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Bloody Old Britain, by Kitty Hauser
How a time-team leader took to the air
Friday 13 June 2008
OGS Crawford was known to his familiars as "Ogs" or, to younger archaeologists, as "Uncle Ogs". But if this suggests a benign figure, think again. Crawford was often churlish, something of a loner, and never more than an uneasy member of any institution. At the Ordnance Survey offices where he spent most of his working life, he received small pay, scant recognition and only grudging support. But, if not an outstanding intellectual, as even Kitty Hauser surmises, he was a truly great man, who, in various ways, promoted an approach to the ancient past that brought it closer to us.
Born in 1886 in Bombay, where his father was a High Court judge, he was sent home to England as a baby on a P&O liner, to be brought up by his aunts, his mother having died a few days after his birth. He suffered schooling at Marlborough ("a detestable house of torture"), but gained a taste for freedom on field trips with the Archaeological Society. At Oxford, he daringly switched from Greats to Geography, a suspiciously upstart discipline. The catalyst appears to have been Harold Peake, curator of the Newbury Museum.
Peake showed Crawford how to read a piece of country, its scars, symptoms and disturbances, for a record of its prehistory. Quickly Crawford realised that landscape, not books, was the best guide to Britain's distant past; and that no site is lost to knowledge, for nature is slow to heal the wounds made by man. The camera enhanced his understanding further.
During the 1914-18 war, while working in the Third Army Topographical Section, he had been fascinated by the photographs delivered by the Royal Flying Corps. He recognised the significance of aerial photography for archaeology, as it showed things that could not be seen at ground level: old boundaries, silted-up ditched ditches, slight contours that marked the site of a lost settlement or a Roman villa.
It was through aerial photography that he established the course of the Stonehenge Avenue, attracting the attention of Alexander Keiller, heir to his family's marmalade fortune, with whom Crawford published Wessex from the Air.
At the Ordnance Survey he devised "Period Maps", the first showing Roman Britain. These enjoyed huge success. But his greatest achievement was the journal he founded, Antiquity, which advanced modern archaeology and helped make it enormously popular. Driven by a passionate faith in evidence, he also turned his attention on other projects, at one point tracking down anti-Nazi graffiti in Germany. Hauser's account of Crawford's achievement is continuously engaging, an impressive piece of intellectual history; strangely moving, and impeccably written.
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