Aileen Fox

Founder of modern archaeology in south-western England


Aileen Mary Henderson, archaeologist: born London 29 July 1907; Special Lecturer in Archaeology, University College of the South West (Exeter University from 1955), then Lecturer and Senior Lecturer 1947-72; married 1933 Cyril Fox (Kt 1935, died 1967; three sons); died Exeter 21 November 2005.

Aileen Fox was almost the last surviving member of the generation of archaeologists that included the prehistorians Stuart Piggott and Christopher Hawkes, and the Roman scholar Ian Richmond. In her roles as excavator, teacher and field recorder she was the founder of modern archaeology in south-west England.

She was born Aileen Mary Henderson into comfortable middle-class circumstances. Her grandfather had been the first manager in Shanghai of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. Her childhood, spent in London and Surrey, is described in her autobiography Aileen: a pioneering archaeologist (2000), a carefully observed social history describing a world of nannies, the Serpentine, Barkers and dancing lessons. Later she said that her teenage observation of the idleness and triviality of the leisured Edwardian woman's life bred in her a determination to do something more challenging.

After Cambridge, where she read English at Newnham, she thought it would be interesting to go on an excavation, so sought advice from Jocelyn Toynbee, the scholar of Roman art, who arranged for her to take part in the excavations at the Roman site of Richborough in Kent. Her growing involvements in archaeology were followed in 1933 by her marriage to the highly regarded archaeologist Cyril Fox (25 years her senior), who later received a knighthood for his contribution to his discipline, most notably as Director of the National Museum of Wales.

In 1945 Lady Fox was invited to direct excavations in Exeter. Extensive areas of the walled city had been bomb damaged and had subsequently been razed to the ground; she appreciated that this calamity offered a unique opportunity for excavation. A decade earlier, Nash-Williams had commented that all that was needed to understand the archaeology of Roman Exeter was a few well-placed trenches. Aileen Fox aimed higher than that, examining parts of Roman buildings, streets and town defences.

Being of an independent mind, she did not excavate by laying out a grid of squares in the manner of Mortimer Wheeler and his followers but instead used a mix of trenches and open areas, presaging later practice, albeit on a more modest scale. Funds and labour were restricted; her excavators in the first season were six Italian prisoners of war who cooked their spaghetti in an abandoned air-raid shelter. The first seasons' work was published in Roman Exeter: excavations in the war-damaged areas 1945-1947 (1952); further excavations in the city followed into the mid-1960s.

Fox's engagement in Exeter took a different direction two years later, when she was offered a Special Lectureship at the University College of the South West. She soon became deeply involved in the archaeology of south-west England, carrying out excavations of prehistoric sites on Dartmoor and elsewhere, and visiting the large numbers of prehistoric sites for which the area is remarkable. After the college's elevation to university status in 1955, she remained, later as Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, laying the foundations of what would later become a department of archaeology.

There followed a campaign of investigations of Roman military sites in Devon and Cornwall. It was still widely believed that Exeter had been a "frontier town" in Roman times; Fox, in collaboration with her university colleague William Ravenhill, showed that the Roman army had penetrated far into Cornwall. Unlike most archaeologists, she published fully all her excavations; she thought that, like Roman legionaries, they should campaign in the summer and spend the winter indoors, writing up their work. Her contribution to the university was subsequently acknowledged when she received a DLitt in 1985.

Upon her retirement from Exeter University in 1972 Fox surprised her colleagues by accepting a visiting lectureship at Auckland, New Zealand, where she spent the next decade. She developed a substantial interest in the archaeology of the Maoris, whose paa (fortified settlements) reminded her of the hill-forts of the European Iron Age. Fieldwork, excavation and artefact study accompanied her teaching, leading to publications, notably on Maori fortifications (Prehistoric Maori Fortifications in the North Island of New Zealand, 1976, and Tiromoana Pa, Te Awanga, Hawke's Bay, 1978), as well as Carved Maori Burial Chests (1983).

Although Fox will be remembered principally for her work in the Iron Age and Roman periods, she made significant contributions to the study of periods from the Neolithic to the Middle Ages. She was also one of the few academics who have presented their learning to children, writing Roman Britain with Alan Sorrell in 1961. Her finest book was South West England (1964, revised 1973) in Thames & Hudson's "Ancient Peoples and Places" series. Although successor volumes on the same theme now offer more up-to-date accounts, none has matched her deep intimacy with the evidence in the field.

Aileen Fox was a modern woman, combining the roles of mother to three sons with a professional and active life in archaeology. She remembered that local people in South Wales indicated their disapproval because she carried out fieldwork when pregnant. Even in her later years she was a person with tremendous energy; her last Exeter students recall the sight of her striding purposefully up the steep slope to a hill-fort, shooting stick in hand, with a string of students lagging behind.

Her style of scholarship was matter-of-fact. On noticing that the entrances of the prehistoric round houses of Dartmoor are consistently orientated in a particular direction, modern archaeologists have considered whether this has some symbolic meaning. Aileen Fox had had a simpler explanation: doorways in this position kept out the rain.

John Allan

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