British Archaeology, no 9, November 1995: Interview

Simon Denison talks to David Miles

Keep the stories rolling in

It is not uncommon to hear field archaeologists say that `there's not much going on in archaeology' any more. They tell you that in the era of developer-funded archaeology, historical inquiry has more or less died.

It is a response you rarely get from the Oxford Archaeological Unit. Instead, its Director, David Miles, will typically run off five or six interesting current projects; and as a result, the Oxford Unit is probably cited more often in national newspapers - and in British Archaeology - than any other outfit save English Heritage. Recent work has included the redating of the Uffington White Horse, the tracing of continuous occupation at Yarnton from the Neolithic to the present, the conservation battle over development at Tewkesbury, and this month the discovery of possible Bronze Age bridges at Eton.

How do they do it? Some units condemn them as `highly predatory', and it is true that the Oxford Unit operates in about 20 counties, hunting out interesting work wherever it may occur, and selling themselves to get it. Yet Oxford's media success also has, I suspect, much to do with the interpretive flair and salesmanship of the Director himself.

David Miles is unusual among archaeologists in that he would quite happily not be one<196> love the subject though he undoubtedly does. He is equally interested in interior design, textiles, art and architecture, novels and poetry. For years he wrote a gardening column in the Oxford Mail, and his best selling book was titled Traditional Knitting in the British Isles, (yes, knitting). David Miles is a man of many parts.

As for archaeology, he finds it interesting only when it contributes to history and tells a story. Most archaeology, he says, fails hopelessly to do so. Leaden, over-descriptive and narrow, archaeological books are usually `a penance, not a pleasure' to read. This is a man who would `quite like to have been a journalist', and the fact that he looks for the story in all his unit's work is one of the chief things that sets the Oxford Unit apart from the crowd.

We met at his home in Oxford, a Victorian terraced house with a strikingly opulent interior. Kilims are thrown over sofas, rugs lie on the floor; the walls and ceilings are richly coloured - blues and yellows, reds, indigo and green. Door panels carry Pompeian frescoes. Mantlepiece and shelves are a clutter of modern ceramics and glass, church candles, a copy of a Roman bust, a skull and antlers, dried flowers and fresh orchids. Antique prints hang on the walls. Books are everywhere.

David Miles sits the other side of a marble coffee table. Short, with goatee beard, round glasses and a deep frown-line, he looks like a miniature Trotsky addressing a crowd, gesticulating as he talks (and talks and talks). David Miles talks unstoppably. He talks about Greek archaeology, about Middle Eastern literature, about the floggings of a Catholic education, about a long-haired 1960s trip across America, about soul music and blues - and all of it leavened with a sprinkling of salacious gossip. If he weren't so engaging you'd have to run for cover.

He was born in Halifax in 1947, of part-Irish extraction, a working-class lad in a back-to-back street in the shadow of the local woollen mill. He was the only kid in the street to pass the 11-plus, and excited local curiosity by reading books at rugby league matches instead of watching the game. He was glad to leave Yorkshire, at the age of 14, and rarely returns. Does he still have friends from that period? `Oh no,' he said - `they're all in prison!'

He read archaeology at Birmingham University, harbouring a class prejudice against Oxbridge. Did he still see himself as a working-class Yorkshireman? `No,' he replied, grinning, `I now regard myself as an underpaid aristocrat!' Today, he added, he would `definitely choose Oxbridge'. For all this mild snobbery, David Miles is without pretension, and he has made no attempt to lose his Yorkshire accent. `We supported 'Alifax,' he said, apropos childhood rugby loyalties, `and 'Uddersfield was scum!'

He started a PhD at Bristol, but, `not a natural academic', he switched to a series of excavating jobs before joining the Oxford Unit in 1973.

He married at the age of 22, at the peak of his interest in textiles. `One reason I married my wife was she was the best knitter I'd ever met.' She is now a senior curator at the V&A.

Despite his loquacity David Miles is not a clubbable man, and you'll rarely find him propping up the bar at an archaeological conference. An aesthete, he dislikes `laddish culture', and the beer and bonding that so often go with the excavator's life.

David Miles is a splash of colour in an increasingly grey and introverted archaeological profession. Long may he keep the stories rolling in.

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