Obituary: Professor Stuart Piggott

Roger Mercer
Thursday 26 September 1996 23:02 BST

Stuart Piggott was the last of the generation who created the discipline of prehistoric archaeology in Britain, and who exercised a profound influence on its development on a wider European and, indeed, world stage. The friendships and rivalries of Piggott, Grahame Clark, Cyril Fox, Glyn Daniel, Mortimer Wheeler, Richard Atkinson and Christopher Hawkes patterned the development of the subject for 40 years of astounding achievement.

Born in 1910, Piggott came from old Berkshire yeoman stock, his father a schoolmaster and his mother a Welshwoman from Breconshire. One might, perhaps, attribute his intense shyness and reticent modesty combined with the scintillating acuteness of his mind to that dual ancestry. Without doubt his profound love of his native Wessex countryside was in his blood and never left him. He also inherited a quite remarkable talent for the graphic arts.

By the age of 16 he was an active field archaeologist exploring the wealth of the South Downs and the Berkshire Downs. His sketches and notes brought him to the attention of the Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division and its chief, O.G.S. Crawford, and it was this contact that brought him, after a brief apprenticeship in the museum in Reading, to his first archaeological appointment, in 1928 at the age of 18, as an investigator with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

The fieldwork, in Anglesey, he found a delight, and his "archaeological eye", which never left him, developed at this time. All who ever worked with him, however, will recognise the impossibility of his ever having worked indefinitely within government service, with its emphasis on administration and irksome control. (I remember with glee an incident much later when university authorities queried the substantially increased postage bill of Piggott's department, to which he replied in his immaculate italic handwriting, "I think it may be that we are posting more letters.")

In 1928 Piggott had begun to work on the excavation of the Neolithic enclosure at the Trundle, near Goodwood in Sussex. His handling of the pottery and other finds on the site realised his innate ability to assimilate vast bodies of material and also fixed his first great research objective - a study of the British Neo- lithic. Thus he became the obvious choice for Alexander Keiller, the wealthy confectionery magnate, who wished to excavate the Neolithic site at Windmill Hill, near Avebury in Wiltshire.

Piggott became Assistant Director to Keiller in 1933 and it was here that he cut his teeth in the remaining area of archaeological skill - excavation and its management. His excavation career, which was to include work at Stonehenge and West Kennet, was to continue, untainted by non- publication, until his final, and beautiful, excavation of the Neolithic long barrow at Dalladies, near Montrose in Scotland, conducted in the early 1970s.

The excavation at Windmill Hill continued until 1938, and during this time Piggott undertook his second great research project - a study of the Early Bronze Age of Wessex. This project had its origins in Piggott's fascination with the insights and intellectual background of the great antiquarian tradition that was so strongly connected with his Wessex homeland.

In 1945 he was awarded the degree of BLitt by St John's College, Oxford, for his study of William Stukeley, published in 1950. His researches into early antiquarian matters, and the proximity of the collections of Devizes Museum to the work at Avebury, brought him into close contact with the products of these researches - the wealth of exotic prehistoric objects retrieved under relatively uncontrolled conditions from the burial mounds of Early Bronze Age chieftains on the rich farmland of Southern England.

These exotica drew Piggott inexorably into the wider field of European and even Near Eastern archaeology. A massive capacity for reading, and his established ability with the synthesis of material led to a paper, "The Early Bronze Age in Wessex" (Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 1938), which 60 years later is still controversial ("Oh! are they still talking about that?" he said when I mentioned it to him recently).

With the Second World War looming, and Windmill Hill completed, Piggott found himself in strange places, among them assisting with the desperate rescue of excavations of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, undertaken in advance of defence construction. His story of the concealment of the great Anglo-Saxon treasure in his jacket pocket while defying the sceptical badinage of the local farmers in a nearby pub, has passed into archaeological folklore; but his destiny was to be more serious and to offer even greater potential.

In 1941 he was gazetted to the Intelligence Corps and, eventually, was officer in charge of aerial photographic interpretation (a skill that derived from his association with Keiller) in the Far Eastern theatre. His (somewhat fraught) association with Wheeler developed at this period and they worked together on a number of archaeological projects in India. His book Prehistoric India was published after the war in 1950.

With the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, Piggott returned to Britain in 1945, having gained the ability to see Europe, archaeologically, from afar. It almost certainly came to him as a great surprise to be invited by Edinburgh University to succeed Vere Gordon Childe, the doyen of European prehistoric archaeology, as Abercromby ("Applecrumble", as Piggott always, irreverently, used to say) Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology.

With characteristic conscientiousness, seriousness (and, one suspects with a will) he immediately set to work expanding and deepening his already established European contacts and knowledge. By 1951 he had conducted one major excavation in Scotland (the hilltop henge at Cairnpapple near Linlithgow) and had submitted for publication his seminal Neolithic Cultures of the British Isles, published in 1954. Almost immediately overwhelmed by the radiocarbon dating revolution, the book still remains, today, an essential starting-point for any serious consideration of the period.

Much travel in Europe - welcomed and feted from Madrid to Moscow - followed. Piggott nonetheless found energy to be an active Commissioner for the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of Scotland, playing a vital role in the restructuring and updating of the commission's practice after the hiatus of the war. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1953.

It was the years from 1955 to 1965 that saw the conception of what, in my view, was his magnum opus. Teaching his courses in his gentle but interactive way he slowly built his conception of the unique innovativeness of European culture, working on the foundations laid by his professional predecessor, Childe.

Ancient Europe was published in 1965 and dedicated, characteristically, to "my pupils". Piggott retired from the Abercromby Chair in 1977 and since then, as Emeritus Professor, continued his unblemished stream of publication. In 1976, shortly before he retired, Ruins in a Landscape, a study of early antiquarian thought and method, was published, followed in 1989 by Ancient Britons and the Antiquarian Imagination, his final statement on this subject.

In 1983 one of the vital areas of "Europeanness" (in its broadest sense) defined in Ancient Europe, was further explored in his brilliant The Earliest Wheeled Transport, which was followed by the award to him of the Gold Medal of the Society of Antiquaries of London in that year.

Piggott was still publishing into the early Nineties. Visited regularly by students, colleagues and friends in the cottage he retired to in his beloved Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), he was always a most courteous host. He continued to read in his massive library housed in an especially built extension until latterly his sight failed him.

Piggott's beaky nose with his abundant silvery hair lent him a distinguished but not lofty air. He had very clear enunciation and he loved sports cars - driving an MG in his final years at Edinburgh. He would occasionally sport the most extravagant silk waistcoasts, and his precise, slightly pernickety style earnt him the nickname among his students of "Piggins".

By his personality and his intellect he attracted scores of students and colleagues who regarded him with affection as their model and their friend. His death will be to many a bereavement. Writing in the later Eighties a short essay on his own life, again with characteristic modesty, Stuart Piggott quoted as his alter ego the antiquary John Aubrey (1626- 97), born at Kington in Wiltshire - "Surely my starres impelled me to be an Antiquary, I have the strangest luck at it, that things drop into my mouth!"

Stuart Piggott, archaeologist: born Petersfield, Hampshire 28 May 1910; Abercromby Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology, Edinburgh University 1946-77 (Emeritus); FBA 1953; CBE 1972; publications include British Prehistory 1949, Prehistoric India 1950, William Stukeley: an 18th-century antiquary 1950, Neolithic Cultures of British Isles 1954, Scotland before History 1958, Approach to Archaeology 1959, Ancient Europe 1965, The Druids 1968, Antiquity Depicted 1978, Ancient Britons and the Antiquarian Imagination 1989, Wagon, Chariot and Carriage 1992; died West Challow, Oxfordshire 23 September 1996.

"Here," he said, "Mr Lovel, is a truly remarkable spot."

"It commands a fine view," said his companion, looking around him.

"True, but it is not for the prospect I brought you hither; so you see nothing else remarkable? - nothing on the surface of the ground?"

"Why, yes; I do see something like a ditch, indistinctly marked."

"Indistinctly! - pardon me, sir, but the indistinctness must be in your powers of vision - nothing can be more plainly traced - a proper agger or vallum, with its corresponding ditch or fossa. Indistinctly! why Heaven help you . . ."

From Sir Walter Scott, The Antiquary, quoted in Stuart Piggott, Ruins in a Landscape (1976)

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