Obituary: Eric Wood

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The Independent Online
One of Britain's best amateur archaeologists of the old school, and a professional in all but name, Eric Wood introduced countless thousands to the subject through his archaeological best-seller Collins Field Guide to Archaeology in Britain, which went through five editions between 1963 and 1979. It was last reprinted in 1982.

Retirement from a full career as an administrative civil servant in 1973 freed him to produce Historical Britain in 1995, a vast, sensible and masterly portrait of the country through the surviving remains of past activities and ways of life. This, a huge expansion of the earlier work, has all the hallmarks of becoming a popular and long-lasting sourcebook and it will be a valuable record of the state of the historical environment at the end of the 20th century.

Wood's archaeological interests went back to his childhood, but straitened family circumstances prevented him taking a place at Oxford. Instead he entered the administrative civil service. During his career he worked as a principal in the Departments of Aircraft Production, Supply, Treasury, Technology, Aviation and Trade and Industry. Meanwhile he obtained a part- time degree (in French and German) from King's College London, setting a pattern of parallel work that was to characterise his life.

Wood's parallel career as an archaeologist began seriously with the relocation of the Department of Aircraft Production to Harrogate at the start of the Second World War. He joined the closing stages of an excavation of the important Neolithic and Bronze Age barrow at Green Howe, North Deighton, eventually assuming responsibility for writing and publishing the report. With the Harrogate Group of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society he completed and published a survey of the ancient buildings of the Harrogate region, and rapidly made himself the expert on the archaeology of Nidderdale, encouraging his children in the necessary fieldwork with the offer of threepence a flint. Back in London after the war he began research at the Institute of Archaeology on the Neolithic and Bronze Age of north- east England under Professor Gordon Childe.

Local societies were then the backbone of British archaeology, and Wood was active in both the Surrey Archaeological Society (Secretary, 1958- 66, and President, 1980-84) and the Southwark and Lambeth Excavation Committee (Chairman, 1967-81). He became President of the Surrey Industrial History Group, his main contribution being the investigation of the early stages of the glass industry in the Surrey Weald.

Excavations of a 14th- century furnace at Blundens Wood were a useful demonstration of medieval English glass-making processes, using separate furnaces for glass melting, annealing, and the preparation of crucibles. A second excavation, at Knightons, Alfold, showed the methods in use c1550, just before the arrival of immigrants from France revolutionised English glass-making. The work was a powerful demonstration of the potential of industrial archaeology.

Something of an archaeological polymath, at the time he was investigating the medieval industries of Surrey he was also a Council member of the Prehistoric Society. With his Fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries and, eventually, his membership of the Institute of Field Archaeologists he was also a living demonstration of the artificiality of the div- ision between amateur and professional in archaeology.

All these qualities made Wood the man for the impossible job of writing a Collins Field Guide to Archaeology. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, introducing the first edition of the book, recognised that it required the unostentatious courage of a daring and devoted student to venture on so ambitious an enterprise as to encapsulate in accurate but simple terms the whole of British archaeology.

Wood carried it off, perhaps because he, himself something of an autodidact in archaeology, knew unerringly what a newcomer to the subject would ask. Relentlessly, from boose stones and crinkle-crankles to noosts and quintains, he explained what the physical remains of the past are and where to find them, sharing at the same time his own sense of fascination. To this he added lucid and succinct thematic essays that have been a godsend to generations of students ever since. In the wake of this success Collins made him the Joint Editor, with Cherry Lavell, of their "Collins Archaeology Series".

Having effectively brought five successive editions up to date with advances in archaeological knowledge and technique, he was just about to embark on the task once again.

With tweeds, hat, pipe and bristling moustache, Eric Wood probably enjoyed playing the last great amateur. Self-effacing, often a tease, kindly and helpful, he was a very private man. Few of his archaeological associates ever saw his deep commitment to the Society of Friends - which he joined in mid-life - but many possibly guessed at his spirituality. Others sometimes came across with surprise his published output as a poet. Probably few ever realised how insidiously influential he had been in archaeology, though the well-thumbed copies of his books in every public library prove it.

Peter Addyman

Eric Stuart Wood, archaeologist and civil servant: born 22 November 1912; married 1935 Marion Bowie (died 1979; two daughters), 1980 Pamela Woolland; died Alton, Hampshire 21 May 1996.