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

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