Obituary: Rupert Bruce-Mitford
Wednesday 23 March 1994
FEW PEOPLE can have so significantly influenced the course of postwar studies in Early Medieval Archaeology as Rupert Bruce-Mitford. Many young scholars, myself included, first received their introduction to the subject through meeting him, and being generously shown the key objects of that period. He only came to formal university teaching towards the end of his life, but before that he inspired and instructed several generations of hopeful students who visited the British Museum. He was a person of enormous charm, who always attracted around him a posse of eager helpers for every project he
The youngest of the four sons of C. E. Bruce-Mitford, journalist, geographer and vulcanologist, and Beatrice Allison, of British Columbia, whose father was a pioneer rancher and gold prospector, he was educated at Christ's Hospital and Hertford College, Oxford. After a brief period working at the Ashmolean Museum, he joined the staff of the British Museum in 1938, when he was 24. He returned to the museum after the war, and spent the whole of his working life there, studying and curating its medieval collections as Keeper and Research Keeper until he retired in 1977. From this base he became an influential member of the European community of archaeologists and promoted the research of many younger scholars.
He was not only an 'objects man', but also a notable fieldworker; his most famous excavations were conducted at Sutton Hoo, but the excavation which arguably set the trend for much of the interest in marginal rural sites in the Fifties and Sixties was that of the settlement at Mawgan Porth, in Cornwall.
Bruce-Mitford was a perfectionist and stickler for detail and this, combined with the fact that he was required to be a full-time administrator, as well as excavator and researcher, meant that his major works were slow in production. But when they did appear the wait proved to have been worthwhile. His analysis of the ornament of the Lindisfarne Gospels marked a turning point in the study of the manuscript, and his deductions as to how the layout of its ornament was achieved have formed the basis of many studies since. Likewise his evaluation of the Codex Amiatinus, which he first produced as a Jarrow Lecture in 1967, has never been
When Bruce-Mitford became Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities in 1954, the greatest treasure of the department, the hoard found in the high-status ship burial from Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk, was unpublished. Many scholars both in Britain and abroad felt that there was an obligation to publish such an important find quickly, but Bruce-Mitford approached this task with characteristic circumspection and detailed study. He first produced a museum guide, which in its several editions served generations of students, but he also re-excavated the pre-war site and then re-
evaluated every item of evidence. In this work he was assisted by a team of specialists - largely drawn from the British Museum staff - but the final analysis remains his alone. The massive volumes produced after more than 20 years' research contain so much information that it is doubtful if anyone else has fully digested the whole work, and they remain a rich quarry for the future. When further excavations took place at Sutton Hoo between 1985 and 1992 he followed the work with critical and helpful interest, but by that time he was engaged in other projects.
One piece of research which he pursued for almost all his working life was the catalogue of hanging bowls from the British Isles (fifth- century bronze bowls of Celtic origin fitted with hoops for hanging and decorated with enamels, three examples of which were found at Sutton Hoo, and which are thought to have a liturgical function). He was still compiling the illustrations for this up to his death and it is sad that he did not live to see its
Throughout his working life Bruce-Mitford played a full part in public archaeology, most notably as the first President of the Society for Medieval Archaeology, as Secretary and, later, Vice-President of the Society of Antiquaries of London and as a member of the Ancient Monuments Board of England. He was one of the early Europeanists in Medieval Archaeology, as his popular book Recent Archaeological Excavations in Europe (1975) testifies.
In the 1950s, Bruce-Mitford was invited to join the panel (alongside Professor Glyn Daniel and Sir Mortimer Wheeler) of the celebrated television show Animal, Vegetable or Mineral. The first programme of its kind to introduce archaeology to a wide public audience, it was produced by a youthful David Attenborough who, in 1966, when Controller of BBC2, commissioned The Million Pound Grave, and a sequel, about the excavations at Sutton Hoo.
Bruce-Mitford greatly loved Australia - indeed, at one time he half considered emigrating there - and in 1981 he was a Faculty Visitor in the Department of English of ANU Canberra. On protracted visits he was able to indulge in one of his favourite activities watching cricket (he was member of MCC). It was his proud boast that on one visit to Australia he found himself sharing a compartment on a two-day transcontinental train journey with the author Dick Francis, of whose books Bruce-Mitford was an avid collector.
After his retirement from the British Museum, Bruce-Mitford had a happy period as Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Cambridge and Professorial Fellow of Emmanuel College. In 1984 he was also made an Honorary Fellow of his old college in Oxford - Hertford. He was an indefatigable attender at conferences and lectures within the field of Early Medieval Art and Archaeology and, in his rather hesitant way, never failed to contribute perceptively to
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