British Archaeology, no 10, December 1995: Interview

Simon Denison talks to Francis Pryor

This shepherd won't follow the flock

He said he was the world's worst photographic subject, because he couldn't keep his face still for a moment. `Oh, and Christ, Maisie will kill me, 'cause I haven't combed my hair . . .'

So far, so good. The man who can't feign an unctious smile, and who maintains a tousled appearance despite his wife's strictures, is Francis Pryor - a man as well known for his outspoken opinions, and his maverick refusal to conform to archaeology's `safe, middle- class culture' (as he puts it), as for his remarkable work at Flag Fen, the famous Bronze Age site near Peterborough which he found, and has excavated for over a dozen years.

Green-jacketed, check-shirted, he is an upper-class countryman, a part-time sheep farmer as well as a prehistorian, disdainful of shallow urbanities and without much conventional ambition. We pace about Flag Fen on a bright, cold winter afternoon, at a time when the place is empty of visitors, a silent, watery outpost amid acres of flat dark soil. He is master of this, his own small domain, and it suits him well.

Francis Pryor claims to be unemployable, because of his inability to tolerate a superior telling him what to do. Yet, recently elevated to the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee (AMAC) at English Heritage, he has now been invited to deliver, next month, the first lecture sponsored by the British Archaeological Awards. Does it all mean that he's sliding peacefully, in middle age, into a cosy place in the establishment? `Good God, I hope not. I'll still be a rebel on AMAC,' he promised, ominously.

His is an upper-class kind of rebellion. He was born in 1945, educated at Eton and Cambridge, and his father came from a family of Hertfordshire landowners. Unlike some of his more po-faced archaeological colleagues, Francis Pryor took university light- heartedly, never intending to be an archaeologist. One summer - in a display of both entrepreneurial verve and breathtaking student cheek - he organised the music for Trinity's May Ball, and bought up all the fashionable rock bands for the whole summer-ball week at both Cambridge and Oxford. `We cleaned up!' he said, joyfully recalling his past triumph. `All the other balls had to buy their music off us!'

After university he worked a couple of years at Truman's brewery in London, part-owned by a branch of his father's family. He worked as a beer-taster, as well as at other less enjoyable jobs. He soon tired of it, and emigrated to the States with his American girlfriend, whom he married in New York. They dossed about, unemployed, for a couple of years.

Unsupported by a private income despite his background, young Pryor eventually decided it was time to get a job again, and returned to archaeology as a finds researcher in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. It was from there that he began to work again in England, commuting across the Atlantic for the summer during the 1970s to work on the Bronze Age rescue excavation at Fengate (next to Flag Fen). He returned permanently in 1978, having `mislaid' his first wife somewhere in 1976. (He is now married to Maisie Taylor, expert on ancient wood.) A believer in the importance of regional archaeology, he picked the Fens as `his region' and has stayed there ever since.

Francis Pryor is a physically big man, with a big presence and a big, chuckling laugh. He is a patently straightforward kind of soul, doubtless a good mate if he likes you, hilariously indiscreet, and contemptuous of phoney ways and modish intellectual tendencies. `I despise political correctness,' he said, speaking of archaeological conferences. `It is totally humourless! Ah, God, awful! . . Conference culture, I despise it, hate it! That's why I never go to conferences any more. I used to go to a few, but that was usually to get drunk.'

At home, he keeps two flocks of sheep, and becomes moist-eyed over the lambing season (`a magical time . . . a profoundly rewarding experience at every level'), insisting too that it aids his research. `Archaeology is largely an urban culture, but we are looking into people who lived in the country. I find I spend so much of my time trying to persuade urban archaeologists of self-evident facts about the farm landscape, such as fields with corner entrances being used for livestock.'

At 50, Francis Pryor is beginning to think of moving on from Flag Fen, anxious not to become an intellectual dead hand - like a few others he could (and does) mention - on the work of younger scholars. What of his career? `Oh, I couldn't give a toss to be honest. I'll stay in archaeology, but I distrust careers and people with personal ambition. There's far too much of it about.'

Why be a shepherd, after all, if all you do is bleat with the sheep?

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