s anything you’d particularly like to see reviewed – maybe your own article or book? – get in touch in the comments or by email.

The other – major – change is that I’m taking a month off. We’re welcoming a new family member this month and I’m taking September to settle her in, as I said, autumn is the time for new beginnings! However, the blog will continue under the expert guidance of Kate so I’m leaving you in very good hands.

Have a great September, see you in October when we’ll be in autumn proper and I’ll no doubt be wittering about seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness



August 20, 2014


The Rash Adventurer, a life of John Pendlebury.

August 15, 2014


I’m on holiday this week and as part of my holiday reading I packed Imogen Grundon’s book. I’ve had it for several years on my ‘to read’ list but hadn’t realised it was published back in 2007, so this is hardly an up-to-date review! I’m sure there’s more recent work that has been written about Pendlebury, but as far as I’m aware this is the only full-scale biography. My apologies if I’m wrong about this and do let me know.

Pendlebury, as I’m sure you’re all aware, excavated Amarna, was curator of Knossos and excavated on Mount Dikti and helped organise Cretan Resistance during the 2nd World War. Imogen Grundon’s biography draws on the considerable amount of information available about Pendlebury’s life – his letters, site diaries, SOE reports and testimonies from his friends and acquaintances. As a historian of 20th century British archaeology I, inevitably, read a lot of biographies and have used a lot of archival biographical information in my writing and I was initially envious of the resources she could draw upon but after 300+ pages I’d say more selectivity would have made this a more enjoyable read.

This is very much an old style biography, it begins with John Pendlebury’s parents, there’s a paragraph or two about his grandparents, before moving back to Pendlebury himself. It is the traditional summary of a life – ancestry, birth, education, achievements, death and legacy. It’s an examination of a whole life rather than an intellectual biography, or one that concentrates solely on Pendlebury’s archaeological or military work. And, it appears to have been written with the sincere belief that lives can be traced, pinned down, explained with no ambiguity, no hesitations or lacunae. Reading the bibliography every possible source appears to have been consulted, but there are no critical/postmodern biographical approaches in that bibliography and no evidence in the writing that any have been read.

I‘d have said it would be hard to write a bad book about such a fascinating character and Imogen Grundon was ideally placed to write an exceptional biography. As an archaeologist who has worked at Tell el Amarna, Knossos, and Mycenae, she is, as Patrick Leigh Fermor says in the foreword, extremely well equipped to interpret John Pendlebury’s life. The book is around 165,000 words long, that’s a lot of information about a man who died when he was only 37– and much of it is repetitive. With this level of information overload I found my interest decreased rather than increased as I read. After school and university the chapters cover months rather than years and parts of the book turn into a slog rather than a fun read. Round about page 100 I had to take time off and read something else and I’m the type of person who will endlessly read a cereal packet or the toothpaste tube if there’s nothing else on offer.

Every part of his Pendlebury’s life is detailed and letters or diary entries quoted exhaustively, even exhaustingly. And, I began to question if I really needed to know about Pendlebury’s undergraduate drinking clubs. Was it included to illustrate his chivalry and whimsicality? If so it backfires, as a university lecturer and ex-student I found this section tedious rather than intriguing. And this is the problem, Imogen Grundon discusses every aspect of Pendlebury’s life, including archival quotes and first-hand accounts to illustrate her point, but often the information is irrelevant anyway, doing nothing to further the story. For example, Pendlebury certainly had one extramarital affair, possibly more, but what does that actually tell us about him? The information is given without any interpretation or context. Was the affair serious? Did it affect his relationship with his wife Hilda, with his volunteers, with his Cretan workforce? Were affairs commonplace amongst archaeologists of this period? In wider society? None of this is discussed, it’s seemingly enough to tell us that the affair occurred and is verified by reference to various sources.

Equally frustrating are the omissions. How did Hilda Pendlebury feel about giving up her own work to further Pendlebury’s career? It was her scholarship and interest in archaeology that attracted him initially, what happened when her interests were subsumed in his? Imogen Grundon tells us that in 1931 ‘With Hilda he had begun work on a guide to the stratigraphical museum at Knossos’ (IG 2007: 144). This came out under the sole authorship of John Pendlebury – how did Hilda feel about this? Again this isn’t discussed, Hilda is portrayed increasingly unsympathetically throughout the book and after Pendlebury’s death her life is dismissed in a single sentence.

This is a very well researched biography but, as I said, it’s too traditional and uncritical to make it an academic work, yet too wordy and detailed for a popular book. With sharper editing it and cutting out all the repetitions and irrelevancies it would have been a much more enjoyable read. It’s definitely a work that demonstrates the adage ‘less is more’.

Ok, that’s my attempt at a book review, I’m sure you can all do better, give it a go! Email your reviews to

and, as ever, have a great weekend – I’ll be reading this


William ‘Strata’ Smith

August 8, 2014

I’m on my way to Scarborough, home of the Rotunda Museum

This small, but perfectly formed, museum was built in 1829 to specifications suggested by William ‘Strata’ Smith – also known, inevitably, as the ‘Father of English Geology’.  These days it’s been beautifully refurbished and the top floors are back to how Smith envisaged them. They reflect the geological history of Yorkshire arranged stratigraphically with the youngest fossils in the topmost cases and the older ones beneath. The cases are the original 1850s ones, again refurbished

Rotunda Museum - copyright Scarborough Museums Trust

Rotunda Museum – copyright Scarborough Museums Trust

It is a lovely place to visit, gently educational and mixes old style museum presentation with fantastic hands on interactive stuff. I have to confess I have a sneaking nostalgia for how it used to be, admittedly I have a very unreliable memory* but I recall it being chaotic and incomprehensible with Pacific Island weaponry next to Amazonian shrunken heads and dinosaur bones mixed with Victorian ceramics.

Rotunda museum interiorCC BY-SA 2.0 Ken Walton - From

Rotunda museum interiorCC BY-SA 2.0
Ken Walton – From

*I’ve been informed that my memory of a stuffed giraffe at the bottom of the spiral staircase is completely false, sadly

These days it is much easier to navigate and you do get to see an entire plesiosaur as well as being able to create your own digital dinosaur, what you don’t get is much about William Smith. Even the museum’s website gives the very basics about him and directs you to the British Geology Survey (where there is considerably more information). As I said, it is a small museum, but even so one would expect a little more information about the man who discovered that the characteristics of rocks, could be identified by the fossils within them and that particular fossil successions were always found in the same layers of sedimentary rock which could be correlated across Britain. And, of course, he drew the first geological map of England and Wales.

As I’m sure you all know, Smith was born in Oxfordshire in 1769, his family were small-scale farmers – respectable but certainly not wealthy. Smith became interested in fossil collecting at a young age, he was also a skilled draughtsman and when he was eighteen he was apprenticed to a surveyor. This apprenticeship took him all over the Midlands and Southern England at the time when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, canals, railways, viaducts and aqueducts were all being constructed and Smith was on the spot to observe deep excavations and learn all about the different fossil types. In 1794 Smith was supervising the construction of the Somerset Coal Canal linking the River Kennet and the Avon Canal. It was during this work – which took him all over England visiting other established and unfinished canals – that Smith realised that the rock layers were established in a predictable pattern, that these layers could be identified by the fossils they contained and that the same fossil successions occurred in different parts of the country. He developed the theory he named ‘the principle of faunal succession’ which stated that fossils of fauna and flora succeed each other vertically in a specific, reliable order and can be used to date those rock layers.

Cutting a very long story short, Smith travelled Britain looking at rock strata, corresponding with other geologists and natural historians and through Sir Joseph Banks’ sponsorship and public subscription he finally published his geological map of Britain in 1815.

In a just world Smith’s map would have been an instant best seller and the scientific establishment would have accepted and praised his hard work. Sadly, this wasn’t the case, the high cost of publishing his map meant Smith had to sell his fossil collection to the Treasury, his map was quickly plagiarised and the copies were sold far more cheaply than his original work, the newly formed Geological Society of London refused him an honorary fellowship, and in 1819 he was imprisoned for debt.

Smith became an itinerant surveyor, he continued to publish books and reports on fossil succession, geology and and produced a series of twenty one large-scale county maps that formed his Geological Atlas of England and Wales (1819-24). Between 1824 and 1826 he was living and working in Scarborough, hence his involvement with the Rotunda Museum.

Finally, in 1831, Smith’s contribution to geology was acknowledged; the Geological Society of London honoured him with the first Wollaston Medal, in 1832 he was granted a pension of £100 per annum by King William IV, in 1835 Trinity College, Dublin awarded him an honorary doctorate and in 1838 he became a member of the commission which selected the stone for the new Houses of Parliament. He died in 1839 from a chill caught on the way to a scientific meeting in Birmingham.

Whether Smith was a brilliant geologist I have no idea, I’m taking the assessment of him by other geologists on trust since I have no expertise in this area. My interest in him is as an outsider who eventually made good, someone whose class dictated how he was received in the world of academia and how similar his experiences were to those of many antiquarians and archaeologists whose backgrounds were equally modest. I also love his fossil drawings

Isn’t that beautiful? And, thanks to the University of New Hampshire and the Smith’s books and illustrations are available on the web. Go and look and enjoy.

Have a great weekend – I’ll be visiting the Rotunda, paddling in the sea and eating ice cream


For more information on William Smith see:

Simon Winchester, 2001. The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the birth of modern geology. London: Viking.


Current Approaches to British and Irish Prehistory: a Liverpool Symposium

August 5, 2014

Another reminder:

Jonathan Trigg is organising a conference taking place in Liverpool on the 21st and 22nd of  August, he says ‘It is a prehistory conference, but I am aware of at least two papers on the History of Archaeology  – mine on the history of prehistory at the University of Liverpool, and Colin Wallace’s on ‘New Deal’ Archaeology…’ Details can be found here

There is also a facebook page for the group, and a twitter hash tag (#CABPLiverpool).


Second Call for Classicists

August 5, 2014

A reminder that Claire Millington is putting together a Wikipedia editathon on the 23rd of September to improve the quality of women classicists’ pages on Wikipedia (

Claire wants names of women classical scholars and archaeologists, bibliographies, references and general background information would be wonderful, but she really needs those names!

Here’s how you can contribute


August 1, 2014


Bishnupriya Basak ( University of Calcutta

I did my Ph.D (1998) in Prehistory from Deccan College and am currently Senior Faculty, Department of Archaeology, University of Calcutta, Kolkata, India. Archaeological theory and history of archaeology are my two areas of interest apart from prehistoric fieldwork. Through my ongoing research I am trying to understand the development of prehistoric archaeology, ethnology and geological sciences in India (esp. eastern India) in the last quarter of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century. I am interested to understand the colonial mind in exposition of an alien past in the colony. None of these nascent disciplines engaged the attention of the Archaeological Survey of India, established in 1861, where the preoccupation was chiefly with the monumental. I am trying to see how far the pursuit of these disciplines in the metropolis exercised its sway on the perceptions of the officers/individuals researching on them in the colony. An important strand here is the collection history of objects described as ‘prehistoric’ or ‘ethnological.’ I have already published some papers in peer reviewed journals.

I am also interested in local history and the development of vernacular tradition in archaeology in pre-independent Bengal.

Welcome and many thanks for joining our community!


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