Obituary: Professor Richard Atkinson

By Stephen Aldhouse-Green
Sunday 16 October 1994 23:02

Richard John Copland Atkinson, archaeologist: born Dorset 22 January 1920; Assistant Keeper, Department of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1944-49; FSA 1946; Lecturer in Prehistoric Archaeology, Edinburgh University 1949-58; Professor of Archaeology, University College, Cardiff 1958-83 (Emeritus), Deputy Principal 1970-74; CBE 1979; author of Field Archaeology 1946, Stonehenge 1956, Stonehenge and Avebury 1980, Archaeology, History and Science 1960, Stonehenge and Neighbouring Monuments 1979, The Prehistoric Temples of Stonehenge and Avebury 1980; married 1942 Hester Cobb (died 1981; three sons), 1981 Judith O'Kelly; died Cardiff 10 October 1994.

RICHARD ATKINSON was the author of the first all-embracing textbook of fieldwork and excavation ever to be published in England, Field Archaeology (1946), and in the 1950s the author of what was for many years the comprehensive overview of 'Henge Monuments'. When I first met him at Cheddar in 1962, he was introduced simply as 'Stonehenge Atkinson'.

It was Stonehenge, where he conducted his own excavations in the Fifties, that propelled Atkinson, a natural media performer, into popular recognition and he used to appear regularly on television. One programme in 1954, devised in collaboration with Paul Johnstone of BBC Television, featured replica bluestones transported by schoolboys on the Salisbury Avon.

Atkinson's archaeological career was charged with dynamism, a spirit of enquiry and an enthusiasm to embrace new approaches. But his involvement with practical archaeology came largely to an end during his forties, when a newly found passion for academic administration and public service progressively took him away from his archaeological roots.

Richard Atkinson was born in 1920 and attended Sherborne School, to which he won a scholarship. His early life in Wessex gave him a deep and abiding love of the Wessex chalklands which were the scene of much of his best-known archaeological work; though in later life he recalled with a shudder Sherborne's two-seater toilets, now happily no more. At the age of 17 he left for Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

As a conscientious objector, Atkinson did not see active military service during the Second World War, but he was fully involved in the auxiliary services. He was later, in his lectures to university students, to apply his wartime experience of moving dead bodies to illuminate his interpretations of ancient burial practices.

His marriage in 1942 to Hester Cobb marked the beginning of a wonderful partnership which ended with her death in 1981. Hester was as outgoing as Richard was shy and they formed a perfect complement, supported by their trio of clever sons and cats. Most memorable were their Siamese cats, Merlin and Ambrose, whose presence enlivened the dramatic excavations at Wayland's Smithy long barrow, in Oxfordshire, in the early 1960s. They were immortalised in the dig song: 'There's Richard and Hester and the cats who do pester . . .'

Atkinson's first archaeological post was as an Assistant Keeper at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (1944-48) and this provided a vital grounding in artefact studies. While there, he published his vastly influential Field Archaeology and, soon after, his monograph 'Excavations at Dorchester, Oxon', marked by his pioneering application of the technique of resistivity surveying for the location of buried archaeological sites. Atkinson's Dorchester excavations were the first in which the Ministry of Works agreed to make subsistence payments to students and volunteers. This replaced the old system of employing paid workmen and opened the possibility to a wider public of their gaining first-hand experience of field archaeology.

Atkinson moved to teaching, where he excelled, through his appointment to a lectureship in prehistoric archaeology at Edinburgh University under Professor Stuart Piggott (1949-38). Piggott found Atkinson a 'splendid colleague' and their partnership was a significant one for British archaeology, with a number of joint excavations conducted from Edinburgh, including Stonehenge (also with JFS Stone) and the West Kennet long barrow.

'British archaeology,' another leading archaeologist told me in the early 1960s, 'is what Piggott and Atkinson say it is.' Atkinson published his popular account of the Stonehenge excavations in 1956 - dedicated to his wife, 'amoris causa'.

Atkinson loved experiment and his natural grasp of mathematics enabled him to make complex calculations of the time and numbers of people required to build ancient monuments. This approach informed archaeologists' thinking of the scale of prehistoric social achievements and interactions. The demographic applications of such calculations were not overlooked and Atkinson moved on to construct inferences as to the minimum sizes and social structures of prehistoric populations based on the numbers of burials which could be documented or reasonably estimated.

In 1958 Atkinson became the first Professor of Archaeology at University College, Cardiff, a post he held until his retirement. The department was led by a powerful partnership between Atkinson and Leslie Alcock (later professor at Glasgow University). It is scarcely now possible to gauge the impact of the arrival of the youthful (then 38) and charismatic Atkinson at Cardiff. His reputation for scholarship and mild eccentricity - he had driven a Thirties Rolls-Royce in Edinburgh complete with bronze socketed axe replacing the bonnet emblem and with running- board adapted for holding ranging rods - preceded him like a bow- wave. Much of Atkinson's approach is enshrined in his inaugural address, 'Archaeology, History and Science'. He saw no division between the Arts and Sciences and established parallel BSc and BA Honours degrees in Archaeology at Cardiff.

Atkinson's lectures were brilliant and captivating. He smoked heavily then and his habit of using his trouser turn-ups as an ashtray was a delight to his students. He was now at his peak and conducted yet more high-profile excavations - Wayland's Smithy (with Stuart Piggott, 1962-63) and, in the late Sixties, Silbury Hill itself. Just as we waited to see where such scholarship, brilliance and flair would lead, relatively suddenly and quite deliberately - and with many imporant excavations unpublished - Atkinson turned his great energies from practical archaeology to administration. This withdrawal had been foreshadowed with his appointment as Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Cardiff in 1966, which led in turn to his being Deputy Principal there from 1970 to 1974. During the years 1973-82 he served on the University Grants Committee and was its Vice- Chairman from 1976 to 1977.

Atkinson's colleagues in archaeology deeply regretted his change of direction and longed for his return to the subject. But it was not to be.

Yet he served for many years on both the English and Welsh Royal Commissions on ancient monuments (respectively 1968-86 and 1963-86) and for periods acted as chairman of both.

Richard Atkinson will be remembered with the profoundest admiration and affection by all his students of whom, as a truly great archaeologist, he inspired a generation. Few knew him well personally but he could be very hospitable and an entertaining raconteur, perhaps telling with amusement Christopher Hawkes's jocular speculation that the Y and Z holes at Stonehenge might have been used for the planting of rose- bushes which were trailed over the monument and functioned as a Druidic grove.

In marking his passing it may be fitting here to repeat his own words used in hypothesising that the builder of Stonehenge might lie buried under Silbury Hill - 'Is not Stonehenge itself his memorial?'


(Photographs omitted)

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