British Archaeology, no 8, October 1995: Interview

Simon Denison talks to Peter Ucko

Battling for the One World view

Peter Ucko must have thought his days of controversy were over. But this summer, just when he'd been chosen to run London's Institute of Archaeology from 1996, his appointment was the subject of a long, critical editorial in the summer issue of Antiquity. The journal (which kept the matter alive in its autumn issue) connected UCL's selection process with `sleaze' in public life, because the vacancy - for a very senior university appointment - had not been openly advertised.

Ucko, however, dismisses the editorial with laconic contempt: `There is nothing abnormal about people being head-hunted,' he says; and in any case, so far as controversies go, this one is nothing compared to the major international show-down he prompted over the ban on South African delegates to the World Archaeological Congress (WAC) in 1986.

On that occasion - to remind those with short memories - as National Secretary to the Congress he was the prime mover behind the ban, which was a response to the proclamation of a State of Emergency in South Africa in 1985. It was the first major instance of `academic sanctions' against South Africa, and attracted a huge amount of international media coverage. The ban, and Ucko himself, were strongly attacked for intellectual incoherence and dubious morality by roughly half the people around the world who took an interest; while the other half supported the ban just as passionately as a principled stand, albeit perhaps only a gesture, against apartheid. The whole affair was written up by Ucko in Academic Freedom and Apartheid (Duckworth, 1987), a brilliantly polemical book astounding not least for its harsh judgments on numerous senior figures in archaeology.

The radical motivations and `Third World consciousness' that drove Ucko during the WAC affair have long roots in Ucko's past. Born in London in 1938 to a German father (Ucko Senior was a professor of medicine, who spent his evenings conducting orchestras, and putting on operas in London), Peter Ucko was sent to boarding school, which he loathed, and from which he was later removed after provoking the school's displeasure for refusing to play mixed-doubles in a tennis match with the local girls' school.

This absurd event meant that Ucko took his A-levels at London's North-Western Poly (as it was then called), where he met foreign students, from many cultures, obliged by Britain's immigration laws to take A-levels before entering a British university, whatever their educational background. It was a revelatory experience that inspired Ucko's interest in anthropology, which he went on to read at UCL, as well as his anti-racism. `If any experience in my whole life made me, that did,' he said.

Even if Ucko - who is Professor of Archaeology and Dean of Arts at Southampton University - had not found renown for his political standpoint, however, he would have found it for his academic record. It was he, for instance, who in the 1960s largely demolished the view that Mother Goddesses were worshipped in prehistoric Europe and the Near East, and he has also written influential books on cave art and Avebury.

But Ucko himself subordinates the importance of his own writings to his achievement in fostering world archaeology. `That's what I'm proudest of,' he said, pointing to the row of One World Archaeology books on his shelves, a non-profit-making series he founded (published by Routledge) after the 1986 WAC congress. He insists that there is still too little teaching of world archaeology in British universities, and that British scholars still make over-simplified use of ethnographic parallels in writing about prehistory.

Peter Ucko can be aggressive under pressure, rocking agitatedly from side to side in his swivel-chair, and batting back questions that (he thinks) put him on the spot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after all the vituperation of the WAC affair, he seems to have a tendency to feel embattled, and to take a decision about whether you are for him or against him. But he is also genial and unpretentious, his deeply-lined face crinkling up into teddy-bear grins when he is with junior staff, and he inspires a strong affection in many colleagues. If there was anything undemocratic and secretive about the Institute of Archaeology appointments procedure, it is probably one that Ucko himself - who claims to run his department `as a team' - would not have adopted if, with roles reversed, the choice had been his.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1995