A Bone to Pick: Interview with Paul Halstead

The interlocutors were Michael Lane (MFL), Paul Halstead (PH), Mel Giles (MCG), and John Barrett (JCB).

Back in the old days, when we had to ride our bikes to site....

MFL: This started as a sequel to the interview with Mike Parker Pearson

in issue 2 of assemblage. Your name and Glynis's name came up many times -- in the best of contexts -- in that interview. So we thought we'd ask you for your side of the many stories that he told, and also to share with us some of your experiences as an archaeologist and an intellectual, and as a former postgraduate student. I suppose we could start with some general background: I don't have any idea where you grew up, where you went to school, and when you first decided to become an archaeologist.

PH: Until I was about ten, I moved around quite a lot, because my parents moved around. All of my secondary-school education was around Birmingham. How I got into archaeology was that at school I did Classics -- Latin and ancient Gr eek -- I got through Homer, got very interested in Greek Bronze Age archaeology, and because of that, I wanted to go and dig in Greece. When I finished at school, I wrote off to various digs in Greece, but no one would take me; they said I needed experience, which would be a very laudable thing to do. Because of that, I started digging in Britain. So I took a year off between school and university and spent most of that period digging on mostly Roman and medieval sites around England.

MCG: Did you work on any of the big urban digs at all? What were you working on? Were they smaller sites, rural sites?

PH: It's so long ago, I can barely remember. The first dig I went on was the Roman fort at Wall [Staffordshire], on the A5.

MFL: That was my next question.

PH: I used to cycle there every Saturday. It was being dug by a group of amateurs -- which was brilliant. We used to trowel away the whole day and find one little piece of pottery, which in retrospect seems rather unproductive.

MFL: By amateurs, do you mean a local society?

PH: Yeah, a local society. They were good. I think one of the things that has remained with me since then is that, although the academic goals of what they were doing may not have been that well thought out, the care that they took over excavation is something that I have very rarely seen. They were professional archaeologists. But I dug in Birmingham, in one of the forts -- under one of the university car parks, as it is now. Urban archaeology? I dug in Gloucester -- it's supposed to be the Roman town of Glevum -- a long, long time ago, before I went to university.

MFL: How was local archaeology conducted back then, compared to how it's done now with all the heritage management laws in place?

PH: I'm not sure I took that much interest at the time in the structure of what was going on, but the big difference from now is that there were loads of excavations going on every summer. It was very easy to get excavation experience. People advertised for so many volunteers, and they paid you a very small sum which would cover your food. And you slept on the floor in your sleeping bag or camp bed. It was great because it was very easy to get lots of experience, and I think that it's much, much harder now.

MCG: I think that's the big change with some local society excavation, which tends to be almost on the back of some other projects, semi-liaison with university, or museum experience. There's not that private individual's urge to get a site and work on it for years and years. It just isn't allowed to go on any more.

PH: Some of the things I worked on were rescue digs like the things Trevor Rowley ran on the new car park at Birmingham University.

MFL: What exactly was that?

PH: It was a Roman fort -- eventually. We trowelled around a ditch for a couple of summers.

MFL: Can you remember what your first dig experience was like? Were you immediately impressed with field work?

PH: Oh, I loved it, actually, yes! I really liked trowelling and trying to find features and things like that. It was really different from school education, which is entirely book-based, and then suddenly you're exposed to a lifestyle that is largely outdoors. I thought it was brilliant. That's why I went on to do archaeology, because I had a place to go do Classics at Cambridge, and after spending year digging, I had this vision of sitting in the library in front of the lexicon for three years. It seemed an awful idea. I went to my tutor who'd been responsible for Classics, which was what I was going in to, and explained this doubt about doing Classics. So he said to me, 'Well, what do you really like in Classics?' and I said, 'Homer'. And he said, 'What have you read?' I said, 'The Iliad and The Odyssey'. He said, 'There's not actually anything else!' Although that's obviously true, it hadn't actually struck me quite with that clarity before, and at that point I just decided to switch. My plan had been to do Classics and do Classical Archaeology back to back. You could not do very much of it. So at that point, I decided I was going to switch and do archaeology.

MFL: Your degree at Cambridge was in what exactly?

PH: It was called Archaeology and Anthropology, which meant that in the first year you did social anthropology, physical anthropology, and archaeology. Then, at the end of the first year, you chose, and I chose to do archaeology. You chose -- so you were 'streamed' by periods. You could do Palaeolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age -- you could do Anglo-Saxon and something else I don't remember. I decided to do Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age.

MFL: When was this?

PH: I went there in 1970.

MFL: Which college did you attend at Cambridge?

PH: Magdalen, which was a curious choice. I went to a school which sent quite a lot of people to 'Ox-bridge'. It worked on the basis that those of us who were doing Classics -- they just sort of spread us around -- and I don't know why I was sent to Magdalen. It was a very, very curious college in those days. It mainly took public school boys; there were hundreds of Harrovians, Etonians, Marlburians, and people from Rugby, whatever they're called, many of whom would simply not get into a reputable university, and they ended up there. It was a really rude shock for the first few days to find yourself surrounded by people who had their own packs of hounds. I didn't even know people like that existed.

MCG: Did you enjoy it, or did you find it difficult?

PH: At first, I found the atmosphere at Magdalen thoroughly oppressive; it was a sort of society I was completely unused to. When I went to the dinner for all the new students, I was one of only two who wasn't wearing a dinner jacket. I'd never owned a dinner jacket. I'd seen one once before in my life. Absolute shock.

MFL: Was there still much ceremony in everything at Cambridge at that time?

PH: Oh, yes. Certainly Magdalen was famous for the fact that the hall where formal dinner happened didn't have any electricity. It was all candlelit. It was an oppressive place to be.

MFL: How did you adjust?

PH: Well, basically, I adjusted at first because I had lots of friends from school at other colleges, and I simply ignored all of this, but eventually I found people in the same position as me. There were actually a lot of us, but because we were less obvious than the upper-class twits with their packs of hounds, we didn't immediately recognise or identify these people. Gradually, we got to meet each other, and then it became much more friendly. And in fact, in the end, I think it was a very salutary experience, because the lesson it taught me was that the snobbery works two ways. My reaction to these public-school boys was simply that I didn't want to know. I treated them all with equal loathing, and in fact, many of them were very nice. I think by my third year I actually began to realise that, in a curious way, snobbery works in both directions. As well as people like me being looked down upon by my peers, I was very unfairly ostracising a lot of them. Amongst them were some very nice people, some of whom were actually, in an interesting way, victims of that system, in the sense that they had been pushed into educational situations they couldn't cope with. Some of them the very introspective ones, actually found that very distressing.

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Part two


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