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Cover of British Archaeology 117

Issue 117

Mar / Apr 2011



All the latest archaeology news from around the country

on the web

Historical recipies to tempt the taste buds


Our tribute to the losses of 2010

my archaeology

rancis Pryor on his accidental career


Why study archaeology, and can it reveal the past?


Your views and responses


10 big questions archaeology must answer

What can archaeology do for us?

THE BIG DIG: Winchester

St Mary Magdalen Hospital, with evidence of leprosy, TB and that Romans treated wounded soldiers

Return to La Cotte

Neanderthal butchering at this Jersey cave site

Dear Lord Chancellor

The human remains "crisis" continues, and children thank organisers

The one with archaeological evidence to support it

How the Stonehenge megaliths might have been moved

The Varmints Show

In the Varmints' fifth exploration of music and archaeology, we look at the 1990s Seattle grunge music scene.


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

my archaeology

A proper job? No, but it's archaeology!

Francis Pryor is well known as an outstanding archaeologist – writer, broadcaster and, especially, director of major excavations. It could all have been quite different.

Francis Pryor

When I was a little tiny boy, I lived on a farm and I used to spend a lot of my time just observing the world around me. I had my own garden, and I loved animals. I had an uncle who was a zoologist, a Cambridge don, and I really looked up to him. I did botany, zoology and geology A levels, but I found it cold. When I was doing the entrance exam at Cambridge, people said you can get the human dimension if you study arch and anth. I could have done something like history, but I have never been very good at taking my experience of life out of books.

I went on digs in my gap year. I rang up our local museum in Hitchin in the time honoured manner, and they said there's this chap called James Dyer who's digging a hillfort. My enthusiasm was up, but he really kindled it. Lovely man.

Then I went "circuit digging", and I continued when I was at Cambridge. I was just sucking in new knowledge and new techniques – how to plan, how to photograph, how to survey, all those things. I was on a high.

When I got back to Cambridge, it was a positive relief because I didn't have to take in so much knowledge! You could listen to these professors droning away, but it was nothing like when you were out on a dig, you were really learning then.

I was offered a very very highly paid job in the music business. I organised the college May ball's music and Nems, that's Brian Epstein's agency, a friend of mine and myself, we hired loads of different bands and sublet them out to other colleges and made a small fortune. Paid off my 600 quid bar bill! I very nearly went into the management side of the business – I played musical instruments, and always have, but I knew I wasn't that good. But the family intervened in the way that families could in those days. So I worked for two years in the family brewery in Brick Lane in London – Trumans Brewery.

I had an interview with one of the directors. I was the only graduate in the place at the time, and he said, "Well Francis, if you play your cards right, by the time you're 35 you could be a director". I thought, I don't want to know where I'll be when I'm 35, that is hell! I went and saw an eminent Cambridge academic called Sir Edward Bullard, who happened to be my sister's godfather, and he said, "Francis, you've got to get away from your family". And I said, "You're dead right, Teddy". And he said, "Go to Toronto".

I went to New York, married an American citizen, got warning that I was about to be drafted to Vietnam, and whizzed off to Toronto double quick. Then in desperation I went back to archaeology. I went to the head archaeologist at the Royal Ontario Museum, a lovely man called Doug Tushingham, and he gave me a job. When I'd got my landed immigrant status, so I could leave Canada securely, I supervised a dig at North Elmham in Norfolk.

My father was very hands off, he was in insurance and things like that. He didn't understand what I was doing. He died in 2005, and about 2000 he did actually say to me, for, I imagine, about the 50th time, "Are you ever going to get a proper job?"

My mother absolutely loved it. She was Irish, an artist, and had this wonderfully romantic view of the past. She was wholly behind me. I could tell her about what I'd been doing on digs, and she'd just pump me for information, she loved it.

I knew what I was doing was worthwhile. Well, we all do. That's why we're in the profession, because we're certainly bloody not in it for the money! It brings the past to life in a way that no other subject can. There is absolutely nothing like something mundane from the past.

I'll never forget digging the latrine of this 1875 navvy camp. Like all archaeologists I've dug my fair share of septic pits, but this stuff actually smelled! I had to grimace when the scene appeared on Time Team, but that smell of shit was such a direct link back to those navvies. All the hair went up on the back of my neck. I was there, 1200 feet up in a Yorkshire moor in the freezing cold with the rain, and that navvy was doing his business. It was the most moving moment, almost, I think, in my archaeological life.

You don't get that from portraits, you don't get that from papal bulls, or the documents of Henry VIII or anything like that. I got more of a buzz out of digging that navvy camp than out of digging a bronze age roundhouse.

Interview by Mike Pitts

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