Professor Leslie Alcock

Arthurian archaeologist

Wednesday 01 April 2009 16:46

Leslie Alcock, archaeologist: born Carlisle 24 April 1925; Superintendent of Exploration, Department of Archaeology, Government of Pakistan 1950; Curator, Abbey House Museum, Leeds 1952; Assistant Lecturer, then Lecturer, then Reader, University College Cardiff 1953-73, Professor of Archaeology 1973; Professor of Archaeology, Glasgow University 1973-90 (Emeritus); President, Cambrian Archaeological Society 1982; President, Glasgow Archaeological Society 1984-85; President, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1984-87; OBE 1991; married 1950 Elizabeth Blair (one son, one daughter); died Stevenage, Hertfordshire 6 June 2006.

If King Arthur did ever exist then a great deal of our knowledge of him, as a British war leader confronting the Saxon advance among the ruins of the Roman Empire and not as the fabulous king of medieval legend, is due to the work of Leslie Alcock.

Alcock was educated at Manchester Grammar School and Brasenose College, Oxford, between which his war service was as a captain with the Gurkhas. And it was in India immediately after the Second World War that his archaeological career began. He worked with Mortimer Wheeler at the Indus Valley site of Mohenjo-daro and then served for a short time as Director of the Archaeological Service of Pakistan.

In 1951 he and his wife Elizabeth (they had married the previous year) accompanied Wheeler in his excavations at the extensive Iron Age enclosure of Stanwick in North Yorkshire. Perhaps it was here, and in the face of Wheeler's insistence that Stanwick was a military site, that Alcock began to reason that enclosure did not constitute defence.

Only when a wall or rampart had been manned by a defender would it have become truly defensive and consequently the scale of such a defensive work provided the archaeologist with a measure of military organisation.

In 1953 Alcock was appointed as Lecturer in Archaeology at University College, Cardiff, where he was to work for the next 20 years. It was here that he honed his skills at drawing archaeological and historical evidence into an enlightened understanding of the post-Roman "Dark Ages". His excavations at Dinas Powys gave material form to the residences of the "petty rulers and tyrants" who arose from the collapse of imperial administration in western Britain, and in 1966 he turned his attention to the great Iron Age hillfort of Cadbury Castle, Somerset.

Two strands of evidence, the finding of pottery dating to the post-Roman period from the hillfort and the near contemporary accounts of a major British victory over the Saxons, possibly under the leadership of Arthur and possibly in the south-west of Britain, allowed Alcock to argue that such a military campaign required a major British army to have been encamped in a substantially defended structure: the re-defended hillfort of Cadbury would have been a suitable candidate.

The lure of the Arthurian association was enough to ensure funding and publicity for what became the major excavation in a British Iron Age hillfort in the late 1960s. Sponsored by The Observer and guided by a research committee on which Wheeler among others served, the site provided a wealth of evidence for eight centuries of Iron Age occupation, a Roman military attack and garrisoning of the hill, and a re-modelling of the Iron Age rampart, a rebuilding of one of the gateways, and the construction of a possible timber hall in the post-Roman period.

These Dark Age finds enabled Alcock to argue convincingly that the site had been a major military and political centre at the time of the British victory.

The detailed report of the Cadbury excavations did not appear until 1995 (Cadbury Castle, Somerset: the early medieval archaeology, with S.J. Stevenson and C.R. Musson) but in 1971 Alcock published Arthur's Britain: history and archaeology, AD 367-634, in which he offered that most elusive of audiences, "the student and general reader", an eloquent guide through the tangled literary and archaeological evidence of the fourth to seventh centuries AD.

The image evoked was dominated by the political, military and social themes of the period. The Church that played such a central role in the transformation of Roman Britain into Anglo-Saxon England remained strangely marginalised and it was not until 2003 with the publication of a lecture series given in Edinburgh, King's and Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests in Northern Britain, AD 550-850, that Alcock drew out more fully the role of the Church in shaping the period.

Alcock was appointed to the newly created chair in Archaeology at Glasgow University in 1973. He and his wife immediately threw themselves into the building of the Glasgow department. Their generosity as hosts to colleagues and to visitors, their energy in executing an extensive campaign of excavations on Dark Age sites in Scotland, Alcock's administrative commitment to the public bodies on which he served and, above all, his abilities as a teacher served to ensure the growth of the department's reputation both nationally and internationally.

Leslie Alcock was robust in his views and in his commitments and he expected a similar toughness from those with whom he worked. This may not have been to everybody's taste, although those many students who gained his support in the early stages of their careers will attest to the debt they owe Leslie and Elizabeth Alcock and to the inspiration gained from Alcock's teaching and guidance.

John Barrett

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