Isobel Smith

Prehistorian and archaeologist


Isobel Foster Smith, prehistorian and archaeologist: born Toronto, Ontario 22 December 1912; Senior Investigator, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England 1965-78; died Devizes, Wiltshire 18 November 2005.

In terms of scholars concerned with the earliest farmers in the British Isles, the Neolithic peoples of around 5,000 years ago, Isobel Smith occupies a position of distinction. Her work in the 1950s through to the 1970s, particularly on the stone monuments of Avebury and Stonehenge in Wiltshire, helped to stimulate interest in the later prehistory of these islands, and her studies were an inspiration to younger archaeologists, some of whom are now senior academic prehistorians.

Her early years were spent in Canada, and she graduated in English and French from Toronto University. She then obtained a French scholarship to study at the Sorbonne and in Grenoble. Her travels at that time also included parts of England, which captivated her, but with the political instabilities in Europe she returned to Canada, where she remained until after the Second World War. Academic work was not easy to come by at that time, and she survived on secretarial jobs both in Canada and on her return to England, where she became a British citizen in 1953.

Her luck changed when she read of a part-time diploma course in archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology in London, and this was followed by a PhD under the supervision of the distinguished prehistorian Gordon Childe. She assisted him in various ways, including in some teaching (when she guided my student attempts to draw stone tools).

In the late 1950s she was offered the challenging task of analysing and writing up the excavation and finds data from the Windmill Hill and Avebury excavations carried out by Alexander Keiller and his team before the war. Keiller, a businessman turned archaeologist, had bought the site in the early 1930s, and his three successive digs uncovered buried stones, which he re-erected as part of an effort to conserve the stone circle and related monuments. His data had remained unwritten until Smith took up the job. The book which resulted - Windmill Hill and Avebury: excavations by Alexander Keiller, 1925-1939 (1965) - remains a major reference work today.

It was typical of Smith that her name does not appear on the title-page even though it resulted from all her analytical and writing effort. However, her hard work was rewarded with the offer of a permanent position in 1965 with the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, and she remained there as Senior Investigator until her retirement in 1978. She continued to publish and contribute significantly, especially on the Neolithic and Bronze Age. During these years, she remained in her small cottage in Avebury into retirement, with few changes except that the two-holer-with-bucket toilet was replaced by a more expanded bathroom facility.

She gave quiet but generous support to the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, and was honorary editor of its journal for some years. Her life in England was at all times simple and unassuming, verging at times on the ascetic. But she had a keen eye for character and a pleasant sense of humour. She continued to research and publish, especially on Neolithic pottery, long into retirement, her last paper - in Cornish Archaeology - being in her 85th year.

During the earlier years of her retirement, she gave strong support, including financial aid, to a succession of three pressure groups attempting to prevent inappropriate development in the Avebury area. First came the proposed building of a themed hotel in place of a transport café (now extinct) near the henge monument called the Sanctuary; secondly, a further large hotel threatened to replace West Kennet Farm (under which was a Neolithic monument); finally, she joined the opposition to an "Elizabethan theme park" at Avebury Manor, in the heart of the village.

The labours of Isobel Smith and others opposing these absurd potential developments paid off, for, after the public inquiries, all were turned down by the Government.

Don Brothwell

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Resourcer

£18000 - £22000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Recruitment Resour...

Account Manager (Junior)

Negotiable: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Account Manager (Junior) Account ...

Javascript Developer

£40000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a...

Solar Business Development Manager – M&A

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried