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November 14, 2014
Wiltshire, OS and police map

Wiltshire, OS and police map

I’ve been thinking a great deal about Wiltshire in the past few weeks. It all stems from reviewing Richard Morris’ Time’s AnvilIn a casual aside he suggests one of the reasons Wessex and the chalklands have been given so much prominence in archaeology is because so many archaeologists came from that area (Morris 2013: 151). This remark kept coming back to me and to my surprise I felt increasingly irritated by it and also very defensive of the county. I knew I was over-reacting, but in my head I repeatedly argued that, in fact, Wiltshire and the rest of Wessex is very important in British archaeology. It may not have the earliest occupation sites, it may not have the significance it had in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and obviously Piggott’s Wessex Culture is no longer accepted by prehistorians, but that doesn’t mean the county is irrelevant to archaeology – Stonehenge, Avebury, Silbury Hill and the whole landscape around Windmill Hill – surely they rate as important in archaeological terms?

Windmill Hill - image from English Heritage

Windmill Hill – image from English Heritage

As part of my interior argument with Morris I began to catalogue all the sites I’d been involved with: I’ve dug a Mesolithic flint working site next to Avebury circle, been involved in the excavations on Windmill Hill, at West Kennet and other Neolithic and Bronze Age sites, investigated the water meadows and environment of West Overton, I’ve been through the archives of All Cannings Cross, Battlesbury Camp and Yarnbury Castle, I’ve visited Littlecote Roman Villa, the Baths at Bath (technically Somerset, I know but close enough!) admired Wiltshire Saxon churches and if you want medieval archaeology then Wiltshire can supply that too. Tudor and Elizabethan architecture more your thing? Try Avebury Manor, Corsham Court, Lacock Abbey or Longleat. The Georgians are equally well represented, as are the Victorians and if you want modernism it’s here too. And, as if that wasn’t enough, there’s an ongoing major experimental archaeology project.

Overton Down Experimental Earthwork image from

Overton Down Experimental Earthwork image from

It was only when I read Helen’s article about Dora Emerson Chapman, who was married to Alexander Keiller,  that I began to unpick why I was being so oversensitive. As you may have gathered I’ve spent a lot of time in Wiltshire, particularly the area around Avebury. As an undergraduate I went there annually, it’s where I learnt how to be an archaeologist and, at the same time, learnt how to be an adult. It was the setting for outrageous behaviour, appalling hangovers, hilarious evenings, fantastic friendships, and many other superlatives that I’m sure you too will have experienced (although I hope only I had the misfortune to experience the day of the ex-boyfriends). And, as a postgraduate I repeatedly returned to do research. As a student I’d been taught about Aubrey, Stukeley, Colt Hoare and Pitt Rivers, but those annual Wiltshire fieldtrips had also introduced other, less well known, archaeologists. Anyone who has visited Avebury or Devizes museum will be aware of Alexander Keiller or the Cunningtons and the mark they made on the Wiltshire landscape.

Obviously as an undergraduate I was way more interested in Keiller, Lynda’s book hadn’t been published then but the stories about Keiller were still circulating. Unless it’s corroborated by Lynda I have no idea what’s true and what’s fiction, and I’ve undoubtedly forgotten much of what I was told, all of it scurrilous, all of it entertaining! It was only as a postgraduate that I became interested in the Cunningtons and realised that the offspring of William Cunnington of Cunnington and Colt Hoare fame had continued the family interest in archaeology. When Keiller was using his vast wealth to dig Windmill Hill and re-errect stones at Avebury Ben and Maud Cunnington were the active archaeological members of the Cunnington clan, digging a wide variety of sites in North Wiltshire. A clash between these two camps was inevitable: on the one hand a respectable middle class woman, daughter of a doctor, married to a leading Devizes merchant and, by marriage, part of an archaeological dynasty stretching back 100 years; on the other a wealthy upper-class man who cared nothing for parochial morality or mores, drank far too much, flaunted his mistresses, and, worst of all, possibly only had a dilettante interest in archaeology. Add in the death of the Cunningtons’ only child (a doctor) in the First World War and Keiller’s survival of the same and a feud was unavoidable. As a story it has everything, class, gender, heroic tragedy, sex, alcohol, fast cars and, um, archaeology. Ok so archaeology isn’t a necessary ingredient in most such stories, but here it was very important to the combatants, the correct way to do archaeology, the correct people to do archaeology and the purpose of archaeology. And, it was this interplay of competing ideas about archaeology and the influence of class and gender that sparked my interest in history. My very first published history of archaeology paper was a study of Maud Cunnington and necessarily also discussed Keiller. Sadly the heroic tragedy, sex, alcohol and fast cars were only mentioned in passing while the archaeology took the lead role – perhaps I should go back and rewrite it? On second thoughts, given how much I’ve struggled to read this, perhaps I’m not cut out for drama.

Anyway, wrenching this post back to a semblance of a point, I realised I was reacting so irrationally and defensively to Morris comment because my life has been so intertwined with those chalklands, excavation, research, family  – they all lead back to Wiltshire and no matter how far I’ve moved away from those early influences they’re still an important part of who I am today.

My next question is – am I alone in this or do we all have places (or people) we can identify as the starting point of our journey along the history of archaeology? If not, why did you become a historian of archaeology? Answers – please, I’m intrigued! – in the comments, as Howard’s pointed out the weblink to the email account isn’tworking at the moment

Have a great weekend



4 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate Sheppard permalink
    November 14, 2014 6:14 pm

    Okay, first, I need to know–WHAT was the “day of the ex-boyfriends”? And second, I attribute my starting point to crunchy Great Man Flinders Petrie and his passing mention of Margaret Murray in his autobiography. He said of his 1903-04 season that “My colleague, Miss Murray, joined us.” Then I said, “who is this Miss Murray?” and I found out she was only integral to Petrie’s whole career’s successes and pretty kick ass herself. I get angry when people mis- or underrepresent her. Don’t get me started!!

  2. harngroup permalink*
    November 17, 2014 1:27 am

    I could tell you Kate, but then I’d have to kill you.
    And when you think how much of Margaret Murray’s autobiography was devoted to Petrie . . . She was definitely kick ass. Great starting point.


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