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Book Review – Recollections of a Female Archaeologist: A Life of Brenda Swinbank

June 29, 2018


Recollections of a Female Archaeologist: A Life of Brenda Swinbank, Suzanne Heywood. Blurb, 2018. 

Thea De Armond

This slim volume gives an account of the life and work of Brenda Swinbank, a relatively little-known British archaeologist, whose published works are particularly occupied with the Vallum, an enormous earthwork associated with Hadrian’s Wall.

Swinbank was born on 2 February 1929, in Ackworth, England, 150 miles from the structure that defined her career. She studied history in Durham, becoming particularly enamored of the archaeology of Roman Britain after hearing Eric Birley (1906-1995) lecture on the topic. With Birley’s training and support, Swinbank—in Birley’s words—“developed into a really competent excavator and field archaeologist” (44). She secured a two-year research studentship in Durham, during which she conducted a series of excavations along Hadrian’s Wall. The fruits of that research—Swinbank’s doctoral dissertation, “The Vallum Reconsidered (Research 1949-52)”—made her the third British woman to be awarded a PhD for a thesis on the archaeology of Britain.

Despite Swinbank’s scholarly prowess, she was unable to secure a permanent university position. Thus, in the autumn of 1958, she took up an appointment as Assistant History Mistress at the Friends’ School in Ackworth. There, she met and married the school’s English teacher, Peter Heywood. Swinbank’s marriage to Heywood took her away from Roman Britain. It brought other, more pressing responsibilities, particularly, children, including a sickly daughter who suffered an untimely death. But in the late 1960s, she connected with Peter Wenham (1911-1990), a fellow acolyte of Eric Birley, whom she began to assist with lectures and excavations. Then, in 1974, Swinbank met Derek Phillips—another Durham archaeologist—whom she joined in the post-excavation processing of the great mass of archaeological materials (“rooms full of documents, soil samples, pieces of pottery and bone, 3,000 photographs, chunks of carved stonework and even one large block of dirt weighing several tonnes,” 74), unearthed during the stabilization of the York Minster. Upon publishing the first volume of the York Minster materials, Swinbank returned to her old work on the Vallum, which, with the assistance of David Breeze, she succeeded in publishing in the late 2000s.

Recollections of a Female Archaeologist was authored by Swinbank’s daughter-in-law, Suzanne Heywood (Heywood is married to Swinbank’s son Jeremy Heywood, a senior British civil servant, currently the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service). Accordingly, it is more family history than scholarly. The text is rife with anecdote (e.g., “neither Peter nor his sons could ever persuade Brenda to let them go on ‘Ask the Family,’” 68), and, except for a list of Swinbank’s publications, entirely lacking citations. This lack is unfortunate, as Swinbank’s story, with its stops and starts, her early successes and the late-in-life revival of her career—a narrative arc that is, perhaps, more common than its infrequent representation might suggest—merits telling. But Heywood’s sources are unclear—in her acknowledgments, she refers to past conversations with Swinbank (who now suffers from dementia), lectures by Swinbank (including one with the same title as the book), and Swinbank’s writings. One cannot help but hope that these materials might make their way into an archive someday.

Recollections is a quick, engaging read. It is clearly written, with few—if any—typographical or grammatical errors. The text is accompanied by several dozen (unfortunately, rather small) photographs. Ultimately, even with the aforementioned caveats, it is a welcome addition to our histories of archaeology, as well as, perhaps, an implicit injunction to produce more works on Swinbank and archaeologists like her.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Martha permalink
    June 29, 2018 8:31 pm

    Thanks for a great review, Thea. I’m a PhD student at Durham, researching the working life and legacy of Eric Birley- including his students, who were supremely important to him. I appeared on the scene too late to interview Brenda, and am very grateful to Suzanne for putting together some of the material found among her mother-in-law’s papers. It is a loving family tribute, but above all should be read as fantastic social, and women’s, history. For my research it has also born fruit, as via Suzanne I have been in touch with Brenda’s university contemporary John Rogan. He has been kind and receptive to my enquiries, and we now correspond regularly! Studying the history of Archaeology turns out to be a very sociable business.

    • Thea permalink
      July 1, 2018 5:02 pm

      Hi, Martha — I’m glad to hear that you’ve found Heywood’s book useful for your work. I’d love to hear how your research develops — I think we need more histories of archaeology with greater sensitivity to social history and historically marginalized people / narratives. And it’s always nice (and it seems only right) when this kind of work (i.e., work on scholars’ relationships) yields friendships!

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