British Archaeology, no 20, December 1996: Interview


Man of status, who wants it not

Simon Denison talks to Richard Bradley

Few figures in archaeology command such respect as Richard Bradley, Professor of Archaeology at Reading. In a close-knit but sometimes catty discipline, he tends to be praised in superlatives. Colleagues have described him to me as `a real live wire', `a genius', and `the best British prehistorian for 20 years'. Moreover, these and other compliments have come unsolicited, suggesting he is as much liked as admired.

So it was with some curiosity that I went to meet this man with such a reputation. What would he be like face to face? And would I end up writing hagiography?

We met at his home, a modest Victorian terraced house in east Oxford. I saw him before he saw me, sitting by his front window, arms on his arm-rests, looking into the room - just waiting. I waved, and he ushered me in, a pullovered professor, to the same spot by the window. It was a darkish room, the bright November afternoon light cut out (`quite deliberately,' he said) by a thicket of bushes outside. We sat facing one another on wicker chairs amid sparse furnishings - a couple of sofas, a few small Victorian prints and paintings on the wall, some half-empty bookshelves, a single ceiling light, and a miniature TV on a tall stand.

Whereas some interviewees relish putting their lives on show, and point out this and that in their homes, Richard Bradley seemed tense and apprehensive. His answers were full and direct, always helpful, but remained answers to questions - as in a job interview - rather than one half of a relaxed conversation. For this private, and probably not overly self-confident man, I suspect the meeting was a minor ordeal. Nonetheless, we got on to archaeology, and he talked fast and excitedly in a highish voice. His hands and eyebrows were always on the move; and time and again, apropos of nothing in particular, he grinned at me mid-sentence, mid-exposition, as if to help me along. His bubbling enthusiasm is his most obvious and appealing characteristic.

Born in Hampshire in 1946, the son of a civil service metallurgist with the navy, Richard Bradley went to a local grammar school - where he first came across archaeology - before reading law at Oxford, unaware that he could study archaeology at university. He continued to dig, however, and not wanting to go into law, he went on to practise archaeology as an amateur. With a simple faith that his enthusiasm would be shared by editors, he sent reports of his work to national journals; some were published, and at the age of 25, on the basis of publication alone, he was appointed an assistant lecturer at Reading (where he has since remained) - a man who had not obtained a single qualification in the subject.

This untutored background may partly explain his renowned ability to look at familiar problems with fresh eyes. `I was just an enthusiastic amateur then, and maybe I still am,' he said - happily claiming ignorance of pottery typologies and other such stuff of undergraduate courses.

Married to a history teacher, but without children, his main interests outside archaeology are cultural - literature, painting and music (the more avant-garde the better) - although he claims to have `no executive talent' in any of the arts. His motivations, however, seem curiously cerebral. I asked what drives him in archaeology, and he spoke of `finding patterns in strange material', and `mixing the practical and the abstract' - dry explanations that could equally suit him to any number of subjects. When pressed, he admitted to feeling drawn to some places more than others. But that's it. `I have no emotional draw to the past; no feeling for the people as individuals,' he said.

As a student he was a modest and conventional young man, not attracted to the counter-culture of the 1960s - partly, he said, because he didn't like the music. He was also uneasy with what he saw as the `pretentiousness' of his public-school co-students. Now, he maintains his distaste for any form of showiness or affectation. Known to his students simply as `Richard', he has written about power and status in the past but claims no interest in possessing them in the present.

And so he remains, the smiling, helpful, clever boy-next-door, perhaps without too much of a wild side, but engrossed in his archaeology and content with his lot. He claims to be unwilling to seek further academic posts however glamorous, and disclaims any ambition. But for a man without ambition, this professor and reputed genius, FBA and former English Royal Commissioner has done singularly well.


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© Council for British Archaeology, 1997