British Archaeology, no 19, November 1996: Obituary


Stuart Piggott

by Richard Bradley

British archaeology has lost the last of its `three wise men'. The death of Stuart Piggott, so soon after Christopher Hawkes and Grahame Clark, means that an entire generation of prehistorians who began their careers in the late 1920s has now passed. More than anyone else, they laid the foundations for the study of British prehistory and between them they taught most of the senior figures in the discipline today.

Stuart Piggott was very different from both his great contemporaries. He was self-taught and never attended university. He began his career as a field archaeologist, working first in field survey and then as Alexander Keiller's assistant in the excavations at Avebury. He acquired his practical archaeology through his professional work, but he was always a man of wide sympathies. In his early years in Hampshire he learned his distinctive draughtsmanship from the work of Heywood Sumner, one of the last survivors of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He studied the life and work of William Stukeley, and during his wartime service he gained a first-hand acquaintance with the archaeology of India. This provided the subject matter of his first book, published in 1946. His second, Fire Among the Ruins, was a complete contrast, for this was a collection of poems in the manner of AE Housman.

Throughout the 1930s, Piggott was an outsider in British archaeology, yet this was the period in which he conducted some of his best research. This included the excavation of Thickthorn Down long barrow, the first classification of British Neolithic pottery, and the definition of the Wessex culture. His remarkable talents were rewarded by his appointment as Professor at Edinburgh as Gordon Childe's successor. Childe regarded him as a protegé, and to Piggott's alarm he even drove him all the way from London to introduce him to his new home. Childe had problems understanding traffic lights and for 350 miles he was utterly reliant on Piggott to tell him what to do.

Fortunately, both men survived this experience, and Piggott's 30 years in Edinburgh were enormously productive. Having mastered British prehistory, he now set himself to learn the prehistory of Continental Europe. With his then wife, Peggy, he also embarked on a major programme of fieldwork which laid the foundations for any understanding of Scottish archaeology. It took in such major monuments as Cairnpapple, Cairnholy, and Dalladies long barrow - sites which remain absolutely fundamental to our understanding today. He also directed a distinguished series of students to explore the material culture of northern Britain. Despite all this activity, he found time to continue his work on the Wessex chalk, an area in which he felt more at home. Together with Richard Atkinson, he excavated West Kennet long barrow and Stonehenge. Responsibility for the publications was divided between the two men. Piggott's contribution was the report on West Kennet, and in his later years he was distressed that Atkinson did not honour his own obligations.

With the security offered by his Edinburgh chair, Piggott embarked on a long series of books. Among the first of these was The Neolithic Cultures of the British Isles (1954), a masterpiece of synthesis that has outlasted many changes of intellectual fashion. The same is true of Ancient Europe, published 11 years later. He continued to write with verve and imagination to the end of his life. In all he edited or wrote no fewer than 22 books, ranging in subject from one of the best introductions to archaeology to an account of the origins of wheeled transport.

Piggott was one of the most approachable archaeologists of his generation, and undoubtedly one of the most entertaining. Like many of my contemporaries, I received enormous encouragement from him at the start of my career, when he even persuaded me to re-excavate one of his sites. He was a charismatic teacher and a great talker, but no administrator. When I obtained a university post, his response was simple and to the point: `Open the white envelopes and throw the brown ones away'. I often wish that I had taken this to heart.

I shall miss visiting Stuart Piggott in his cottage at West Challow with its enormous library and his collection of fine paintings, many by his friends. And I shall miss talking to one of the greatest archaeologists of the century who was also one of the kindest.

Stuart Piggott: born 28 May 1910; educated at Churcher's College, Petersfield; staff member of the Royal Commission on the Ancient Monu-ments of Wales 1929-34; Assistant Director of the Avebury excavations 1934-38; Abe-cromby Prof of Archaeology, Edinburgh University 1946-77; Hon DLitt Hum, Columbia 1954, Hon DLitt, Edinburgh 1984; FBA 1953; President, CBA 1967- 70; British Academy Grahame Clark Medal 1993; died 23 September 1996.

Richard Bradley is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading


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