A Bone to Pick (part four)

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

Undergraduate studies at Cambridge and the death of David Clarke

PH: Let me tell you something about the atmosphere when I was an undergraduate, because I think this explains a lot about Cambridge. At that time, the department was sort of riven between two factions: there was the flint typology faction under McBurney and the bone and seed faction under Higgs, and we didn't have the option of having a foot in both camps. There was a very, very factional atmosphere, in which students were made to feel very clearly that they had to belong to one camp or another.

MFL: Did you feel as if you were apprenticed to a professor almost?

PH: Yes. Higgs, as director of studies, made it very clear that he expected you to do things that he approved of, so at the end of our second year, when we had to choose which period we did, we were basically told to do the Palaeolithic. He was very difficult about me and Peter Rowley-Conwy wanting to do the Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age, because that wasn't taught by his people basically. I can't vouch how true it is, but it was absolutely an article of faith amongst all of the postgrads and the older students from the undergraduates that your degree outcome depended very much on which faction was chairing the exams board that year. Everybody believed that McBurney would shaft Higgs's protégés and vice versa. It was an interesting atmosphere. Anyway, while we were in Bulgaria, we met Andrew Sherratt, who was visiting Dennell, and who used to share a house with him. What he was doing really appealed to me and Peter, amongst others, so we ended up -- really over Higgs's dead body -- doing the Neolithic-Bronze-Iron option in the second year. We were primarily taught by Andrew Sherratt in the second year, which was absolutely brilliant. Our best ever tutorial, which the three of us used to go to together: me, Peter, and Colin Ridler, who now is the archaeology editor at Thames and Hudson. We used to go and wake him up in the morning about 11 o'clock and then used to go on for hours and hours and hours. Our best ever one finished after closing time in the evening. So we're talking about tutorials that would go on for 12 hours, at maximum. They were just fantastic.

MCG: And that was one-to-one attention almost?

PH: Well yes, one-to-three, for twelve hours at a time. That was tremendously exciting.

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PH: I've got to tell you one other thing, though, about undergraduate life. In our third year, we got taught by David Clarke. It didn't go on as long as Andrew Sherratt, but he was, again, absolutely brilliant -- a really stimulating teacher -- and his lectures ... were very different from all the other lectures in Cambridge at the time because he was a really stimulating lecturer. Some of his lectures, if we didn't get there on time, it was standing room only, which was totally different from any other teaching going on at the time. He was just a college fellow, which is quite interesting. This is '72 to '73. Analytical Archaeology had come out in 1968, and Models in Archaeology, a big edited volume, came out in 1972. So he was a very established figure, internationally, by that stage, but in Cambridge he was just a college fellow. He seemed to have a lot of trouble breaking into any recognition from the Cambridge department.

MFL: What does being a 'fellow' at Cambridge mean?

PH: What it means is that his funding was paid by his college, Peterhouse, and I think he had tutorial duties there -- administrative tutorials -- and he taught in the archaeology department, but really on much the same basis as Andrew Sherratt, a PhD student, taught. His lectures were crowded; PhD students used to go to them, which is why you couldn't get in, if you were an undergraduate and you were late. There was no question of it with any other members of the staff at the time.

MFL: I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't understand the university system completely here; if I ask questions like that, it's because the system in the United States is quite different.

PH: It's not university systems in Britain; it's the system in Cambridge and probably in Oxford, for all I know. But the way it works out, they get extra money from the government to fund small group tutorial teaching which does not come to universities like Sheffield. On the basis of that, lots of small-group tutorial teaching goes on, which is usually carried out by a combination of people. You've got college research fellowships -- because colleges have got lots of money for lots of research fellows -- PhD students and their spouses, which usually means wives (but not always) of people who've got university posts. The backbone of the teaching in Cambridge is these people who don't feature on the staff lists. You could be a student there and actually have remarkably little contact with any of the people who nominally teach you.

MCG: You would actually have the benefit of the cutting edge of educational research.

PH: Absolutely. If you've been taught by the younger research fellows and PhD students, who are really, really keen.

MFL: I didn't mean to digress, because you wanted to tell us something about your undergraduate career.

PH: Anyway, yes. Just to explain that this curious thing -- this really stimulating and charismatic teacher who was not accepted by the department, or accepted rather reluctantly. He didn't actually get a job within the department until ... it may have been until just about when he died, which was in 1976. He was in for posts there which he didn't get, which to the outside observer may look like sour grapes rather than meritocracy.

MCG: How old was he?

PH: I think he was about 37. He was very young. He died basically from a tragic accident. He was going on a lecture tour in South Africa and had various injections before going, and at the same time, he got a twisted gut. I don't know how that happens. It went gangrenous, and because he was having these shots at the same time, the symptoms were misdiagnosed as reaction to the injections, so by the time they realised what was going on, his intestine had actually gone gangrenous. So, he's rushed into hospital, nearly dying; they saved him, and then, because he spent a long time in bed, he got a thrombosis, which killed him. A stupid waste. As a way of giving you an idea of what it meant when he died, I was a PhD student back in Greece at the time and Andrew Sherratt rang me with the news. I think to lots of us who'd been taught by him, it really left a big hole in our life. It wasn't just like the death of any old teacher; it was felt very deeply. When the news of his death came through and Andrew rang me, Renfrew's team that was digging at Phylakopi were actually staying in Athens on their way out to Phylakopi, and there were several of David's ex-students amongst that lot. Several people just burst into tears, when I passed on the news. That doesn't happen with any old academic supervisor.

MFL: So many people felt at a loss.

PH: Very deeply, yes. Because, I think, for those of us who were taught by him -- well, as well as being a very stimulating teacher -- he was just an incredibly nice man. You know, he treated undergraduate students, who were really no business wasting their time with someone of his intellect.... He just treated you like an equal. A very brilliant person.

MCG: Presumably, had he lived, the face of British archaeology might have been very different. Where was that inspiration from? His influence has been obviously passed on.

PH: The face of British archaeology, I'm sure, would have been different. Higgs, I think, felt very threatened by David Clarke, as did many of the other established staff. He did everything he could to stop those who were his 'directees' of study going to be taught by David Clarke. But David Clarke fraternised a lot academically with a lot of Higgs's star protégés. If you look at the introduction to Analytical Archaeology he actually singles out for mention, I think, Mike Jarman, Paul Wilkinson -- who were basically two of Higgs's closest henchmen. Beneath the level of the very top players in the establishment, there was a lot of networking going on. David Clarke was very interested in the work going on in the 'bone room'. He was very influenced by ecological archaeology in a very broad sense. If you think of the man who could do research on Bell Beaker typology or write Analytical Archaeology, and then look at his later work, he's obviously someone who's obviously broadened out his life's interests. I think he was very influenced by what was going on there. I think if he'd lived, two things would have happened: one is, Ian Hodder ended up in Cambridge basically filling a post vacated by the death of David Clarke -- so you can imagine how things would have been different; secondly, I think that David Clarke would have been more inclusive innovator of archaeological theory than Ian was in his place. I said that things would have been different; they arguably would have been better, but who can tell?

MCG: He sounds as if he would have been an individual who would have been capable of crossing other boundaries as well, rather than sussing out other people's needs and moving between them. I didn't realise this about him as an individual -- that he could be open-minded.

PH: Yes. Certainly for us, he was a breath of fresh air. He didn't bad-mouth what was going on in other areas of the department. His approach to teaching archaeological theory was to give us a 'thumbnail' character sketch of Flannery, Binford, Renfrew, and Higgs, and to try to explain how their personal histories explain some of their archaeological writing.

MFL: Very perceptive, very astute.

PH: It was a way of trying to give you some insight into archaeological theory. He always encouraged you to look widely. If you look at something like Models in Archaeology, the whole flavour of the book is about archaeology as being exponentially expanding....

MFL: Perceptive also to the extent to the extent that he seemed to be making the personal political and theoretical: it sounds like what so many of the post-processualist are saying.

PH: Yes. In that sense, he was ahead of his time.

MCG: That is possibly why he found it difficult to break into such an establishment, like Cambridge. He didn't play by the rules; he didn't fit into the campus so easily.

PH: Yes. You've got to think, this is a department in which when Grahame Clark retired, Glyn Daniel became professor, and you can't pretend that in the mid-1970s that Glyn Daniel and David Clarke were on an intellectual par. So at a point in time when Glyn Daniel becomes Professor of Archaeology, David Clarke can't even get a lectureship there, which tells you quite a lot about how defensive the department was at that time.

MFL: You said you started your postgraduate studies in 1973.

PH: You're desperate to get me on to that, aren't you?


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Part five


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