A ‘Splendid Idiosyncrasy’: Prehistory At Cambridge 1915-50

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Pamela Jane Smith’s book is about the rise of prehistoric archaeology as an academic discipline and the inception of the world’s first formal honours degree course in archaeology, which occurred at Cambridge in 1915.

Being the first — and for a long time the only — university offering archaeology, the faculty served as a magnet for all sorts of characters whose names now read like a roll call of the subject’s prime movers.
Glyn Daniel was one of those, and it is from a review of Daniel’s memoirs — Some Small Harvest (1986) — that Pamela Jane Smith fetches the title of her work: writing in Antiquity, Anthony Quinton, the Oxford philosopher best known as a former presenter of Radio 4s Round Britain Quiz, said that ‘Daniel started as a geographer at Cambridge, but moved in his second year to that university’s splendid idiosyncrasy, archaeology and anthropology. Archaeology was a comparatively marginal subject in Cambridge when he [Daniel] embarked on it, and many of its exponents were amateurish or odd or both’.

Daniel was, himself, a pioneer in researching and writing about the history of archaeology, and one wonders whether he would be pleased or concerned that the historiography of archaeology has become such a popular subject in universities all over the world. What does it say about the subject, one wonders, where so many people are researching its history — so that events that this reviewer was involved in, such as the founding of the Theoretical Archaeology Group, and, even more recently, of Heritage Link, are now the subject of postgraduate theses? When archaeologists of the calibre of Paul Mellars write articles critiquing their own earlier papers (Moonshine over Star Carr, in the June 2009 issue of Antiquity), should we be worried that the subject is looking backwards rather than forward?

On the basis of this book, certainly not: it is a much-needed reminder that archaeology has a social history that we need to capture if we are to understand the subject in the round. If all that is left of archaeology in years to come is the published record, people will say ‘how dull’, and ask whatever it was that attracted so many brilliant and idiosyncratic minds to the subject. What is missing from the monographs and journal papers is an account of the social side, and of the relationships (and enmities) that foster creativity. New paradigms do not spring from the mind of the progenitor fully formed, but are thrashed out and refined in conversation and debate with trusted and like-minded friends, in the field, in the pub, in the common room and over tea.
Over tea? Yes, indeed: whilst any academic subject needs a strong and coherent set of research questions to develop, it also needs tea — or, as Pamela Jane Smith puts it: ‘the Museum tea-room [at Cambridge] became a central knowledge-making place [where] interpersonal relationships of trust fostered innovative thought.’

That tea was the catalyst to Cambridge prehistory is not just a theoretical construct: it is mentioned repeatedly in interviews with some of the key players, and took on a ritualistic character under Louis Clarke, Curator of the Museum from 1922. Christopher Hawkes remembers that ‘at eleven o’clock precisely [Clarke] would stand in the middle of the ground-floor displays shouting “tea”’. All present, whether students, staff, visitors or academics from adjacent faculties, would stop and assemble ‘so that everyone got to know each other’, adding that nothing was quite so delightful as tea ‘in the Museum on a dark, wet afternoon’, but also (with great insight) that without the tea ritual, ‘everyone would probably hate each other’. Mary Kitson Clark also recalls ‘delectable Museum teas’ which were ‘always full of good talk and good cakes’. Mary Cra’ster remembers the ‘fascinating informal discussions’ that occurred in a ritual that continued well into the 1960s, at which participants ‘knocked ideas around’.

These interviews, in which Pamela (over tea) asks such questions as ‘who were your friends, who influenced you, what did you think of X or Y?’ are published as appendices that fill 110 tightly packed pages in the second half of the book, and are the raw material from which the first half of the book is woven, teasing out some key threads in the rich story of Cambridge archaeology, but leaving much else that others can pick over. We owe the author a great debt of gratitude for having the foresight to capture the memories of some archaeologists who are no longer with us and some who are now in their 90s, and it is good to know that she continues with this work, building a resource of immense potential.

Rarely has reading a published PhD thesis proved so enjoyable: you could say that this is because the book is full of gossip, interspersed with just enough po-faced theory to make it academically ‘acceptable’ (‘the trustworthiness of epistemic communities is the ultimate foundation of knowledge’, for example). But actually this is a really valuable book about the collegiate nature of knowledge creation, and the overlooked role of informal social relationships.
A similar book needs to be written about other institutions — Edinburgh, for example, or Liverpool, or perhaps the British Schools, and certainly the London Institute of Archaeology, whose basement tea room used to be the meeting place of archaeologists from all over the world who would drop by whenever they were in London. ‘Used to be’: because space is at a premium as faculties and institutes have grown, and tea rooms have been converted to other uses. That, more than the backward-looking nature of much current research, is the real threat to archaeology: the lack of places dedicated to intellectual and social bonding.

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