Peter J. Reynolds

Friday 05 October 2001 00:00 BST

Peter John Reynolds, archaeologist: born Shifnal, Shropshire 11 June 1939; married (one daughter); died Kemer, Turkey 26 September 2001.

As 20th-century archaeology moved from antiquarian interest to intensive excavation, the British Iron Age, the last thousand years before the Roman conquest, became a focus for renewed research.

Post holes, ditches and hill forts – all became the inadequate silhouette of the Celtic people, often perceived even by "thinking" archaeologists as a swaggering warrior caste, the erstwhile "noble savage". But what lay behind these Iron Age people? What was the nature of their economy? How could it be quantified? How did they live so successfully? Peter J. Reynolds attacked these questions with a then unfamiliar but for him characteristic rigour, from which came the concept of the experimental Iron Age farm for which he will always be known. He became the scourge of the airy theoretician, constantly asking the question "But how do you know?" or "What is the evidence?"

Reynolds was an archaeological field man through and through. He immersed himself experimentally in the landscape of the Iron Age. He tested it. He grew the crops. He experimented with the earthworks. He modelled the field systems. He smelted the iron. He fired the pots. He built the houses. From this he amassed data about what Iron Age society could and could not do in this shadowy time of late prehistory.

But it is crucial to note that, as he himself said, "There is here no thought of playing at being Iron Age people. Any attempt to relive the remote past is destined to failure." Rather, he wanted to find out what were feasible hypotheses of Iron Age economics. His was a modern, dynamic and imaginative approach. He built grain storage pits and tested how long early strains of cereals could be stored. He grew emmer wheat and measured what the yields were in varying climatic conditions. He ploughed with Iron Age ards and studied the tilth. He noted the arable weeds as markers of cultivation.

Based upon the excavated evidence for an Iron Age great house at Pimperne in Dorset, he built a replica of it to see how much thatch and how much timber were abstracted from the surrounding landscape and what labour was needed. By these exertions he began to quantify the Iron Age, and it was for this that he became world-renowned.

Reynolds's first contact with archaeology was as a student at the Priory School, Shrewsbury, where his art master, Philip Barker, became his mentor. He read Classics at Trinity College, Dublin, where he enjoyed leading a highly successful racing eight. After acquiring a teaching diploma at Reading University, he took up a teaching appointment as Classics master at Prince Henry's Grammar School, Evesham.

During his time at university he had maintained an interest in archaeology and at Reading he became involved in reading other people's PhD theses to check English and logic in abstruse subjects. One of these was devoted to Iron Age settlement enclosures. He became increasingly uneasy with what he saw as unsubstantiated claims and conclusions based upon the flimsiest of evidence. Later, when he was put in charge of a sixth-form group at Prince Henry's School, he took the decision to test some of the ideas practically.

His first work was on Bredon Hill in the Cotswolds, where he created the first open-air Iron Age laboratory. From this beginning, the Council for British Archaeology asked him to develop a project intended to investigate the Iron Age in Wessex. In 1972, an experimental centre was set up at Butser Hill on land provided by Hampshire County Council where he developed and refined his experiments. His results were part of his doctorate at Leicester University.

He was greatly assisted by his links with the Institute of Archaeology at London University, where his supporters included its innovative director W.F. Grimes and his successor, Professor John Evans. In 1990, the Ancient Farm moved to its present site near Butser where Reynolds successfully continued his research programme, despite difficulties in funding. Among his publications was Iron Age Farm: the Butser experiment (1979).

His research made a huge impact abroad. He was twice Visiting Professor at the University of Barcelona, and travelled all over Europe and also the United States as conference speaker, lecturer to universities and archaeological societies and as expert adviser to archaeological and experimental projects.

He spent time in southern Africa with a research team investigating Iron Age farming there too. In Swaziland he studied the development of rural homesteads as a mirror of the past, and the spread of sorghum, millet and other African domesticates. But he never lost his love of the classical world. He became fascinated by the Iron Age of the Mediterranean and led many groups to Turkey, investigating the way in which the growth of Iron Age farming had totally transformed the scenery of the coast of Caria and Lycia. He was a firm believer in the concept that "climate drives landscape drives man".

Peter Reynolds died suddenly in Turkey, a land he had come to love. His enthusiasm for his subject was boundless and his death has robbed archaeology of a crusading academic. He leaves a daughter, Jemma, who is following in his footsteps.

David Price Williams

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